Originally published for European Guanxi
Photo: Fan details Made in China ©️ MAKY_OREL / Public Domain / Pixabay
For decades, the link between design and China has largely been perceived and summed up in one sentence: copy and be inspired by the Western world. What is happening nowadays is instead a turnaround, with Chinese designers developing their own personal language based on their own culture in the designing process and its communication. But why has China reached this level more than half a century after the West?
The People’s Republic of China started its nation from scratch, reborn from the ruins of a civil war and without resources of excellence, forced to flee or be taken away by force by the nationalists during their retreat in Taiwan. Since then, China has embarked on new programs to improve its underdeveloped nation, eventually starting to recover economically thanks to the “restoration” of 1976-1989, thus filling the gap it once had with other countries and reaching 2020 with important milestones in industrialization and taking half a billion people out of absolute poverty. But what about Chinese design? Due to the initial lack of prioritisation by the PRC, young designers needed to travel abroad to receive advanced training in their fields of expertise, evolving Western cultural influence in this way. A key reason why “Chinese designers often used to be inspired by” is that many decisions are dictated by money, and competition is high and often this re-launches counterfeits at lower prices on the market. Patents are often made only for products that can be subsequently sold or rented for royalties, leading them to be perceived as “a nuisance”, whilst being considered as “defensive” in the West (Safran 2012). This same principle can be applied to different types of products. Let’s take the average Chinese consumer of electronic devices: it’s a common opinion that most electronic items are often similar in design internally,and thus there isn’t much of a need to spend money on changing internal mechanics. It is in part due to this vision that many Chinese companies decided to only copy successful high-quality products in the past (DT 2017). There is also a cultural background that can explain the attitude of Chinese designers to get inspiration from existing products as, historically, scholars spent many years learning from renowned masters and following their strict discipline without having room for personal exploration; an attitude that can be found in other parts of the world. In Florence during the Renaissance, Michelangelo himself began his journey at the age of 12 in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio learning his techniques. However, these historical references can also be found today, as students are often taught by heart in school and then receive the same teaching doctrine in Applied Arts, where one is taught to take important architects as an example and to get inspiration from their style, developing thematic works and focusing more on technical skills instead of learning design thinking. Finally, we can see how Chinese designers have been adapting to the demands of end consumers for a long time, who have not long been aware of the full value of brands, which are associated more with appearance than the identity or the quality of the products.
Today, the PRC is growing rapidly as an economic power; the opening of the market has made it possible for Chinese creatives to be free to explore ideas, a situation unthinkable until a few years ago, creating the ideal conditions for young talents and consumers to grow interest in the world of Design with a social and cultural awareness (Wang 2018). Copying Design was therefore only the first step in a more complex process and now China is in its second phase of development, achieving this goal in 1/5 of the time it took for Western counties, having a new indigenous generation of young designers and consumers changing very fast. If fifteen years ago people weren’t used to understanding modern design, it’s now being appreciated in main cities like Shanghai, the Chinese Design Capital. There, design is a large community of talented designers who receive quality training directly from the city scene, growing professionally and learning from previous generations who used to study and work abroad. Furthermore, the Chinese government is investing large amounts of capital in reshaping the economy, with programs such as “Made in China 2025”, recently extended until 2035, aiming to transform the country into a new innovative global power. Xi Jinping himself has urged Chinese designers to create unique and innovative products that are “truly of China” (Holland 2018), as Beijing wants the designs to change the world’s opinion over the middle kingdom that is not a country which is limited to copying others and which is becoming an “original location for creative production”.
An example of this is Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, talented partners and Architect Designers who met while studying in the USA, eventually opening and designing their studio in Shanghai in 2004. Since then they have supervised various projects worldwide, including a range of lights for the Italian brand PoltronaFrau, being the creative directors of the furniture brand StellarWorks, and having a permanent presence at MilanDesignWeek. Neri and Hu also created the “Design Republic”, which is both a retail store and online platform offering a range of products from leading global designers, a solution that had never been made available for Chinese consumers before, thus strengthening their stance among Chinese designers regarding their alleged identity. “Customers are learning fast and the market is moving, now people are looking for things with individual characteristics” with young Chinese designers growing “hungry for knowledge” on contemporary and innovative Design. Their hope is that Western consumers will soon buy Chinese designs as well, thanks to the reshaping of their national scene (Larson 2018) Regardless, Chinese designers are still traveling to the West for study or work (at least until Covid), but it is a trend under discussion. There is in fact a growing number of designers who remain in China and learn skills from local generations who have implemented the new Design-Thinking (Textor 2020) and the renewal of the Chinese design identity, thus blossoming their new Design language with a shared knowledge, so mixed that there is no longer a single detectable connection path. This is a drastic change that has taken place over a decade, making it an interesting period for the field in China, growing in synergy with its finance and regional-global power projection, making it home to a growing number of local international design brands, such as Yemu1978, FrankChou, Suyab, and The Shaw.
China is now a market of 1.4 billion people that can be divided into different economic zones, where the economic growth for the cites is chosen by the central government. Major metropolises have been designated as administrative municipalities and are currently the focal starting points for the design revolution, which also dominates its foreign perception, but the PRC is not a homogeneous market and government decisions are influencing product strategies for the domestic and export markets. Furthermore, in China, design practices such as Interior, Graphic, Product and Industrial Design are perceived as modern disciplines, meaning that its current evolutions used to have no connections with Chinese traditions in these fields. The only exception is graphic design which evolved independently during the 1920s, when its creative center was Shanghai (Craig 2009). Regarding this field, the epicenter has slowly moved and in the 1980s began to be based in Shenzhen following the “policy of opening China”, a condition that also created a massive migration of young talents to southern areas. Modern product design in the PRC is therefore recognized today as a young but rapidly growing discipline, which has seen rising recognition. Previously the only precedents in the design of modern items were vases, wooden furniture and artifacts, all made with traditional practices that suffered a collapse during the Cultural Revolution (Rohr 2018). However, now the setting of the “cultural and creative industries” has made contemporary design evolve at the same rate as f the Chinese consumer market even if it is still with a gap between the quantity and quality of projects. It is indeed questionable whether the sustainability and quality of products can be driven by such a speed and whether designers are truly capable of prioritizing true innovation. A widespread scenario in the Chinese design world consists of categories such as consultancy agencies, which are normally studios with around 10 people, companies with their own R&D department, subsidized design institutes from government and academic incubators; scenarios whose protagonists are mainly young people aged between 20-30 years old, in a total number of about 300,000 in the field of industrial design (Lucchio 2018), a sector representing 90% of the total number of Chinese designers, producing a value of € 4 billion in 2006 equivalent to 2.2% of the GDP of the PRC (Richter 2021). This increase that affected mostly the main cities hosting universities and industries is also part of the latest stage in a four-decade process that has seen China implement the fastest and largest urbanization plan the world has ever seen, with 640 million people moving from countryside to cities, making the PRC achieve urban planning and implementing goals in 40 years that other countries have achieved in 200 (Ian 2013). The new scenario has seen young creative people more open minded and internationally oriented, whose approaches can be sought in various factors, such as the current conditions of China’s per capita wealth system which creates unprecedented opportunities for creativity. This emerging generation will eventually help create a widespread movement of Chinese design identity, and a sensibility that can enhance the cultural roots lost by a wild globalization and due to fast growth.
Partners Hu and Neri, symbols of the Chinese design revolution, stated in more than one interview that “there is a new generation of creatives who are doing extraordinary work, researching materials and implementing new technologies; will change the face of China” and “the next genuinely new global design movement could emerge from China”. We can also see these changes by looking at the reactions of the international design community which is now constantly shifting attention from MilanDesignWeek to Shanghai and vice versa. It should be noted that the PRC is no longer an emerging country that needs to learn from Western nations but is instead already ahead in many fields like the speed in building infrastructures, start-ups settled, and technologies adopted (Snowden 2019). The PRC is now a leader in many fine technologies such as renewable, drones, solar energy, long-life batteries, electric mobility, facial recognition, control-technology and so on, making it the leading nation of the future intent on leaving behind its perception as a production center of poor quality for foreigners. Beijing has also implemented ambitious plans and is rapidly going from being the world’s most polluting nation to the most efficient in reducing emissions, introducing recycling policies, urban forestation, and transformation of the desert into fertile areas (Song 2018), in a time of slow stalemate in ecology in the West, as evidenced by the US withdrawal from the Paris accords, then reinstated by Biden’s presidency.
All these rapid changes are however leading to an “economic war” with the United States due to trade tariffs and restrictions imposed by American policies driven by the fear of losing the primacy as a leading country in the technological, innovative and economic fields, resulting in contrasts through R&D, eventually seeing the overtaking of the leading position in 2020, with China as the first nation in the world for innovative patents (Wipo int. 2020) Examples are Alibaba and Tencent (WeChat owner), two of the main innovative technology businesses in the world; a point that made Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook) announcing that he is taking inspiration from these realities to implement his own (Dini 2019). Another significant change is seeing an increase in Western brands possessed by Chinese companies, a trend that includes all sectors, from the automobile (Lotus and Volvo), to Technology with Motorola. However, Architecture and Design were perceived as secondary fields at first, but now even this perception is changing, as demonstrated by the generation of designers trained in mainland China and with the young talents who moved back home after the studying period abroad. Currently there is still a split between the Chinese higher education in Design & Architecture and the Western one, with well-known names that evoke a synonym of quality (Bauhaus, Illinois Institute, Aalto university etc.) becoming a precious opportunity for Chinese students with financial possibilities. Creative higher education is an area that has long suffered from the gap with Western countries, as the Chinese system used to not encourage creative thinking, but this is changing fast, with a growing number of talented Western professors accepting positions in Chinese institutions, and with more high-profile local teachers (Sharma 2021).
The next step could so be that once the level of Chinese Design Universities increases, it will see more skilled Design Professors that were trained locally, as a result of a strong hunger for good skills and knowledge in both fields reflected by an exponential rise in the number of Design conferences (Fairs 2019) of which the best known are Beijing Design Center, the Shanghai Design Festival, and the Shenzhen one. These trends collectively indicate the growth of the middle class, which now has more resources and time to devote to other priorities such as decorations, quality products and furnishings, tasting and art classes. This change, leading to high quality design, can also be seen from the ‘HoReCa’ point of view, with hotels, restaurants or cafes that are often looking for unique items or specific products instead of cheap furniture or accessories, investing to create atmosphere and tasteful environments. All of these have favored an increase in sales for Design brands in the last decade, with a high demand for Italian styles, Scandinavian furniture, and European brands, but Chinese companies are also increasing their visibility. Exhibitions like the ones in Shanghai (Textor 2020) are showing a percentage of local design studios that is increasing every year, a situation that is also repeated in smaller cities, a significant fact that guides the direction of Chinese design and the global design scene in the imminent future. The PRC is rapidly becoming the new creative superpower of the world and the Western countries must face this reality and become aware of this before finding themselves surprised, promoting instead cooperation in order not to lag behind in the race for innovation and to ensure bilateral and peaceful development.
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