King – Chair No.53 by Shao Fan at Chinese design today, Themes & Variations
Chinese art and design seem to be the talk of town in London lately… not only there is the contemporary art exhibition at Hayward Gallery, there is also a major selling exhibition of contemporary Chinese design at Themes & Variations, as well as a talk that I attended on “Chinese design revolution” at the Design museum last week.
At Themes & Variations in in Notting Hill, 16 emerging and established Chinese designers’ limited pieces are on display and are all available for sale. The pieces range from furniture to photography, ceramics and even fashion pieces. There are many eye-catching pieces including Shao Fan‘s reconstructive chairs ( see above), Li Lihong‘s ceramic sculptures, Zhang Zhoujie‘s stainless steel coffee table and my personal favourite: the rock-like sculptures made of sponge by Su Wentao ( see below).
Left: Specious series: Black and red rocks made of hand-cut sponge by Su Wentao. Right: Memory box table by Jia Li.
Sometimes I get asked by my friends if I would stock Chinese design products, my answer is ‘of course’, I have even contacted a Chinese company before but unfortunately nothing came out of it. However, I admit that I am more cautious when it comes to Chinese design products, my main concerns are to do with quality control and the issue with copying.
Honestly, it is not easy to be ‘original’ these days especially when we are constantly absorbing so much information. Sometimes designers may not ‘copy’ deliberately but they are subconsciously influenced by images or concepts that they previously absorbed without realising. I am not trying to defend their actions but there is difference between ‘knowingly’ copy and ‘unknowingly’ ones, though where you draw the line is the question. The Chinese have had such a bad reputation for piracy that it will take time and collective effort to change the general public’s negative views accumulated over the years.
Chinese design at Super Brands London September 2012 displaying chairs by Xiao Tianyu (left) and Jiang Li (right).
At the “Chinese design revolution” talk at the Design Museum, Lorraine Justice, the author who launched a new book of the same title gave insights into the past and current Chinese design culture. Lorraine is the current Dean of the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and previously she was the Director of the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) for seven years.
Interestingly, Lorraine defended Chinese ‘piracy’ when she showed slides of the famous blue and white Chinese porcelain-ware created in the 9th century, which as we know were widely copied by the Europeans from 16th century onwards. Besides the Europeans, many aspects of the Japanese and Korean culture, arts and crafts also originated from China, though they eventually evolved and integrated into their culture. So Lorraine has a point, copying has always existed whether we like it or not.
At the Q & A, when asked by some Chinese design students about the future of design in China, Lorraine predicted that fashion and graphics would take off quicker than industrial, products and furniture design partly due to the country’s poor distribution channels. Another problem is that big Chinese firms still favour hiring foreign designers over local ones, and with so many new design schools and graduates, many Chinese design graduates would end up being paid minimal wages and unable to truly fulfill their potential.
Shenzhen pavilion at 100% design London in September
In the past decade or so, more Chinese designers are being recognised worldwide and here are a few more names or companies that are shaping the current Chinese design world:
Neri&Hu – Founded in 2006 in Shanghai, the two US-trained architects returned to China to set up their design and research centre, including a retail design store, Design Republic. Their reinterpretation of traditional Chinese products in a minimalistic approach demonstrates that Chinese design aesthetics can be as ‘understated’ and ‘sensitive’ as the Japanese. Emphasising on high quality material and traditional craftsmanship, the design duo are well-respected in China and internationally.
Innovo Design – Founded by Zhang Lei in 2004, the Hangzhou-based product design collective also explores the traditional Chinese culture, but emphasising on the sustainability of processes and materials. In 2009, Lei met Jovana from Serbia and Christoph from Germany, and they started to collaborate on the “Future Tradition” project in both Milan and China.
Hesign – Set up by Jianping He in Berlin in 2002, and then Shanghai in 2005, the company specialises in graphic design, branding, publishing and cultural events organisation. Well-known for blening Chinese aesthetics with contemporary satire, his graphic posters have received critical acclaim and many international design awards around the globe.
Shang Xia – This is not your average Chinese brand, the brand was founded in 2008 by Chinese designer, Jiang Qiong Er ( who trained as an interior architect) and French luxury brand, Hermès. The collaboration includes furniture, homeware, tableware, jewellery and fashion, all of which are produced in China with an emphasis on craftsmanship and simplicity.
With the government focusing and investing more on the design industry ( unlike ours who is doing the exact opposite!), and with more international designers relocating to China to work closely with their manufacturers or local craftsmen, the future of Chinese design looks very promising. However, as the gap between the rich and poor widens in China, the word ‘design’ seems to be associated more with the intellects and privileges. Do the majority of the population below the middle class understand or even care about design? Probably not. If the aim of design is to communicate with people and improve their quality of life, then why should the lower classes be excluded from it?
When will local Chinese farmers be able to easily purchase cutting-edge farming equipments or use ‘design’ to promote themselves or their farms like many farmers do in the West these days? Unfortunately, I still can’t see that happening for quite a while.
Chinese design today at Themes & Variations ends on 8th December.