China Bound

China Bound

The Architect’s Newspaper: You were last heard from running a tattoo parlor at Design/Miami. Is participating in an international design fair going to be a big stretch? 

Aric Chen: Well, because this is the first international contemporary design fair that we know of in China, it seemed that it couldn’t be just any fair. There had to be some kind of underlying premise not only because it’s the first one, but more significantly, because contemporary design in China really doesn’t exist as we know it here and in Europe. In fact, I think that’s why the organizers wanted to involve us, and especially Tobias, because he’s known not so much as a conventional designer of products but as a provocateur. And I think they realized that the fair had to be a little bit more of a statement than just a showcase of interesting designs.

What do you mean by no contemporary design when “made in China” is printed on so many products in our stores?

Tobias Wong: When I first arrived, what I thought of as original, indigenous Chinese design just wasn’t there. What I did see, from interiors to products, were really western-influenced goods. 

AC: In January 2007, I was in China working on a story for Fast Company magazine about creativity in graphic design, architecture, product design, and so on. I spent two weeks traversing the country, and I found only two really creative product designers. I assumed that I just hadn’t looked hard enough. Recently, I saw the Victoria & Albert Museum catalogue for a show covering design in China, and they have the same two as their featured product designers. So that seemed to confirm that there really isn’t much. There’s no real infrastructure to speak of, although, oddly enough, there are hundreds of design schools—some quite good, like the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing—literally turning out thousands of graduates each year. Still, I can’t seem to figure out what they’re doing after graduation. 

TW: We did find some signs of a changing scene, and they’ll be seen at the fair. Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu own a store in Shanghai called Design Republic that’s very cool. It’s like the Moss of Shanghai.

AC: But they also design themselves, and one of the great pieces they have is this double-walled glass vessel. It’s a smart, updated take on the Chinese teacup, and one of the favorite pieces we found that does something new with a traditional concept. I see them as part of a wave of overseas Chinese who are making a big difference in China. Rossana is from Chicago and Lyndon studied at Harvard, and they both worked for Michael Graves in Shanghai.

And what are your plans for the exhibition? I understand the hall will be filled with about 100 exhibitors, with some familiar names from Italy and the United States like Cassina and Formica. How will it all hang together?

AC: You have to remember how vastly different China was even five years ago. When we first started, we kept talking about the obvious clichés that are in use there—the dragons, the phoenixes—meaning that that would be the last thing you would ever do. But the more we started talking about it, the more we wanted to use something that was local and familiar. So we’re doing this big installation of raw bamboo scaffolding, a platform, if you will, for the years to come.

TW: Yeah, bamboo scaffolding is a very prevalent thing that you see absolutely everywhere in China now, and it’s become a widely appropriated sort of symbol about the country’s breakneck development.

AC: And so we thought we would invert this idea of the bamboo scaffolding so it’s not about structures rising but rather like a void to be filled. The venue is this fantastic Soviet-built complex—it’s very grand and quite ornamental—from around the 1950s, and inside the entry hall will be empty but for the floor-to-ceiling scaffolding. It becomes a kind of trope for the emerging nature of contemporary Chinese design.

WOKmedia from London and Shanghai will be creating an installation with these large glass pieces—like lenses or eyeballs—fabricated locally and scattered in the scaffolding as it continues outside. We’re also commissioning some large sculptures for a café. We want it to be a fun and inspiring collaboration with other artists and designers.

AC: In the past, fairs—say, the 1925 Paris Exhibition or the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—played a huge role in the development of design. We can’t compare this to that, but it would be nice if 100% Design Shanghai went down as an influential moment in the development of contemporary Chinese design.

TW: This can’t be a conventional trade show. It’s more a call to arms, as in, “Where are you, Chinese designers?”