Design hot pot – Part II [alla Milanese]

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Designing China

Designing China

I am sorry for not updating the blog lately; I have been away from keyboard for two weeks. Our exhibition in Milan for the Fuorisalone 2014 has been a great success, but also a very though work.

Following a trend that sees more and more asians flowing in Milan during the Design Week, for the delight of department stores managers, this year Milan saw a huge presence of Chinese visitors. However, the presence of Chinese brands in Milan Fuorisalone, not to mention the Salone itself, hasn’t been proportioned to the Chinese visitors. This was even more evident if compared to the presence of Japanese and Korean companies. Big names like Samsung, Panasonic, LG, Citizen etc. are among the biggest sponsors of very organized events in the city. The European market has been the main target for Chinese export, but most of these products were simply branded as the cheapest goods on the market. Today China is facing the troubles of what is called the middle-income trap, and to avoid this, among the other things China needs to produce more high value added goods. This means that we will see policies focusing on a broad development in hi-tech and design products, and possibly the 2015 Expo in Milan will mark the turning point in which Chinese companies will brand themselves with new stories to tell.

In this article I will try to describe the whole Chinese presence in Milan 2014 Design Week. Two main events were held at the Triennale Design Museum, the first one called Kanjian curated by Chi Wing Lo and Dadawa was a small and well curated exhibition of home accessories and decor products by many Chinese designers, displayed on piles of Beijing-style gray bricks. Beside this installation there was a small room filled with small size sculptures made by Chi Wing Lo himself. The second exposition was called Rong – from Westlake to Milan, curated by Zhang Lei with the Beijing Design Week. Rong was right beside Kanjian, it showed different goods made of silk or derived materials, most of majority of which, as they stressed, were handmade in Hangzhou. In the same museum there was an other small exhibition from China displaying the interior design works participating the 2013 筑巢将 Nest Award on red vertical panels.

At the Spazio Tecno ai Caselli di Porta Garibaldi Giannantonio Bongiorno and AQSO arquitectos office, together with Eugenia Murialdo and a wide team of researchers, students and architects presented the book A map of Hutopolis, which collected the works and related essays from the extensive workshops held together with Tsinghua University, Politecnico di Milano, University of Genoa, University of Valladolid, Polytechnic University of Valencia and with the support of Strelka Institute. The book was designed by LAVA and supported by RCS, now available with the issue #36 of the Abitare magazine. I worked for one of the projects featured in the book so be sure to have a look at it. The panel discussion that followed the presentation of the book focused on the issues of the massive urbanization pressure that Chinese first tier cities are witnessing, and the efforts the Chinese government is doing to release this pressure by urbanizing rural areas at third/fourth tier cities level and increasing the productivity in terms of innovation.

A map for Hutopolis

A map for Hutopolis

The main event to get a clue of where Chinese design is heading to was, no need to say it, our exhibition Designing China at the Fuorisalone 2014 in Milan University, inside the Feeding event by Interni Magazine. The show included the design furniture and some home accessories from more than twenty architects and designers like 张永和/Yung Ho Chang, 朱锫/Pei Zhu, 邵帆/Fan Shao and 郭锡恩&胡如珊/Rossana Hu & Lyndon Neri, to name a few. The press conference and debate held on April 8 included the experiences of working in/for/with China of Aldo Cibic, Carlo Colombo, Stefano Giovannoni and Luca Trazzi. The exhibition, sponsored by 居然之家 Beijing Easyhome Investment Holding Group Co., Ltd, saw an incredible number of visitors, that exceeded the most optimistic expectation.

All these exhibitions aimed to re-brand Chinese products to appeal western visitors, sometimes showcasing stereotyped oriental features, and sometimes managing to innovate without losing the connection with traditions. At the same time the status of having been one of the sponsors of the Milan Design Week that Chinese companies achieved is still the main reason they took out the cash. My opinion is that from the 2015 Expo things will slowly change, and more companies will start to market their products to European customers, just like their Japanese or Korean counterparts.

Designing China

Designing China

Good reactions from western visitors were coming for those works of minimalism with Chinese characteristics: revisited versions of Ming dynasty chair, delicate and simply shaped potteries, raw wooden tables and so on. It seems to me that Chinese design wins when it shows the features of lightness and delicacy, while Chinese architecture wins when it deals with complicated joints and brutalist solutions. In my experience in Chinese university I found out that my schoolmates were more eager to do great when working on things which are physically small and close to everyday life. The exhibition at the end of every academic year was stunning for graphic design, pottery  etc. and a bit disappointing for interior design and worse for architecture. Great improvement could be seen year by year, and I am sure we are about to witness a Chinese renaissance in furniture design, while for architecture we might have to wait a bit longer. A good balance between a brutal structure and a delicate interior could be the right path for Chinese designers and architects.

Designing China

Designing China