Chinese designers are drawing from the past to shape the future

Design Without Borders

By Ana Domínguez Siemens

There are those who would not appreciate my saying that Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s famous Sunflower Seeds project for Tate Modern was as much concerned with design as with art. The fact remains though, that at its core, this project was about employing an entire community of people as the manufacturers of his porcelain seeds, thus inviting us to look more closely at the “Made in China” phenomenon: a phenomenon that has far more to do with design than with art. In further defense of my viewpoint, I like to point out that the artist studied design at Parsons in New York.

In the last few years it has become clear, for example through the V&A’s exhibition China Design Now, that until recently, design in China did not exist – at least not by the definition developed in the West. In Europe and the U.S., art has been elevated above the other “minor” creative activities. In China, however, design has never been an independent discipline and has always played a crucial role across the spectrum of artistic endeavor.

China is a country in a great moment of evolution, increasingly engaging with the outside world, which is, in turn, transforming its creative culture. In 2006, former president Hu Jintao proclaimed that China would re-focus its business strategy from low-cost manufacturing to innovation and brand building, from “Made in China” to “Designed in China”. This economically motivated announcement might have led to a stricter definition of design, based on the conventional, 20th-century western model. Yet the most unique and intriguing design work we have seen coming out of China over the past few years has instead embraced the blurred boundaries between art and design, paralleling the same transformation that’s been taking shape here in the West.

China is a country in a great moment of evolution, increasingly engaging with the outside world, which is, in turn, transforming its creative culture. The burgeoning design scene in China has attracted a number of Westerners who have helped to further increase its international appeal. Aric Chen, former Creative Director of Beijing Design Week and the current curator of Design and Architecture at M+, a new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, is a prime example. A native of Chicago, Aric has played a significant role in fostering Chinese design culture, and he believes that the greenness of the discipline in China is actually an advantage. He explained, “I absolutely believe the situation here is exciting, even though design is not yet well defined. On the one hand, this brings certain struggles, but on the other hand, the lack of distinction between the fine and applied arts offers fertile ground for exploration at a time when the rest of the world is increasingly interested in what happens when disciplinary boundaries get fuzzy. Design in China is moving well beyond furniture and consumer products to embrace social, technological, scientific, even performative practices that maybe didn’t used to be considered design. Having so little baggage, design in China is open-ended enough to contribute to these expanding international notions of what design can be.”

The present situation is ideal for young, experimental designers who are leading the way in the search for what it means to be Chinese today. When they look to the past for inspiration and references, they often skip over the 20th century entirely, in favor of typologies, processes, and decorative motifs from several centuries ago. They rework paradigms from ancient traditions that faded during the Modern era, bringing them back into the spotlight and context of the 21st century.

Prosperity 2012 by Caroline Cheng Courtesy of Themes & Variations
This exciting new trend is not going unnoticed internationally. Last year, Liliane Fawcett curated a show called Chinese Design Today in her London gallery Themes & Variations. As part of her research, she identified a list of common conceptual preoccupations shared by many young designers in China: “Upcycling”, such as the way Gu Yeli reinvents discarded furniture found in the streets with colorful wool; “Mixing Old and New”, as characterized by Shao Fan, Jia Li, Yang Ke, and Xiao Tianyu, who integrate traditional elements into their work; “Political Subtexts”, as exemplified by Li Naihan, who converted wheeled shipping crates into furniture as a comment on the fear of many Beijing artists that their studios might be discovered and destroyed; “Rejecting the Past”, represented by designers who focus exclusively on new technologies, such as Zhang Zhoujie; and “Porcelain Experiments”, as highlighted in Li Lihong’s iconic Western logos rendered in porcelain with Chinese decoration - or, perhaps, the legendary Ai Weiwei.

Fawcett also pointed out the growing number of Chinese schools (in particular the Central Academy of Fine Arts) now offering design programs, which is leading to an increased awareness and changing perception of design within China. In fact, there are currently more design students in China than anywhere else on the planet. Furthermore, the growing numbers of wealthier Chinese consumers increasingly value design in their goods. Fawcett is optimistic about the future: “In the West, we no longer have their freshness of approach; they lack that cynicism that we have. And they do not take themselves too seriously yet.”

Another instrumental supporter and promoter of Chinese design talent is Isabelle Pascal, owner of Wuhao Curated Shop in Beijing. She has exhibited and produced the work of many noteworthy designers, including Pin Wu’s beautiful paper works; Nick Wu’s interesting wallpapers; and Zhang Chen’s finely crafted furniture in precious woods. Pascal explains the spirit she recognizes among her designers: “Chinese designers are so refreshing because they have an unparalleled purity and commitment to whatever they are currently working on. They design and create for the sake of designing and creating; they’re not always concerned about production. I have also noticed that they have a strong desire to reconnect with their roots and to mine China’s 5000-plus-year history of innovation and invention to meld, mix, and incorporate the old into the new, employing both artisanal and cutting-edge techniques. You end up with something completely contemporary that is, at the same time, completely and traditionally Chinese.”

There is no doubt that craft is playing a significant role in the evolution of Chinese design. This may be a reaction against China’s current reputation as a copy culture. Focusing on traditional crafts allows Chinese designers to celebrate the unique and rich heritage that is all their own, whilst new forms of expression arise when venerated craft techniques are combined with new technologies and materials. For Pascal, this is a crucial avenue of exploration for the future of Chinese design, which she intends to spotlight in her next exhibition: New for 2013 will be a collaboration with Elaine Ng, a Hong Kong-based designer who specializes in intelligent textiles. We’re working on a series of intelligent products that are artisan crafted and organic by nature but also incorporating the latest technology. It’s all about intelligent design, poetry, and process.”

As yet, there are very few designers from China working with global design companies. One of the few exceptions is the Shanghai-based studio Neri and Hu, whose work explores traditional heritage within a contemporary context. They have produced designs for Classicon, BD Barcelona, Meritalia, Swarovski, and Moooi. Whilst it would no doubt be exciting to see more Chinese designers cross this divide, its possible that this is no longer required in order make an international impact. Designers like Jeff Shi are steadily finding their way into the Western consciousness. Shi’s Liquefied Bamboo works, using injection molds for mass production that offer innovative solutions for the benefit the entire planet, are steadily gaining attention and popularity. And so the old boundaries, categories, and pigeonholes seem to be becoming more and more irrelevant.

  • Text by

    • Ana Domínguez Siemens

      Ana Domínguez Siemens

      Ana is an award-winning, Madrid-based design writer and curator who regularly contributes both to exhibition catalogues and publications such as AD España, Vogue España, Diseño Interior, and DAMn°.