While China's art scene continues to make record sales, and big names like Ai Weiwei, Cai Guoqiang and Yue Mingfen are starting to roll easily off Westerners' tongues, Chinese design remains comparatively in the shadows. At best, it's regarded as a culturally-distinct (but not quite mature) creative discipline; at worst, it's a punchline about cheap knockoffs. Still, Chinese design is gaining traction: a couple weeks ago, the 2012 Pritzker Prize award went to Hanghzou-based architect and green design advocate Wang Shu, a major milestone towards introducing Chinese creativity to the outside world, beyond the usual art practices.
One of the primary obstacles is that Chinese design can often be difficult to locate. Take a stroll through the French Quarter in Shanghai, or the peek through some of the design studios in Beijing's hutongs, and you'll locate a few here and there. Aside from organized events like Beijing Design Week, it can be difficult to get a broader sense of trends in the Chinese design sphere. Indeed, a furniture designer friend of mine has a studio in a village on the outskirts of Beijing.
Which is why, when living in Beijing, I was thrilled to hear about Design China, a new web site and blog that actively tracks trends and issues in contemporary Chinese design. Spearheaded by Zara Arshad, a British designer currently based in Beijing, Design China aims to provide a rare, organized look at China's contemporary design scene.
Ms. Arshad provides a unique overview through her own design practice. Critically, she served on the Organising Committee for the popular Beijing Design Week 2011, a landmark event that currently provides the best look into Chinese design trends. Further, she's contributed to a number of exciting projects in China, including Teach For China, The Library Project, Greening the Beige and, most recently, Beijing's first dedicated design space, Liang Dian Design Center.
Fashion designs by Dooling Jiang. All images courtesy Design China.
It's through this broad work experience that Ms. Arhad has witnessed Chinese design. While I've discussed these issues many times with her over drinks in Beijing, I finally had a chance to sit down with her (on Skype) recently to talk through them more formally.
Core77: Where did the idea for Design China come from?
Zara Arshad: I had been discussing something like this for a really long time. The first time was whilst I was working on the Organizing Committee for Xin: Icograda World Design Congress 2009. This was in the latter half of my first year in Beijing, and I was frustrated at not being able to access design information in one place. It was mostly through colleagues (who were heavily involved at Central Academy of Fine Arts) that would inform me about events and exhibitions. It was all mostly via word of mouth.
Core77: I definitely felt that when I first moved to Beijing in early 2011. The art scene was quite well organized, but it was still difficult to find unified information about design. What spurred you to actually make the site?
The impetus came last year when I was taking care of the Beijing Design Week international media group. We were discussing Chinese designers and the BJDW program at the time, and some of the journalists highlighted their interest in seeing work specifically from Chinese designers. However, much of our 2011 program was a mix of both international and Chinese design. The former was, perhaps, slightly more prominent.
During an informal chat with some of the international media group, one journalist commented, "I don't know if there are any good Chinese graphic designers." I just happened to mention a few of my friends that fit the slot, to which he replied: "You have all this information in your head. You need to put it somewhere so that we can go and find out all these things." Sitting in a room with people who were experts in their field, and who were telling me there was finally a demand for something like this, caused me to conceive Design China.
I'm surprised there are so few blogs dedicated to contemporary Chinese design. I have actually found a couple of design blogs since, such as CreativeHunt and EightSix. They are both good websites, but I feel that I just have different experiences and information to offer. For example, I'm not just reporting about individuals groups and projects but also about events and observations. I'm trying to really expand on the design debate and look at how design can facilitate positive change within the community and how that's happening in China.
The interior at Liang Dian Design Center, Beijing's first space dedicated solely to contemporary design.
What are you doing to get new information? How did you become a hub?
I think it's probably two- or threefold. The first thing is probably my experience and the people I met along the way. During Icograda, for example, I was more aware of organizations such as AIGA China, which pass on information. Working on Beijing Design Week last year also expanded on that.
Another method has just been to keep my eyes peeled. I make frequent visits to graduate shows from both CAFA and Raffles Design Institute, for instance and if I see a poster on a wall for an exhibition or event, I take note.
As a freelance graphic designer, my clients have been nice enough to refer me to others, whether it's other clients or just people that I think would be interesting. I have also sought people out myself. Just by networking and getting out there. People naturally start sending you information.
What has the response been like?
Really good actually. I've received great support for the project. I'm running the website with my assistant whilst working in a full-time job at the moment, which means that I can't commit 100% of my time. With the response we've been getting, I wish I could spend more time on it. Now, I am looking at ways how.
Another good indication has been how local designers have reacted to being featured on the site. If we approach a designer, we don't have to introduce much—they're usually more than happy to interview. This is encouraging for us.
Shan Design Studio's reading set. The books can be placed neatly back into the grooves in the chair.
It must be amazing to be able to tour so many design studios and meet great designers. What's the design scene like in Beijing?
Funnily enough, I was recently asked what it is about working in design in Beijing that I prefer than, to say, design in London (where I'm from). I think it's purely due to the fact that the design industry is still taking off here: it is so dynamic and constantly evolving, I want to be part of this exciting process, even through just observing and documenting. The pace at which design is developing here is fascinating.
Initially, design in China meant young people graduating in design and moving off to work in large companies. Increasingly now, young designers are branching off and creating their own, independent brands and studios. For me, this means a more fresh design scene.
It's also a learning process for me, as I come across different people working in different fields. Professor Zhao Jian from Tsinghua University, for example, spent a couple of hours with me just to explain the history of Chinese book design. It's such a complex yet beautiful topic; so deeply embedded in Chinese culture.
It's like you're learning about the history of design in China and its future at the same time.
I agree. I met yet another professor at Tsinghua University, the Vice Dean of the Arts and Design department. Professor Hang Jian co-curated the Rethinking Bamboo exhibition of the recent Beijing International Design Triennial. He's looking into Tibetan craft and spiritual culture now: researching how to transplant spiritual elements behind Tibetanism into contemporary furniture design.
Ultimately, he wants to show how craft is the most basic form of design, and he's exploring ways to evolve methods behind certain craft. Processes like this are really interesting.
A book design by Guang Yu.
What's it been like getting in touch with all these designers? Is it easy to reach out?
I think it's a mix. My Chinese isn't fantastic but, thankfully, I have an amazing assistant by my side. She has been integral at getting in touch with local designers, especially those who do not have a widespread Internet presence. Designers who have their own websites are, of course, easier to track down. I do also come across gems just by searching online or seeing a picture in a newsletter, and I won't know where that person is from or what their background is. It's then up to us to find that person.
Where would you say most of China's design scene can be found? Are they mostly in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai?
Beijing, Shanghai and maybe Shenzhen for graphic design. Xiamen actually has a fairly active fashion design scene. There are designers practicing in other parts of China such as Hangzhou and Guangzhou. Guangzhou seems to be up and coming for industrial design, although mostly known as a manufacturing city. Design is slowly moving toward second- and third-tier cities, but it's definitely not as developed as in Beijing and Shanghai. These cities still attract a lot of young talent.
Some of the branding at Beijing Design Week 2011, held in Dashilar Alley just south of Tiananmen Square.
This is a deliberately hard question that I don't expect anyone to know. But I have to ask: where do you see the future of design in China going?
The design industry here has huge potential. What was exciting about last year's BJDW is that it exposed design to a mass audience. Xin: Icograda World Design Congress 2009 was more of a closed event since ticket sales were involved. In 2009, I think design itself was more closed off anyway; I've always felt it mostly existed in two main bubbles then: the Tsinghua bubble and the CAFA bubble.
However, with BJDW 2011, the conversation opened up to a much wider audience, as events were accessible to the public. Beijing International Design Triennial, for example, took place at the National Museum, which meant that many non-creatives and non-designers were exposed to it. This is all really exciting.
A platform has now been built for young designers to experiment with their own work and brands more. I think we can look forward to a lot more experiments of this nature. I also think young designers are increasingly using their work to explore a sense of individualism. We can, perhaps, look forward to a lot more openness within the creative industry, especially now that the government has expressed interest in promoting it. This potential is something we should keep our eye on.
Zara Arshad peers upward at a recent installation by Olafur Eliasson and Ma Yansong, Feelings Are Facts, in the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.
I asked Ms. Arshad for her recommendations of designers to check out, and she passed along a series of names and posts from her blog. I've included a selection here, many of which include extensive, exclusive interviews with the designers.
Born and raised in Beijing, graphic designer Guang Yu graduated from Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in 2002. He worked in various design roles and studios, including one year as Art Director for Surface China, before co-founding TO MEET YOU studio with fellow graphic designer, Liu Zhizhi, in 2008.
Based in Beijing, Nod Young is a prolific artist whose passion lies in typography and graphic design. He draws heavily on Chinese culture and tradition to inform his working process, and has continuously pushed the boundaries of creativity in China.
Shan Design Studio
Shan is a Beijing-based, multi-disciplinary design studio that places great emphasis on culture and concept. Founding designers Yao Ye and Lee Xibin exhibited in Milan last year and were recent recipients of the JP TDC 2011 award from Tokyo Type Directors Club.
Founded by Zhang Lei in 2004, INNOVO is a Hangzhou-based product design collective that design simple products which embody various aspects of traditional Chinese culture, whilst also focusing on sustainability and the environment. Last month, INNOVO exhibited as part of Wuhao @ The Teahouse, Beijing Design Week 2011 and were also recently awarded the 2011 IF Product Design Award.
Ou Ning is an all round creative genius and pioneer of Shao Foundation, Chutzpah! or «TianNan» and Get It Louder. He has just finished wrapping up the Chengdu Biennale, focusing now on Bishan Commune, an intellectual group who devote themselves to rural reconstruction in China.
Dooling Jiang is a Beijing-based fashion designer. Originally from the south, she studied at Raffles Design Institute, Beijing before taking up a course at Central Saint Martins, London in 2008. Upon returning to China, Dooling set up conceptual fashion brand, Digest, and was invited by Ou Ning to take part in the 2011 Chengdu Biennale earlier this year.