What’s up with China’s over-style

Chinese KTV
Chinese KTV

Chinese KTV

Maximalism

If you ever set foot in a hotel, bar, KTV or restaurant of a tier two Chinese city, you are probably familiar with the extravaganza of the interiors. If you ever walked down the streets of Xidan, Beijing youngsters’ shopping district, you’ve already jumped into some serious fashion-tackiness.

If you’ve ever scrolled down the dark alleys of any of the popular Chinese live broadcasting apps I’m sure you noticed that over-styling has been taken by many way beyond the limitations of fashion. Over the past five to six years many Chinese women asked their plastic surgeons to make them “look like Fan Bingbing”, one of China’s most famous celebrities. A stroll through any Shanghai luxury mall will reveal dozens of Fan Bingbing look-alikes, mostly nouveau riche (-ish) women trying to conceal their countryside roots. In 2016 the plastic surgery industry has been valued at 400 billions RMB (about 63 billions USD) and is expected to double by 2019, according to the China Association of Plastics and Aesthetics. The industry has mushroomed in China with many clinics coming up on street corners in dozens of cities, to the point that the government has started to crack down on thousands of illegal “surgeons” tucking in tummies, widening eyes and enlarging breasts.

With some notable exceptions, it doesn’t seem to get any better if we look at the automotive realm. Many of today’s Chinese cars are styled to the point where you wonder if they had some contractual obligation with the supplier to put in as many unnecessary curves.

Over-styling is certainly a world-wide problem, but in China the epidemic plagues in a severe manner. Coming from a country where over-style is sometimes also an issue has made me very sensitive about the topic. And in this article I will try to find what are the origins of this epidemic and where is the trend going.

Chinese epic film The curse of the golden flower. In my opinion possibly the worst movie Zhang Yimou has ever directed.

Chinese epic film The curse of the golden flower. In my opinion possibly the worst movie Zhang Yimou has ever directed.

Tracing the origins of over-styling back to the Qing Dynasty

I don’t want to underestimate the consequences that the political and cultural closeness during the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644) have done to the Chinese overall “visual identity” of those centuries. A dynasty that was founded by a Zhu Yuanzhang: a penniless peasant and Buddhist monk who joined a religious and political (xenophobe?) movement and soon gained a reputation after marrying the foster daughter of a rebel commander. In fact, compared to the flourishing of art, science and technology in the Song dynasty, the Ming dynasty saw fewer advancements. But it is my belief, that the seed of today’s tackiness can be traced back mostly to the the “cultural mix & match” done by the Qing Dynasty.

When I was a student  at Tsinghua University, we went to visit the gardens of the Forbidden City. Our teacher, professor Liang, gave us a lecture on the architectural style of the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty was establish by a loose confederation of tribes that were occupying Manchuria, north China since the early 17th century. In 1644, unified by strong leaders, the Manchus swept down through the Great Wall, captured Beijing and established their own dynasty, thus ending the era of Ming Dynasty(1368-1644). The Manchu takeover did not dislocate Chinese cultural life in the same way the Mongol conquest had done, and their culture was much more elevated than that of Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368). Indeed, the Manchus had been imitating Chinese ways for some time prior to their invasion, and their rulers, particularly Kangxi and Qianlong, were well-educated leaders.

Back then, our teacher pointed out how the Manchus, being a minority among the dominant Han ethnicity, felt that their culture wasn’t broad and strong enough to establish what we would now call a “visual identity” able to compete with the one of the previous dynasty. The need for a proper identity in the visual arts, craftsmanship and architecture forced them to create one almost ex novo, merging features from their own traditions with others picked up from other minorities of China. On the top of this, Late-Qing weakness led to a general stagnation across all forms of visual art, characterized both by lavish decoration and orthodox academicism. Most of the over-styled Chinese architectures that are visible nowadays, especially in northern China, were built during the Qing or even Late-Qing Dynasty.

Qing Dynasty gilt bronze and champleve enamel box

Qing Dynasty gilt bronze and champleve enamel box

Decorated to look like a design object

The first time I got to hear about the over-style issue in China, I was on a brief school-trip with professor Yu from Tsinghua University. I was participating at a furniture design workshop organized by my school thanks to the generous sponsorship of a Chinese furniture company. I had to go quality-check tthe mock-ups that the artisans of the sponsors were kindly producing for our prototypes. Therefore I had to go on a two days trip to Shaoxing, a small town not too far from Shanghai. Back then, that line of high-speed train had yet to be opened, and so me and professor Yu had to go for a 12 hours sleep-in train. This gave us some time to talk.

Once we got to the train station we got picked up driven to this furniture factory. The company was a huge OEM supplier for Ikea, and also had its own brands. It was very surprising for me to se that the products made for their own brands were designed so badly. I would have guessed that they copied Ikea’s design. Prof. Yu took me on the side and told me that those products were targeting different markets, and were made to be fast-consumed by a pool of under-educated customers that wanted nothing but to own an object decorated to look like “a design thing”.

On our way back, the professor recalled a multitude of humorous anecdotes about his experiences with clients that had no clear idea of what they wanted but they clearly wanted the design output to look as designish as possible, otherwise they would have questioned why they had to even spend money to hire a designer, forcing interior and furniture designers to come up with bizarre decorations in order to satisfy the extravagant idea of design these clients had.

Poster of 2016 movie League of gods. Haven't seen it so I can't judge by the cover... must be very epic.

Poster of 2016 movie League of gods. Haven’t seen it so I can’t judge by the cover… must be very epic.

You can never be too creative. Maybe.

Many times across China I’ve heard people telling me how they perceive Chinese and Italian societies to be similar. From some points of view, we can’t argue that this is true. China and Italy share a similar background – two ancient cultures, that for centuries have developed a closeness that was initiated with the voyages of Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci. Both countries are a bit chaotic, with a pinch of corruption to spice it up. Family at the center of the social fabric, and no single dominant cuisine. We could go further…

Both these countries don’t just share a similar approach to their cuisines, they also share a similar design approach. Far from the problem solving approach of German functionalism, Chinese design language is slowly walking up the path of Italian design. In the early 1900s, Italian furniture designers also struggled to create an equal balance between classical elegance and modern creativity, using exotic materials and creating sumptuous furniture. It was Gio Ponti, who merged sophistication, creativity and modernity. Until today, Italian design focuses on expressing the soul of an object through its design.

The clue to understand Chinese over-styling is exactly here. Design as a problem solving approach can never be done too much. But design as the expression of yourself, can indeed be overdone. And this is because sometimes we designers don’t have a clear idea of what is our genuine self.

Xiaomi note

Xiaomi note

Minimalism

But in the massive hotpot that China is, of course often the extremes  coexist. As a reaction to the over-style an over-minimal trend has came to life. After the incredible success of Apple and Muji in China, a bunch of entrepreneurs have taken Qiaobusi (Chinese for Steve Jobs) as the new mantra for their products.

I have personally worked recently with a medical company that emulates Apple in each thing they do. Not just limiting this act to their (beautiful) products, but also in their products presentations, website, visual communication etc. Honestly I’m having a hard time to draw a clear line between what’s a healthy inspiration and what a morbid cult. However, this wishy-washy style is taking off, and while sometimes is a good sign of solid research-based design work, sometimes it’s just another decorative trend.

Photo taken by me in winter 2015-2016 in a factory in Beijing

Photo taken by me in winter 2015-2016 in a factory in Beijing

A whole country in transition

As the world’s fastest-growing market, for years homegrown Chinese design has proven unimaginative at best. However, China’s design language is slowly evolving. While in the first phase of development the majority of design for indigenous products were drawn or at least inspired by foreign examples, in the second phase Chinese designers are taking the chance to explore a signature Chinese style. The demands of Chinese consumers are diversifying. They are no longer satisfied with low-cost and reliable products.

Nowadays the Chinese consumer is not afraid of making choices that are different, stand out and distinctive as well as experiencing something for the first time. The first instinct is that there is the first love followed by opinions from family, friends and off course social media. This makes the whole consumer experience almost haphazard and hard to pin down. Social media experiences makes anything we touch, hear or see, lasts 2 secs. You cannot predict what next. If he or she likes it they will tell their friends. If not, the hard over-time work done by your marketing team is going to shrink in the dark corners of some mega-server.

Chinese consumers want novelty and durability. E-commerce and Internet access have strengthened consumers’ search for individualized and diverse products. In front of increasingly mature and picky consumers, Chinese manufacturers have to accept that their advantages are disappearing as costs rise and innovation remains stagnant. The consumer in China can still be very anti- made in China as is the consumer outside of China who still convinced that goods made in China cannot be the same value. To cope with this crazy pace of changes, Chinese creatives should avoid chasing the hot trend of the moment and company should start understand the importance of design during the whole manufacturing process.

Conclusions

Like a beautiful marble sculpture, a great idea is described easier through a carving process than through a modeling process. It is better defined by what it isn’t. It’s not take from someone else’s idea, it’s not confused, it’s not the combination of mediocre ideas, it’s not a specific technique or a new technology, and it’s not a fashion trend. A good idea is an immediate act of communication. It’s something that stimulates an instant reaction.

Good concepts don’t require much to be perceived as what they are, while bad concepts usually try to hide themselves behind the heavy curtains of an over-styled outfit. A badly presented idea is not an idea that isn’t presented well. A badly presented idea is a bad idea.