If you ask a lot of Chinese designers why their design is Chinese, they will say they cannot articulate it. Chinese design doesn’t have a straightforward, cohesive identity yet. It’s not possible to say exactly where Chinese design is heading to, and young generations are still experimenting, leading some to think it will always be undefined. Due to the relatively cheap cost of raw materials and labor, Chinese designers can afford to take risks. As I already said, Fashion has been leading the way in establishing a Chinese design identity. Anyway, we are witnessing an organic movement within the local creative industry to get rid of the negative connotations of mass-produced Chinese goods, and attain a global status of high-quality and unique objects.
Until two or three years ago the furniture market was at a very early stage in a very fast changing environment. The high-end market was dominated by baroque[ish] furniture, and design furniture customers were confined to first-tier cities niches. Anyway, niches in a country like China can count numbers with many zeros, and this fact allowed foreign design brands to survive the costs of setting up a physical presence in Mainland China. Recently there has been a lot of talk about original design furniture, and people are much more well informed. Most urban Chinese like to travel, and are therefor exposed to good design around the world. Due to different exposure and the rise of individuality, their taste levels are very different. Initially, it was always outward looking: worshipping Italian or French [neo?]classical furniture. A behavior that Chinese refer as 崇洋媚外 [“to revere everything foreign and pander to overseas power”]. Whereas now, there is a movement towards Chinese designers producing high-quality work. Brands like Shang Xia and Neri & Hu [featured below] own a very strong vision, which is why they are so successful.
For this post I did some research in order to provide a quite extensive anthology of the current emerging and leading furniture design brands, stores or studios. The biggest furniture fair is held every year in Guangzhou, called the Chinese International Furniture Fair (Guangzhou) 中国(广州)国际家具博览会. Last year was divided into two phases, the first one focusing on Home furniture, home décor and outdoor living, while the second one presented innovations in working spaces. The fair is committed to build the most valuable trading platform for the furniture industry. Weirdly enough, in doing my research I haven’t found any valuable brand or design studio coming from Guangdong province. If you know one, please point it out in the comments area below. Most of the results in this anthology are from Beijing or Shanghai, but it’s very interesting to notice that Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, sees an ongoing trend of growth of furniture design. I personally know many interior designers from Hangzhou, and I discussed with them the reasons of the growth of Hangzhou creative industry; with some saying it is due to the higher per capita GDP of the area, others saying it is related to the intrinsic beauty of the city and its suburbs.
Beijing has possibly the most thriving creative scene in China. Artists like Shao Fan made history in 1996 with his deconstructed “Chairs” series, reinterpreting a subject as mundane as furniture making, and breaking the boundaries between fine art and applied art. In 2002 Song Tao founded Zizaoshe 自造社, now a leading practice for furniture and interior design in China. Currently one of the most interesting young Chinese designers is represented by Naihan Li [here is an interview by Design China]. Among the most recognized practices I must mention Fnji 梵几, KDSZ, Fun+Living and People’s Industrial Design Office. Collaborations between foreign and local designers always lead to stunning results and practices like MICROmacro Lab, Zhang & Thonsgaard and Lost & Found are here to prove this fact. If you are to shop some Chinese contemporary design pieces you might want to have a look at the selections made by Wuhao curated shop at No. 35, Mao’er Hutong, Beijing’s first proper concept shop by Isabelle Pascal. Housed in a Chinese courtyard, the space is orchestrated seasonally with some of China’s most cutting-edge fashion, design and art and international indie brands. Founded by the daughter of Mao’s English teacher and translator, media guru Hung Huang 洪晃, Brand New China is the most talked-about space in Sanlitun Village North complex. With products from more than 100 designers, ranging from clothes to accessories to furniture, this 540 sqm space is both a museum and a show space for all that is hot in Chinese design right now. A good selection of design products can be found also at the 798 UCCA Store.
[Update] Wuhao closed for some reasons on November last year, it will likely reopen but not anytime soon. In the meanwhile a Wuhao pop-up store will open at the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing on May 23 and stay for five days.
Although Shanghai is not fostering creative industry as much as Beijing government does, yet it certainly is a good environment for commercial design. Product designer Zhang Zhoujie based his practice here [here in an interview by Eightsix], same as industrial designer Carl Liu. Among the brands that tie their name to Shanghai A’postrophe, Mushitiangong, Origin Wood Work, Banmoo, and ceramic studio Kaolin stand out. Of course Shanghai is also where Shang Xia has its headquarters, and where the highly influential design practice Neri & Hu operates. Founded by taiwanese Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, Neri & Hu have established a strong multidisciplinary practice, spanning product design, architecture and interior design [here]. They also founded The Design Republic, a collection of products created by some of the world’s most recognized design talents, they also collaborate with many designers both foreign and local to create products that will explore a new modern Chinese aesthetic. Other leading incubators and platforms for Chinese Design in Shanghai are Bundshop, that incubates over 50 independent designers and brands from mainland and Greater China, and The Nut Lab, a multicultural arts and events hub.
Last but not least is the design scene in Hangzhou, a true design marvel. I have already mentioned the exhibition curated by Pinwu 品物 studio this year in Milan. Other studios worth to be mentioned are Atelier Chenmin, Minaxdo and Smartwoodhouse 木智工坊. I’d like to also mention Huabiao Shan, whose amazing work is featured here.
Main resources for my research have been the already mentioned Jing Daily and Zara Arshad’s Design China, Creativehunt, and an excellent blog that I incredibly didn’t know about: Eightsix, by Elliot Richards, a blog that promotes Chinese Design and that is now one of my daily reading blogs. Peace.