Chinese design now

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.



Art of change: New directions from China

Try to spot the difference between the main and the bottom left! They are 2 different peopleXu Zhen’s “In just a blink of an eye”. Bottom right: Yingmei Duan’s “Sleeping, in between and patience“.


In the past decade or so, we often hear about new Chinese art works fetching millions at art auctions around the world, yet apart from Ai Weiwei, Yue Minjun and Hang Xiaogang, many are still rather unknown outside of China, unless you are are familiar with the contemporary Chinese art scene.

At Hayward Gallery‘s Art of change: New direction from China exhibition, nine Chinese artists are chosen to exhibit their work spanning between 1993 to the present day. I didn’t have much expectations before I arrived ( as I am a bit of a sceptic of contemporary Chinese art ), but luckily, the show did surpass my expectations.

There are many experimental and interactive work that question, observe and reflect on the new changes that have been taking place in China. Moving away from the traditional media, many of the works are performance installation art and videos, which are quite refreshing and entertaining.


Liang Shaoji’s Nature series involves a lot of silkworm


One of my favourites is Xu Zhen’s “In just a blink of an eye“, an illusionary art installation that involves a real-life performance… from afar, we are led to believe that it is a (wax-like) sculpture, but up close, we are able to see a ‘real’ person who actually blinks and breathes! While I was there, a changeover took place ( curtains were drawn to keep the secret) and then another ‘face’ dressed in the same outfit appeared and ‘floated’ in the same Matrix-like position. So what is the secret? It doesn’t matter because the artist has succeeded in engaging all the visitors there and created a talking point among them.

The artist’s ironic view on our modern society’s obsession with the gym ( which I totally agree with because I find gyms soulless and extremely boring ) is expressed in his fitness machines installation where users can operate the them by just moving their fingers via the remote controls! Yet on the other side of the gallery, The Starving of Sudan questions the limits of voyeurism, human exploitation and moral conducts, which is subtle yet thought-provoking.

Across the main gallery, Liang Shaoji‘s compelling Nature series including various silkworm installations, bringing the visitors closer to nature. In an dark room, visitors can see watch and hear silkworms eat, spin and metamorphose. It is a tranquil experience and reflects the essence of Daoism and Buddhism, two of the most important religions in the Chinese history before the Cultural Revolution.


Chen Zhen’s Purification room


While I was slightly disappointed by some of the works in the upper galleries, back at the lower galleries before exit, I was quite taken back by the works of Chen Zhen ( who was diagnosed with a blood disease in his 20s and eventually died in 2000). Chen Zhen‘s personal experience and the message of impermanence is reflected in a lot of his work, like his Purification room, where natural materials are used to purify a room full of everyday objects.


Main photo: A room full of meat… photos by Gu Dexin. Bottom left: Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installations. Bottom right: architectural sculptures made of candles by Chen Zhen


The most intriguing part of this exhibition is the lack of personal styles or signatures of each artist, they seem to be constantly exploring new styles, identities and visual languages. In Guardian (read it here), Ai Weiwei heavily criticised the current Chinese art world and indirectly the artists involve at this exhibition, which I think is correct to a large extend but at the same time rather biased and harsh. Although these artists’ works might not have been politically driven or lack shock tactics, I still find it quite encouraging to see them moving away from the traditional media and testing new grounds. While I do believe that contemporary Chinese art is over-hyped, I feel more hopeful about its future after seeing this exhibition, and unexpectedly, it has evoked my renewed interest in a world that Ai Weiwei claims does not exist.


Art of change: New directions from China at the Hayward Gallery ends on 9th December.


The making of our new “living room”


When I first came up with the idea of an e-commerce with changing themes, many people didn’t understand the concept initially, and even with the ones who did, some were quite dismissive about it. At the British library, I was told by a marketing expert that I was completely mad. Yes, maybe I am but I believe that sometimes people need to take risks, whether they will pay off or not is another matter. In the past, I have worked for other people doing work that gained no satisfaction for myself, so now I am determine to do something that I enjoy regardless of what other people think. And judging from the responses after the launch of second theme so far, I feel like more people understand what my vision is about. Perhaps in the future, this format may change or no longer work, but I hope that it will survive a few more themes…



Collaborating with expatriate designers to create a new front page for each theme is an important part of this ‘project’. With the two designers I have worked with, they both brought fresh ideas and injected their own styles into the work, which was what I wanted and encouraged. It is important for the designers to enjoy what they do because I believe that good work always comes from the heart and not from the head.

The idea of a living room made out of paper came to me one day when I was daydreaming… remembering one of my homework as I kid: making a shoe box room using matchboxes and other scraps. This was the light-bulb moment for the front page.



The question was where to find a designer who would work with me on this? I decided to turn to the internet, I went through several online portfolios, and eventually I found David Tan, a Malaysian student who just graduated from his BA graphic design degree in London. I thought his style fitted the website and so I contacted him to see if he was interested in this collaboration.

David and I met a few times over coffee and I was glad that he understood my concept very early on. His enthusiasm and constructive input proved that I had found the right person, and the result was even better than I had hoped for. Even though he does not specialise in paper craft, his dedication and attention to detail can be seen from these photos ( also taken by him)…


My favourite item from the room… the delicate old-style fan!


David has since moved back to Malaysia, and I am sure he will have a bright career ahead of him. You can view David‘s website and portfolio here.



Art weekend – Shoreditch

Keiko Masumoto “motif/ vessel” at ICN gallery


My last stop of the art weekend was Shoreditch, the ‘current’ destination for art, design, music or any kind of creative industry.

At the ICN gallery, young Japanese artist, Keiko Masumoto‘s ceramics, vessels and potteries are fascinating. Using traditional Japanese motifs and techniques but sculpted and presented in a new way. The main installation at the gallery consists of a room full of geese, either extending from vessels, hanging from the ceiling or as ‘cut-outs’ on the floor. Fun!


Banksy ( left) at the Urban masters, Opera Gallery


Urban masters at Opera Gallery


Since Shoreditch is well-known for its street art, there is nowhere better for the Urban masters exhibition. At a Victorian factory, Opera Gallery and ANV presents 32 of the most influential urban and street artists as they pay homage to art masters, masterpieces and muses who have inspired them throughout history. It’s interesting to see all the well-known street artists in one ‘gallery’ space, this shows how street art has evolved over the years.

A smaller street art exhibition, New York Kings is also on display at Pure evil gallery, where the original graffiti kings use New York subway maps as their canvas to tell their 30 year story.


New York Kings at Pure evil gallery


Street art is everywhere in Shoreditch


After a whole day of art, I still ended up at an art-related restaurant with some friends… Tramshed, where Damien Hirst‘s installation can be seen even from the outside. I am not usually into ‘trendy’ or ‘hip’ places ( I often find them ‘over-hyped’), but we went because it was before dinner time and the place was still pretty quiet. The experience turned out better than I thought, the service was friendly and the food was tasty, most of all, everything was quite reasonably priced except for the cocktails. Compare to Hix in Farringdon, I think this is a definitely a ‘hipper’ version that aims to attract the ‘in’ crowd.


Tramshed in Shoreditch



Keiko Masumoto “motif/ vessel” at ICN gallery, 96-98 Leonard Street London EC2A 4RH ( until 30th November).

Urban masters at Opera gallery at Factory 7, 13 Hearn Street, EC2A 3LS ( until 18th November).

New York Kings at Pure evil gallery, 108 Leonard st London EC2A 4RH ( until 18th November).



Art weekend – Horrorgami by Marc Hagan-Guirey

Main: The Overlook hotel from The Shining, bottom left: The MacNeil residence from The Exorcist. Bottom right: The Bates residence from Psycho


This was my favourite exhibition of the weekend! Nowhere near as famous as Anish, but I was filled with excitement and joy at this small exhibition in Dalston!

This is the first solo show of London-based paper engineer, Marc Hagan-Guirey ( aka Paper Dandy), and it consists of 13 kirigami works, each representing an iconic location taken from a cult horror film that are inspired from his lifelong fascination.


Main: The Dakota building from Rosemary’s baby. Bottom left: The fire station from Ghostbusters. Bottom right: The Addams Mansion from The Addams family


The delicate and wonderful works are displayed in coloured light boxes across two floors in the dark, very atmospheric and fit the theme perfectly! My personal favourites are The Shining and Rosemary’s baby, perhaps it’s because they are also two of my favourite horror films ( as well as Polanski‘s The Tenant).

If you want more ‘horror’ at home, you can buy the works which are sold with the light boxes, not sure if they are the best X’mas presents though…


The exhibition ends on 14th Nov, so catch it if you get the chance:

Gallery one and a half, 1 1/2 Ardleigh Road, London N1 4HS.



Art weekend in London – Anish Kapoor

The main photo: Lost ( fibreglass and paint) and the bottom right: Organ.


The biggest ‘dilemma’ about living in London is that there are so many cultural events and activities happening all the time, it’s so easy to miss them especially when it comes to gallery exhibitions that last for only 2 – 4 weeks. Instead of visiting fairs like the Affordable art fair, I decided to spend the weekend visiting the city’s different galleries to see what is happening in the art scene now. The best thing is that everything is free, so I find it odd when people talk about art being not accessible to everyone.

My first stop was Anish Kapoor‘s exhibition at the Lisson Gallery ( with two locations), and since it was the last two days of the exhibit, the place was quite busy on a seemingly quiet street.

Kapoor‘s recent works continue to explore his favourite ‘void’ theme, using mud, cement, resin and metallic pigments. It is hard to not notice the contrasts between his pieces, while some rooms were filled with unfinished-looking earth sculptures, the other was filled with large glossy colourful concave hemispheres that aimed to challenge our perceptions.


In the shadow if the Tree and the Knot of the Earth series and Intersection ( corten steel)


Over at the other gallery, the pieces were more experimental, with many nature-inspired ( rock or coral like) cement sculptures, a large industrial-like machine and a dark enclosed room named Anxious. Inside the room, there was a circle of light projected down onto the floor accompanied by an infrasonic sound that aimed to make the visitors feel anxious.


Untitled cement work ( left) and Spittle ( cement and steel)


Kapoor has become a household name in UK in recent years, and I believe he deserves the recognition that he has been receiving. Many of Kapoor’s works are influenced by psychoanalysis and Buddhist philosophy, hence, he likes to explore the conscious and unconscious cognition, resulting in very sense and thought-provoking work. However, I still cannot comprehend what was on his mind when he ( and Cecil Balmond) designed the hideous and overpowering Orbit tower… Back in 2008, I visited his “Place/No Place” architectural exhibition at RIBA, and I saw some stunning architectural models or projects that were never realised. I just can’t stop asking myself, “Why the Orbit?”

Yes, the tower has succeeded in evoking many’s emotions, but for me, it’s not a pleasant one.



My art weekend in London continues in the next two entries…

Beef 2012 by Seungho Lee

This blog post is long overdue… I told Seungho that I would write about his award-winning MA project after my Helsinki trip, but it has taken me all this time to get round to it!

I have been corresponding with Seungho from About:blank via emails since I started stocking their notebooks. Hence, it was wonderful when he suggested to meet for dinner when I was in Helsinki for the design week. Sometimes, it can be awkward having dinner with people who you have never met before ( even though my instinct was a positive one), and luckily, my instinct was right.

The evening went by almost too quickly, I spent an thoroughly enjoyable evening with Seungho and Hyunsun discussing design, Asian culture, Finland, vegetarianism, wastage and even politics ( we touched on many subjects that are usually ‘banned’ from dinner conversations)!


Seungho’s project was on display at the Helsinki design week


It is always exciting to meet like-minded people, but even more so with designers or creatives who share the same design philosophy and ideals. To our surprise, we quit meat around the same time, yet we would face situations that are hard to get out of because of pressure from our families. I can’t call myself a vegetarian because I still eat seafood, but for the last few years, I have chosen to stop purchasing or cooking meat at home.

An interesting part of our discussion was about the way people view “design”, since many misunderstand design as only something tangible rather than an attitude, vision, process, activity or philosophy. Seungho‘s “Beef 2012” project for his Creative Sustainability master’s programme at Aalto University demonstrates that design can be beyond aesthetics and functionality.


Beef Finland 2012 (Finnish sub) from Seungho Lee on Vimeo.


Traditionally, designers are viewed as problem solvers whose job is to improve or influence people’s lives through a means of communication. Yet as we have seen in the past two decades, the word “design” has been overused and now the market is full of “designer” products that are trend-driven and egocentric, of which many solve problems that are non-existent in the first place!

When we are faced with global crisis like climate change, shortage of natural resources, deforestation, over-consumption and wastage; we need more designers to think beyond pleasing themselves and take responsibility in their design attitude and thinking process.

As the economy in the West is shrinking, it is also a time for reflection and re-evaluation. Luckily, there are an increasing number of design firms, architects and designers ( like Ideo, Shigeru Ban and Seungho) who are trying to make a difference and create awareness to problems that need to be addressed immediately.



The art of Arabic calligraphy

I am not sure if there is such a term, but I think I am a “compulsive learner”. I constantly want to learn new skills even though I barely have the time to pursue them.

I have always been interested in different cultures especially Arabic, partly due to my fascination with its arts, crafts and architecture. I have wanted to learn Arabic calligraphy for a long time but was not able to find the right course at the right time. At the British Museum’s Arabia Late event earlier this year, I tried it out for the first time at the free workshop and it triggered my enthusiasm once again.


Calligraphy work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York


After another half day workshop in the summer, I finally found a longer weekly course that allows me to learn it properly. Like every new skill, I struggled a lot initially and got quite frustrated with myself because I didn’t know how to control the qalam ( the pen made of reed or bamboo). I have learned Chinese calligraphy before but using a soft brush is hardly the same as using a qalam. Though when it comes to learning new skills, the most important elements are always: dedication, patience, concentration and practice.


Work by calligrapher, Behnam Eczeer


I lacked patience at the beginning but slowly through practice, my skills improved and now I find the process extremely meditative. My calligraphy teacher has spent most of his life perfecting the art form and at his exhibition opening two weeks ago, I was able to truly appreciate the effort and skills behind his work.

I don’t aspire to be a master calligrapher, but I enjoy learning and writing the script, it’s not just about the techniques, it is also a great opportunity for me to practise mindfulness. Despite my job requirement, I dislike sitting in front of the computer all day long, so learning to ‘write’ with pen and ink feels like going back to basics, and it I think it’s necessary before I forget how to write again!


Behnam Eczeer‘s calligraphy exhibition has been extended until early Dec. It is open to the public every Wednesdays 6 to 9 pm at Salam House, 6-10 Lyons Place, Maida Vale, NW8 8NL.

Also, there are many beautiful calligraphy works at the new British Library exhibition: Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire ( now until 2nd April 2013).


The last days of autumn

I love British summers but my favourite time of the year is still autumn. Although we don’t have spectacular autumn foliage like Canada, United States, Japan and Korea, where people would travel annually to specific spots to watch fall colours; we can still take some time to appreciate the beauty of the autumn.

Last week, I was working in the office feeling slightly stressed out and down, so I decided to go for a walk in the heath on a rather misty and grey day. My mood did not change until I started noticing different colours in the surroundings and the beautiful works of art created by the seemingly hard working spiders!

The dew on the spider’s webs made them stand out more than usual and I was totally fascinated… Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera on me, so I used my phone to capture these unique creations.

Walking back home, my mood was lifted and the stress from work slowly melted away. It is a shame that city office workers don’t get chances like this during their work hours ( I was one of them) because I believe that nature can help to reduce stress and improve productivity.

All of a sudden, I wish I could spend more time being in nature; as winter approaches, I know it’s less unlikely to happen.

If only autumn could stay for just a little bit longer…