Chen Yaoguang is the principal and founder of Hangzhou-based architecture studio Dianshang Building Decoration Design Co. Ltd., DBDD for short. Over the past two decades, Chen has established himself as Hangzhou's premier interior architecture practice, garnering plenty of Chinese-language design press as well as exposure in the mainstream media. (His next challenge is to make a name in the West.)
In fact, China's swift ascent to economic superpower status is readily reflected in his success—the studio has grown to some 30 employees—and continued demand for his work is perhaps the surest sign of the nation's trickle-down prosperity. Indeed, he has built an impressive list of projects and clients, from corporate headquarters to cultural venues, from high-end hotels to ritzy residences for China's burgeoning nouveau riche.
Image courtesy of DBDD Image courtesy of DBDD
And as is often the case with rapidly-acquired wealth, it seems that money can't buy taste: newly munificent Chinese tend to err on the side of overstated opulence as opposed to the understated aesthetic of, say, the Japanese or the Scandinavians. Yet DBDD's extensive portfolio proves that prosperity need not be too ostentatious: the interiors are thoughtfully-designed and vastly superior to the gaudy Gilded Age-inclination of conventional Chinese luxury.
Image courtesy of DBDD Image courtesy of DBDD
Indeed, Chen's studio—a two-story office space, plus a couple courtyard-house-style archive beyond the terrace—is a veritable trove of uncanny curios from all over the world (he took the design team to Bali last year for 'research'), scatterbrained yet somehow coherent. The East-meets-West pastiche of ancient artifacts, Old World wonders and miscellaneous mementos collectively expresses an understandable instinct towards extravagance that is met with a healthy degree of restraint in his body of work, which is well-documented on his website [NB: the site was down as of press time].
Of course, Chen is established enough to dictate some of the terms of his commissions, and while he admits that he has turned down offers, he generally attracts clients who are already familiar with his work: when asked about his relationship with them, he joked that he more or less courts potential clients in a sort of dating process to ensure that the designer-client relationship is a good fit.
Image courtesy of DBDD
The metaphor is apt: although Chen is quite charismatic in person, I wasn't sure what to think when I first met him as he discursively spoke of his love for life itself, suggesting that a truly creative individual might be able to imagine the taste of inedible materials. Fair enough: he was jetlagged as he'd returned from Seattle the day before and barely had a chance to catch his breath as he had a full schedule of meetings upon his return.
Members of the design team, hard at work
Indeed, Chen is looking to attain U.S. citizenship: as the story goes, he was granted a green card through some kind of 'exceptional individual' clause, solely for his success as an interior architect. He expressed a strong interest in collaborating with American designers, noting that the Chinese tend to excel in terms of technical/functional aspects of design but are less consistent when it comes to actual implementation and execution. This much he knows from some 25 years in the industry: Chen completed his studies at the China Academy of Fine Art in 1987 as a member of the inaugural class of the Interior Design program.
Back in the 90s, Chen noted that all of the design ideas and concepts came from the West, through Hong Kong; even with the advent of the Internet, Chinese designers make the annual pilgrimmage to Milan to stay abreast of current design trends and innovations. Chen himself is attracted to the old-world charm of the small towns and villages of the European countryside as intimate communities of comfortably human scale. This intimacy is only underscored by the aggressive development of Chinese cities, which are criss-crossed by ten-lane swaths of asphalt and generic highrises that grow like weeds. Hence, Chen assertion that he feels entirely at home in Europe, noting that "this is a place that people live."
To that end, Chen purchased an island—at least to the extent that one can own any piece of property in China, where the government maintains ownership of the land and leases it to private individuals—a couple hours' drive from Hangzhou. Chen is about a decade into a 50-year lease, and he's made the most of the rental thus far, visiting the bountiful island several times a year, more often in the mild spring and autumn than in the rather more extreme summer and winter. The groundskeepers are the only permanent inhabitants of the island, a young couple and their son, whose name means "born on the island" (true story).
I'm not getting my hopes up to make it to the island, so hopefully next time we hear from Chen, he'll be making his dreams of living and working in the States come true.
Special thanks to Messe Frankfurt / Interior Lifestyle Shanghai for arranging this studio visit.