Bridging the East-West design divide – in London

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011 [Original PDF:London Design Fest]

China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag

In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers and creative-types at work.

Among them are a ceramic Chihuahua in a neckerchief, labeled as a home accessory; a delicate, extraterrestrial-looking table poised as if for lift-off; a panel of architectural designs for a Buddhist temple in the heart of London; and a stool in mint-green metal entitled, fantastically, the ‘Silent Farter’.

These are just a few recent offerings from London’s Chinese Diaspora designers, and they signal a growing creative confidence amid a challenging landscape.

“The Made-in-China tag has brought some difficulty to Chinese designers trying to work in the UK or around Europe,“  says designer Elva White, who curated the exhibition, Cheers, for the UK China Art and Design Association (UCADA) Festival, which ran during September’s yearly London Design Festival.  “There are some issues that particularly affect Chinese designers here, and this was a way for them to talk about them, and also get some needed attention for their work.”

The association developed out of an informal group started by White and other graduates, mostly from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and it last year secured the formal backing of the Chinese embassy and the British Council.

China’s reputation as a manufacturing hub, combined with the negative publicity about its quality control and the youth of its design scene, can weigh heavily on Chinese designers looking to make it big overseas. Many move to the United Kingdom in search of a more cosmopolitan education and a stronger cultural design heritage, and hope to stay on and develop their career afterwards, at least for a few years.

But recognition is hard to come by, and they face stiff competition from their better-placed European counterparts.China is not yet widely known for its design talent, despite recent efforts by the government to reposition the country through international events, trade agreements, and by promoting the cultural and creative fields as new industry pillars.

Staffan Tollgard runs a high end interior design studio in London’s Notting Hill and credits Asian design as strongly influence in his work, but he believes that the manufacturing stereotype has done damage.

This year he co-launched a company, Kurate, to promote and import products by selected China-based designers, but he expects that, despite the success of the studios he’s working with, which include Neri & Hu, Design MWV and  HC 28, he has a task ahead in educating the British consumer.

“We’re basically saying that there are some really interesting things coming out of China at the moment, so please, rethink your idea that it’s just a copying nation,” he says. “The closeness of the designers with manufacturers there for example, means that prototypes are quicker to make and modify. We’re really seeing capabilities being pushed.”

In this sense, initiatives such UCADAs, that challenge conceptions of modern Chinese art and design, are coming at the right time. Last year David Jia, who founded one of China’s most successful industrial manufacturing firms LKK Design, opened a branch in London – his first out of China – and he sees the obstacles as unavoidable.

“It’s going to be a hard road. We have to change the European mentality about China’s ability to do good design, and there are always problems of cultural understanding, and of detailed communication between designer and customer,” he says.“But they can be overcome. And it’s our responsibility as a leader in this field in China to try to open this path.”

Through working and meeting with Diaspora designers, UCADA organizers have come across other issues that need addressing.  “Many young Chinese designers who arrive in London to study are less likely to have or build a good network, or self promote in the way that others do –  partly because of language difficulties, and a lack of confidence,” says Lucy Shum, who directs the UCADA festival.

Some of the exhibitors agreed. Taiwanese exhibitor Hsiang Wang says that he struggled to find contacts and exhibition opportunities in the UK after completing his Master’s degree. Shanghai-based Zhili Liu, designer of the delicate Shrub table, describes the isolation of a degree in Coventry University, which he spent mostly working alone.

UCADA has responded by setting up dialogues between UK and Chinese designers and an award for emerging Chinese talent and, following the exhibition’s successful run at the Beijing International Design Week in October as part of its London Guest City programme,  it is hunting for other overseas exhibitions to join.

Funding is a particular issue however.  Architect Guangyuan Li and his design partner Mohamed El Khayat took their Reading Chair to the last Milan Furniture Fair themselves, and were pleased with the interest and the opportunities that followed. Yet the chair alone cost them two thousand pounds to transport; they found that they were unable to afford the Beijing event, even though the chair would have made a noticeable splash among a relatively commercial programme.

The UK experience can be quite different for Chinese architects. Na Li works for Foster and Partners and exhibited her design for a Buddhist temple at Cheers. Ten years in the UK has given her a comfortable grasp of British sensibilities, and she believes that her background adds value to her resume.

“In a bigger company, as someone who can speak Mandarin and understand the cultural landscape, you can help it make a lot of connections in China,” she says. “And although I benefited from the more open methodologies here in terms of exploring my work, I feel that I’m still able, like a Spanish, French or any other nationality architect, to bring a fresh perspective to a design.”

The positioning of this Diaspora community between east and west holds promise for innovation across the disciplines. Alice Wang, designer of the Silent Farter [pictured below], opened her Taiwan-based studio following eight years in London. She believes that with a little support, cross-cultural designers such as herself are well positioned to fill the gap between experimental design and the products making it on the shelves.

“Being trained for a few years in Asia focuses you on how to keep the price minimal, on manufacturing or mass production, but often with everything in the same format,” she says “On the other side, in Europe they often care more about the concept, the humour or the theory behind a design, but can struggle to bring these ideas into manufacturing. Merging the two could only be positive.”

Boosting such opportunities and firming up the connection between the two regions could help China’s design credentials develop, while spreading the benefits farther.

As more internationally trained designers and architects are returning to China to become industry leaders, they bring with them the aspirations of older design cultures  in which design is infused into every environment – each bin and bus stop – rather than something found in galleries and appreciated only in creative circles.

In this way, ‘Designed in China’ may someday take on some-broad based resonance.

But until then, initiatives by those such as UCADA and Kurate will continue to both confound and raise Western expectations of Chinese design talent in smaller doses.

“At the moment I think there’s a wall between China and Europe, and it’s hard for us to see what we’re doing on each side,” says Na Li. “But we both want to. I think it’s definitely time for us to try to close the gap.”