From the carefully calibrated gardens of Suzhou to Jingdezhen’s vibrantly glazed ceramics, China has a long and storied design tradition. Not all of it great, of course. Still, whatever Made in China may have meant in the 1980s and 1990s – mainly shoddy and cheap – it stands for something quite different in 2019. Today, creatives in Beijing and Shanghai are the toast of the international design scene. Earlier this year, Paris design fair Maison&Objet’s Rising Talent exhibition profiled six Chinese designers (including Frank Chou, profiled here); the same month, architects Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu of Shanghai practice Neri & Hu were guests of honour at both IDS Toronto and Stockholm Furniture Fair, Scandinavia’s biggest design event. Shortly after, China itself was guest of honour at the Design Biennale Saint-Etienne. As the latter’s programme pointed out, “Far from the stereotype of mass consumption and low-quality products, for China, design is a major lever in economic development today.”
“Contemporary Chinese design is just at the beginning”
Which is true. But economics only tells part of the story: many of the best contemporary Chinese designs are ingenious responses to the country’s living contradictions – an ancient empire under growing global influence, a nation of factories and fakes fast becoming known for its innovation, a Communist state where e-commerce reigns. Beijing’s built environment tells the story. The city is known for its traditional courtyard houses and networks of alleyways, or hutongs.
What Founded in 2013, these forward-thinking Shanghai architects have produced some of China’s most distinctive projects, including the conceptual pink and blue houses for Shenzhen Architecture Biennale in 2018.
Who Yu Ting and Min Erni. “Architects tend to indulge in everlasting things, but I think occasional, temporary things are beautiful,” says Ting. The studio, he adds, tries to introduce into its work “thoughts about desire, about the spirit, about the loftiness that’s missing from our everyday lives”.
Check out Shanghai enamelware museum Eight Tenths Garden, a cylindrical building with perforated white aluminium cladding that suggests folding fans.
A few have been successfully modernised but most have been demolished to make room for grim government buildings, shopping malls and the countless, nameless apartment buildings built on the fly to keep up with the city’s rapid population growth. To make something special out of these dusty, unlovely tower blocks and their mass-produced public exercise equipment is a much greater challenge than adapting historic architecture or starting from scratch. That’s what makes BigSmall Coffee, hidden away in the narrow streets of Beiluoguxiang, such a triumph. BigSmall Coffee spills out into a yard with loops of continuous bench seating, a ping-pong table and ultramarine exercise equipment reoriented to encourage conversation. The same blue pipes reappear inside as lighting fixtures, playing off the ochre tiles stacked vertically to suggest bamboo.
“As the capital city becomes more and more strict in its public space management, it leaves less room and flexibility for street life,” says designRESERVE’s Feng Yue. “Our primary goal is always about creating active public domain.”
Invigorating the dead space at the foot of an apartment building is one way to strengthen community. Another is to preserve those communities that already exist. Made from prefabricated components, People’s Architecture Office (PAO) developed what they call Plugin Houses. These adapt to existing, often dilapidated urban environments which have been made precarious by China’s rapid modernisation.
The fashion designers
What An alt-experimental menswear label that riffs on workaday uniforms; founded in London, now based in Shanghai.
Who London College of Fashion and Royal College of Art grads Shimo Zhou (from Shenzhen) and Une Yea (from Beijing), like most students in China born after 1980, had to wear tracksuits at high school; this provided the duo’s earliest experiences in fashion design. Zhou says: “You don’t want the teacher to notice that you’ve changed the tracksuit. But I’d tear it apart, unstitch everything, modify it and put it together again.”
Check out Regular fixtures at Shanghai Fashion Week, and the duo’s 2019 A/W 100% Consumer collection debuted at London Fashion Week in June this year. Stockists can be found in Shanghai, Hong Kong and London.
Plugin Houses have been inserted into Beijing’s hutongs, urban villages swallowed by Shenzhen’s sprawl, and Guangzhou farmlands at the cost of just a few thousand US dollars, a fraction of the price of an anonymous, often alienating apartment building. With modular components and amenities such as composting toilets, these houses add structural integrity and modern facilities – such as in-home kitchens and bathrooms – without requiring the demolition of surrounding structures. By accommodating as well as contrasting with their existing contexts, the Plugin Houses both stand out and fit in. Jimmy Shen, co-founder of PAO, says that for him, good Chinese design embraces “informality, reinterpreting what you have instead of starting from scratch, even when that means fitting things together that weren’t meant to be together”.
Beijing furniture designer Frank Chou also combines things that seem to be at odds. His Fan Chair, for instance, adds a flexible wooden “fan” lower back rest to a utilitarian metal base, while his Combo Sofa brings together wool, fabric and leather through a range of techniques that include pleated edges, leather piping and button-style pull buckles. “Contemporary Chinese design hasn’t fully formed yet,” Chou says. “It’s just at the beginning. Our studio’s designs reflect this state and spirit: looking for contemporary Chinese design.”
The furniture designer
Who Born in Beijing in 1987, China’s most prolific furniture designer has been lauded at Milan Design Week and 100% Design London, and one of six designers featured at this year’s Maison&Objet, Paris. He won Elle Deco’s Young Design Talent of the Year in 2016. “Perhaps you cannot find obvious Chinese characteristics like dragons or embroidery [in my work] but the ideas and inspirations originate from deep Chinese feelings and spirit.”
Check out His Combo sofa, plus his Ping Screen that looks more like the sail on a Viking vessel than the three folding sections you think of when you hear the words “Chinese screen”. But it’s very much in keeping with Chinese tradition, inspired by people’s way of hanging clothes in ancient China.
Like Beijing, Shanghai is a city where no single architectural style dominates. The four-storey “stone gate” shikumen houses that line the city’s lanes, or nongtangs, are no more representative of today’s Shanghai than Hungarian architect László Hudec’s Belle Epoque beauties, Lujiazui’s LED-embellished skyscraper, or the factories along the Huangpu River, several of which have been converted into art museums and cultural spaces. Confronted with such a confounding mix of different architectural styles, Wutopia Lab’s chief architect Yu Ting says, “I ignore the way [the buildings] look and pay more attention to how these spaces and forms feed into people’s behaviour and culture.”
Wutopia Lab’s designs include artist Li Bin’s Plain House, which has a distinctive box-shaped skylight and a curved, weathered-steel bridge connecting its two studios, and the Zhongshu bookstore in Suzhou, which uses perforated aluminium to create a rainbow-hued ceiling. While the studio’s designs are playful and idiosyncratic, “they have one thing in common,” Yu says; they are designed to reduce occupants’ stress levels. After several conversations with the clients, he develops a deep understanding of his clients’ anxieties. “The design is a good solution to their anxiety.”
What One of Beijing’s most feted architecture studios, known for creative rethinks of public spaces.
Who Lydia Song and Feng Yue met at Harvard University studying Urban Design. Though the duo’s projects vary in scale and location, Yue says they hope to create “a better urban experience for people living in the city”.
Check out In Beijing, BigSmall Coffee, plus, one of the projects of which they’re proudest, Japanese restaurant Suzuki Kitchen in Beixinqiao, a hutong district in central Beijing.
Instead of offering a solution to their customers’ discomforts, menswear designers Shimo Zhou and Une Yea stitch them right into their clothes. “Last season we focused on the anxiety of young people,” says Zhou. They used snake and fly motifs to represent the fears and anxieties they saw young Chinese expressing anonymously online. In their 2019 Autumn-Winter collection, they explored one of the most ubiquitous forms of dealing with anxiety – online shopping. Entitled “100% Consumer”, the show referenced packing tape, shopping bag handles and inflatable package filler in the designs. Many of us feel ambivalent about the role of e-commerce in our lives, so as Zhou points out, “It’s good to raise questions.”
Great Chinese design often embraces not its glorious past but its uncertain present. DesignRESERVE’s Yue sees China’s current historical moment as both a challenge and an opportunity. “The country is experiencing the fastest and largest scale of urbanisation in human history,” he says. “There is no adequate and effective reference from any developed country. This unprecedented and often chaotic reality is the inspiration for our design practices.”
The problem solvers
What Boundary-shifting, civic-minded Beijing architecture-design-urbanists firm that focuses on “urban-intervention”, social-impact projects designed to improve public spaces. Who Set up in 2010 by James Shen, He Zhe and Zang Feng, three former colleagues at Beijing architecture firm Feichang Jianzhu. “The name sounds silly, but we take the ‘People’s’ part seriously.”
Check out Plugin House, a pre-fab home that can be added to existing structures, intended to offer city dwellers a liveable, affordable housing solution.