Made In China
Interior Design Staff -- Interior Design, 11/19/2010 3:57:35 AM
"Why should design matter to China?" That was a question posed by a Chinese designer named Jesus Yeh at a recent talk he gave in Beijing. The audience was young, mostly college students-though none was nearly as young as the 10- or 11-year-old kid who raised his hand. "I'm not sure, because I don't read foreign magazines," the boy answered, his smile broader than the stripes on his polo shirt. "But I know China is copying the West.
His statement was remarkable, with implications that took a few moments to grasp. For one, it reaffirmed that design is a fairly new buzzword in China-one that some still ascribe to "foreign magazines." Yet the exchange also showed that even China's youngest realize, at least implicitly, that their country needs to find its own way.
Indeed, in the two years since I moved from New York to Beijing, I've seen design here grow from a just-palpable murmur to a full-throated rallying cry. There are now dozens of Chinese magazines that are devoted to design or devote significant pages to it. Design museums are being planned and built throughout the country, while design-driven shops, restaurants, and hotels are popping up at a glittering pace. Many are by established names in the West, among them Interior Design Hall of Fame members Tony Chi, David Rockwell, Philippe Starck, and the team of George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg. Others are by such mainland Chinese and Hong Kong firms as Neri & Hu Design and Research Office, the Edge Design Institute, and AFSO.
What's more, the government is committed. Following up on the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Expo 2010 Shanghai China put a spotlight on creativity. Next fall will see the relaunch of Beijing Design Week, for which I'm serving as creative director. Emphasizing design's growing importance to China, events will include a Tiananmen Square installation on October 1, National Day.
The impetus is clear. China needs and wants to move its economy away from low-cost manufacturing and toward high-value innovation. There's also an element of universality. Design is simply too critical to any country's social and cultural development to be ignored. But why, the question remains, should design in China matter to anyone else? There are, of course, the obvious answers. China's sheer size will have an increasing impact on what everyone else makes and buys-cars designed for the Chinese market, now the world's largest, are already starting to influence the dimensions and styling of models sold globally. And one could talk about the bigger role China can take in tackling sustainability. (The country recently became the world's biggest producer of solar panels and wind turbines.)
Still very real is the issue of intellectual property, the "copying" problem and its damage to those being copied-though, even here, signs of progress have appeared. Today in China, one hears a lot more about "original design," alongside small but telling examples. Consider the Beijing brand ACF, which is shifting its focus from unauthorized copies of mid-century modern furniture to work by emerging designers.
But on a different level, I would argue that another reason that Chinese design might matter to the rest of the world stems precisely from the relative nascency of the endeavor. Putting it simply: Designwise, China doesn't have much baggage. To be sure, the country has some catching up to do before reaching international standards. Yet alongside this comes a certain freedom from conventions. It's a freshness unencumbered by the boundaries, precedents, assumptions, and paradigms that make so much contemporary design great-but also, sometimes, all too self-referential and reliant on hype, rhetoric, and provenance.
Nearly everything in China can be seen anew, both despite and as a result of the country's long history. In the realm of interiors, young firms and independent designers such as Fun + Living, Liu Zhili, and Xiao Tianyu are reexamining China's philosophical relationship to objects by highlighting sculptural and narrative qualities within a tradition that has historically drawn few distinctions between the fine, applied, and literary arts. Light-as-a-feather porcelain vessels by Xie Dong and tea sets by Lin Jing have already found their way into the collections of Italy's Driade and 10 Corso Como, respectively.
How all this eventually translates is, I think, something worth watching. Meanwhile, China's profound craft traditions offer exceptionally fertile ground for rediscovery and even radical reinvention. The same can be said of the country's postrevolutionary aesthetics, minus the kitsch.
At the other end of the spectrum, China is a place where pragmatism and efficacy collide with evolving values. This is where the implications of manufacturing muscle, at a scale never seen before, have yet to be fully explored amid social and environmental transformations that are just as unprecedented. China is, in other words, a place where the future still feels like the future, where the idea of a solar-powered 1,200-person bus that straddles the road like a moving bridge isn't complete fantasy-I hear that this crazy contraption is currently being prototyped in Nanjing.
Without doubt, China has much to learn from the great Western design narratives. But it is also creating its own in a way that has something to offer others. Stay tuned. -Aric Chen