Barely a decade ago the term “Chinese designer” was a misnomer. European brands, led by IKEA, dominated the retail landscape. Anything local was either antiquated or ripped off. Homewares, largely hidden behind closed doors, weren’t considered conspicuous enough to invest in. Copycats no more, a new generation of creatives is transforming China’s largest city into a breeding ground for original, innovative home designers. With universities like Shanghai’s Jiao Tong now offering streams in industrial and digital design – and visas to study in London, Paris and New York more common than ever – young Chinese are becoming competitive forces in an industry once dominated in the East by the Koreans and Japanese.
Carl Liu studied engineering in Shanghai and industrial design in California before becoming creative director of the design consultancy Idea Dao in Shanghai. His off-hours are spent rejigging time-honoured homewares – watering cans, chopsticks, paper fans – for his home-based practice Newtive Creations. His “Convertible” wood stool is part seat, part tea table and part umbrella stand when flipped upside down. “Some designers aim to have the biggest brands in the world,” says Liu. “I just want to create truly timeless, quality products.”
The crafter behind the Brut Cake design studio began her creative life as a potter with a naive, imperfect style. The Taiwanese transplant is also an avid collector of fabrics – specifically the traditional indigo-dyed cottons woven along the Yangtze River valley. “They’re like Scottish tartans,” she says. “Each area has a different pattern or check.” Patching them together on upholstery, she gives recycled furniture a new face, quite literally. Her “Muslim couple” chairs are a departure from the “Chinese look” so popular with Westerners, and embraced by local Shanghainese eager for a fresh look.
Trained at London’s Central Saint Martins and now teaching digital design at Jiao Tong University, Zhoujie Zhang takes inspiration from Song Dynasty art, which espoused using materials in their purest form. He creates each futuristic piece from a single sheet of stainless steel, folding it according to mathematical formulae he labours over for months (formulae that are not – he emphasizes – based on origami). Once he’s cracked the method, he says, “the production couldn’t be more simple. Looking at the finished product makes me feel very calm.” He launched his Digital Tornado table, three years in the making, at Beijing Design Week last month.
Deng Bingbing launched Piling Palang with Korean Judy Kim three years ago. He has a knack for taking traditional shapes and motifs and refashioning them on a bolder, more graphic scale. One of the only designers in Shanghai practising traditional cloisonné (enamelled metalwork) techniques, Bingbing tackles decorative tableware that combines kitschy colour and contemporary pattern. The line – which includes ceramics and lacquer serving pieces – appeals to local and foreign treasure-hunters alike.