An interview with Neri & Hu [part 1]

Flamingo Shanghai Office (photographed by Dirk Weiblen)

[A short version of this interview was featured in the April issue of Interni China 设计时代

On December 26 instead of lying on the sofa waiting to digest my Christmas lunch, I was sent by Interni China 设计时代, the Chinese version of the famous Italian design magazine, to Shanghai to have a conversation with Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu. Founding partners of the Shanghai based design and architecture practice Neri&Hu, a cross-disciplinary practice, that defines itself an architectural practice, with many projects also verging towards interior and product design. They established themselves, among very few others, as the most internationally famous designers in China. Their practice counts more than one hundred employers, half of which come from more than fifty different foreign countries, and more than half of the employers are female designers or architects.

I met with them at the Design Commune, a space they designed to be the flagship location of The Design Republic, a platform for design-thinking and store for a selection of international and domestic furniture brands. This former colonial police station in Shanghai’s Jing’an district was transformed by the duo and their team into a high-end design furniture retail space, a concept store directed by them with the help of a group of in-house marketing and sales professionals. Design Republic is more than just a retail concept. It’s an ecosystem, with a restaurant and space for lectures, slowly evolving to include a co-working space, as more and more designers are going freelance, with a proper material library.

Flamingo Shanghai Office (photographed by Dirk Weiblen)

Flamingo Shanghai Office (photographed by Dirk Weiblen)

“We didn’t choose Shanghai, Shanghai chose us”

It has been a deep conversation in which the two founders confronted with what they have been doing in their careers and lives, in a series of flashbacks that show the struggles and achievements they had in these past years. The sense of accomplishment pervades all the discourse and exceeds the difficulties that are specific to the tough working environment that Shanghai and China in general can sometimes be. Lyndon specified many things were not actually planned. Many believes that Neri&Hu have been very smart in positioning themselves in the market in the right time and the right place, but in fact the story of the first days of the practice shows that despite there is no question that the timing was perfect, it was not consciously planned. So it’s worth to have a look at how Neri&Hu has started.

Both Rossana and Lyndon are ethnically Chinese, Rossana was born in Taiwan and Lyndon is a third generation Chinese Filipino, and both of them share an overseas educational background in the States. Before setting their own practice Lyndon has worked in the US for Michael Graves for over ten years a Rossana for around four years. In those years they always wanted to move back to China, either was Mainland China, Singapore, Taiwan or Hongkong etc. They wanted their children to speak Mandarin and they somehow felt to be entrusted with the mission of bringing Chinese design back to its former splendor. But what brought them to Shanghai and eventually kept them from leaving was a series of events that could not be predicted. In the beginning of 2003 Lyndon was the director for Graves’ projects in Asia, and was then appointed to a six weeks assignment in Shanghai. They have just moved with their two children and by that time the third one was born, when the client decided to extend their stay for two months and that’s when the SARS epidemic tarted to severely hit china. They could not leave for other five months. After the SARS was gone, they looked at each other and decided that the city they have lived in for almost a year was very interesting. They were seeing every european design brand trying to make their way specifically into Shanghai and others even trying to elevate the concept of ‘made in China’ into the one of ‘designed in China’. In facing China at that time Rossana and Lyndon recognize that they have been very critical to China in general and to its production, but here is when they felt the mission to do something about it, instead of being simply critical.

They didn’t choose Shanghai, it’s Shanghai that choose them, even thought Shanghai has become a bit too noisy and crowded and they sometimes feel the need to move the whole practice and family to second tier cities in the Jiangsu area like Suzhou or Hangzhou. First tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai are now developing slower than other areas like the Pearl River Delta with Guangzhou and Shenzhen or the inner cities like Chengdu or Chongqing. But the mission is something that has to be taken seriously and brought forward to the end. Too many designers, architects, professionals and businessmen in general choose China for the opportunity it gives. They come to gain career experience, notoriety, easy money, and they they leave. They take advantage of the situation and then they move. This is why Lyndon and Rossana are not considering to move their architecture practice according to the opportunities a place can offer but according the sense of energy, freshness and inspiration that this place gives, and up until now Shanghai is still the place to be for them. Lyndon mentioned Berlin as the place where many European designers, artists and architects have been moving to in the past few years. But this is true for the practice Neri&Hu, cause if we are to talk about Design Republic, then it would be an other story: since Design Republic is a retail concept, it is of course looking around and evaluating costs and benefits of moving into new territories, so it is realistic that we will see new stores opening in Beijing, Shenzhen or who knows, Chongqing?

The Waterhouse at South Bund (photographed by Pedro Pegenaute)

The Waterhouse at South Bund (photographed by Pedro Pegenaute)

Specifically for Rossana, moving to Shanghai had a special meaning. Having grown up in Taiwan as a child, it was unthinkable back then to relocate to Mainland China, and what the image that the propaganda by the Nationalists in Taiwan impressed to her mind when she was a child was extremely different to what she came to see when she moved to Shanghai. It took her a long time to fully understand that she was living in the city that her father was forced to leave in the beginning of the 40s. And it took a long time to overcome the stereotypes that she, as a Taiwanese, had about Mainland China and Mainlanders. Many informations about Mainland were kept hidden when she grew up in Taiwan, so when she moved to Shanghai she discovered how Mainlanders are also Chinese, compared to what many Taiwanese think of being the only real Chinese.

For Lyndon things were very different cause he is a third generation Chinese from the Philippines. The phenomenon of Chinese diaspora is very particular cause no matter where Chinese immigrated they all retained their traditions, even after few generations. So, he said that looking at his uncle and his aunt, even thought they were born in the Philippines, their lifestyles still closely resembled those of the Mainlanders. And this is the reason he probably assimilated the new environment much faster than Rossana. Two facts impressed him the most. The first one was how fast Mainland China, differently from the rest of the Chinese populated areas, was dramatically changing to become a modern society in its “chineseness”. The Chinese, he said, are not afraid to abandon the traditional way of doing things. On the other side, he was surprised to see how the One Child Policy has dramatically changed the youngest generations. The one child has become the pampered focus of the whole family with all the pressure of the family on him. This was very different from his own experience, cause usually the Chinese Diaspora is a story of big, sometimes huge, families, and it has always about taking care of the older generations. So the only one real cultural shock Lyndon had, was to see how older generations were doing anything they could to take care of the youngest one.

Continues on Part 2

Extend - Mirror by Neri&Hu

Extend – Mirror by Neri&Hu