Decoding Design

China's young designers create products that merge tradition and innovation

China's young designers create products that merge tradition and innovation

Posting in Architecture

Aric Chen, creative director of the forthcoming Beijing Design Week, points out what innovative designers to watch in China. He also discusses trends in Chinese design, ranging from new attitudes toward copycat culture to products and graphics that merge Chinese traditions and fresh ideas.

Aric Chen, an internationally respected design critic and curator, moved to Beijing from New York in 2008, shortly after the Olympics were held in China. Of Chinese descent and born and raised in the United States, he felt that Chinese design might be the "next big thing" to gain worldwide attention, taking a cue from the high visibility and popularity of Chinese contemporary art among American and European collectors, auction houses, and museums in recent years.

Since relocating to China, Chen was named the creative director of Beijing Design Week. It's a highly anticipated event supported by several national Chinese government organizations as well as the Municipality of Beijing. Beijing Design Week is set to make its debut on September 26 and will be held through October 3. It's likely to draw curious crowds from both within China as well as from around the world, as the Chinese government has declared design a "national priority."

One of the goals of the inaugural edition of Beijing Design Week is to showcase China's up-and-coming talents in product, graphic, architectural, and fashion design to a global audience. International designers from Europe and North America have been invited to participate as well. Chen has been busy organizing a schedule of exhibitions, workshops, panels, and other initiatives for Beijing Design Week, involving not only design leaders, but also real estate developers and influencers from the retail and other business worlds.

Given the research he's been conducting for Beijing Design Week, Chen is clearly a plugged-in source for identifying the latest design trends in China. I spoke to him via Skype, and asked him to provide a cultural context for Chinese innovation, too, as well as advance details on Beijing Design Week.

What trends in Chinese design have you've noticed while organizing Beijing Design Week?

Aric Chen, creative director, Beijing Design Week

From my perspective, what's interesting is that when designers talk about "trends" in China, the concept of "trend" doesn't necessarily have the same meaning that it does in the West. In the United States and Europe, designers talk about what they are building upon, interacting with, and reacting to in terms of previous modern and contemporary trends and conditions. But in China, the idea of "design" is actually a fairly new concept. Designers are working with a clean canvas. That makes the field exciting. But hard to define.

Even if design trends are difficult to pinpoint, what common challenges do young Chinese designers face today?

Many Chinese designers in their 20s and 30s are purposefully avoiding the kind of design cliches that often become too easy to rely on. For instance, they might not just design a product to be red because that color traditionally symbolizes harmony, luck, and good fortune in China. Instead, young designers are questioning what red symbolizes before using it, and engaging in debates and discussions on the meaning of color in China. I've observed them trying to find more substantive expressions of "Chinese-ness."

They also don't want to follow current Western trends or fall back on Western trends. But navigating between avoiding a sense of cliched Chinese-ness and cliched Westerness is a very tricky business.

Can you point to specific designers who are creating inventive work that is starting to define this new sense of Chinese design?

In product design, Liu Zhili is creating poetic work, namely lighting systems and furniture inspired by Chinese metaphors from nature, but very minimal. Li Naihan is another very interesting designer. Because of Beijing's rapid development, she's had to move so many times, and has designed a very clever home system made of wooden shipping crates, with everything built in.

There is a very active dynamic generation of Chinese architects in their 30s. I'd name Li Hu of O.P.E.N. Architecture and Zhang Ke with Standard Architecture, Xu Tian Tian of DNA, and Wang Hui of Limited Design. What's striking is that many 30-something Chinese architects are working on enormous projects on the type of large scale that Western architects usually don't get to work on until they're in their 50s or 60s. Chinese architects are working to get up to speed in terms of technology, theory, and sustainability, but sometimes they are too busy actually building.

Graphic design is another area that's strong, mostly in the work of designers who are in their 30s and younger, such as Liu Zhi Zhi, who uses traditional Chinese printing techniques in new ways, and Les Suen, known for his book and magazine design.

Although you mentioned that Chinese designers are attempting to break from the cliches of the past, surely there must be some characteristics of a Chinese style of innovation that you can identify.

I see the roots of creativity in Chinese culture as a do-it-yourself way of thinking that's intensely clever. Culturally, Chinese people are incredibly comfortable with complexity, and that leads to ingenuity. But I think sometimes a factor of DIY ingenuity results in cutting corners and finding loopholes.

That said, there's been a lot of talk lately about the fake Apple Store in Kunming. And the topic of pirated goods coming out of China is an ongoing concern among global companies. How does the notion of copycat "design" factor into China's creative culture?

There are many people, not just in China, who see that there is incredible creativity and innovation in the culture of pirated goods, known as Shanzai culture. Their view is that it's not only about knocking off iPhones, but also is a real pop cultural force. Consumers are admitting that the knock-offs themselves often have added features that are better or more relevant to Chinese audiences than what's found in the originals. Some designers and artists are creating wry commentaries on Shanzai culture. In some ways, pirated goods are China's version of Pop art.

For Beijing Design Week, you're putting together projects that promise to revive parts of old Beijing, which could have lasting economic impact. Can you give us a preview?

Our projects range from redesigning a menu in a Beijing restaurant to illustrate the water usage for each dish, to make customers aware of how much water consumption it takes to create a Chinese meal. We're also working with a state-owned real estate developer to present pop-up shops in a few empty spaces in a poor neighborhood in old Beijing that once housed opium dens, brothels, and opera houses. Topshop is going to be one of the pop-ups. We'll also hold exhibitions and workshops there. The goal is to get people to see this neighborhood in new way and to draw a younger, creative crowd to it. What's great is that some pop-up shop organizers have already expressed interest with staying with shops well beyond Beijing Design Week.

Photo of Tiananmen Square gate: Saad Aktar/Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Aric Chen: Li Di

Author’s note: The original version of this post stated that architect Li Hu worked with Standard Architecture. That is incorrect; the correct firm is O.P.E.N Architecture. It has been corrected. I regret the error.

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure