The China Challenge

Prestige, Hong Kong, October 2009

US-trained designer Lyndon Neri had a hard time getting used to the mainland, but now he’s revelling in the challenges.

Though passion is imperative in any good designer, it can be taken too far. This is something Lyndon Neri learned on the day he accidentally collapsed his own lungs. “I wasn’t well and I hadn’t slept for three days straight. So I spent two days in hospital then went straight back into studying again,” chuckles the designer of his breakdown at Harvard. “It probably wasn’t the best approach.”

Back then the man who would later co-found the Neri and Hu Design and Research Office in Shanghai had been throwing himself full tilt into his thesis, about a pocket of a Californian Chinatown in which first-generation customs were still perfectly preserved. It was a critique mostly, but one that Neri felt he could give because he’d grown up somewhere not so different about 8,000 miles away.

As a boy Neri had found the Chinese Diaspora in Cebu, in the Philippines as conservative as it was watertight. “They hold on there to the China that they knew, much more than in Thailand or Singapore,” he says. “As kids we played with toys that people my age haven’t seen except in history books! But the problem is that it doesn’t evolve with the rest of the country.” Though friends commended his father for running such a Chinese household overseas, Neri knew even then that it wasn’t ideal.

The experience has led him to helm emotional explorations into ideas of ‘Chineseness’, much of it through design. He and his wife and work partner Rossana Hu may tap into tradition for their products or interiors, but they try to elevate or excavate below simple cliché. This is also thanks to an old Neri matriarch, still vocal at 99 years old. “My grandfather was a poet, but she was our family intellectual,” he says fondly, of his grandmother. “She would talk to me about the authenticity of a place, how you shouldn’t repeat history but interpret it. She says arts and crafts must be preserved, but if you continue to do new things that are copies, that is no different from somewhere like Disneyland.”

Neri mentions a big hotel the studio is working on in Xian right now: it comes with three hundred and fifty rooms, a tight deadline and the temptation to throw something easy and beautiful together; but instead the designers have been burying into history books and they’ve bought replica terracotta warriors and the armour they wore, “not to mimic them, but to try to understand the nature of the material and why they used it.”  The detail in the armour will be translated into a feature wall in the lobby. This kind of thinking pervades NHDRO design, no matter the size of the project.

But the pair’s affinity with China hasn’t always been so strong. He went to the States from the Philippines at 15, and she moved there from Taiwan. Traveling to the mainland, as a design associate with Michael Graves and later as a family, had its setbacks. Neri wasn’t crazy about the hygiene and the pollution, and he struggled with what he calls the ‘prolonged let’s-talk-about-it’ business approach. “In my first two or three years I was a straight-talking Chinese American and I was just not getting anything done; people were stalling me,” he remembers. “I was working on Three on the Bund as principal for Michael Graves and I realized that to make a significant difference it’s not how fluent your language is, and it’s not how much history or cultural knowledge you have. If you don’t understand the heart of the people there’s no way of communicating”.

The decision to move to China at all was a tough one. The pair left family members, good schools, clean air and prestigious jobs, but the problems they saw in China began to weigh heavy. “Every time I talked to my grandmother she would say, ‘look at yourself in the mirror: you look and you are Chinese,’ and she was right; inscribed on my back it says Made in China!” says Neri. “I love the food, I know the culture, I know the traditions and I raise my kids like Chinese. I could continue to criticise or I could do something about it, and all of a sudden I looked at things differently.” He began to see potential where he had once just seen shortcomings; the buildings that could be better and the café tables on the sidewalk that could one day be romantic, like in Paris, rather than simply unsanitary.

And so came Design Republic. In 2003, masquerading as a stylishly raw design emporium, the studio launched the place with education at its core. It sells their products and lines from Jasper Morrison, Frank Gehry, Isamu Noguchi and the like, but it also pulls in priceless modern design classics from around the world and presents them in exhibitions. Neri gives tours to students about once a month, and other designers make their own pilgrimages to see products that changed the history of their craft. “If we don’t bring these things to Chinese designers they will forever look at them from magazines” says Neri, “and they’ll look and say ‘that’s easy to do’ without understanding that what Jean Prive did with plywood in the 1920s was nothing less than a cultural breakthrough.”

And though the studio itself deals largely in luxury projects and high end products, Neri’s biggest lesson has perhaps been seeing this for the opportunity that it is, and understanding that in China, change happens from the top down and victory comes in many forms. Whether this is by sneaking a museum or a few sculptures in among the boutiques in an exclusive shopping complex, or fostering more time and tolerance among officials for slow, thoughtful design, he’s content, these days, with the manageable triumphs.

“I could be arrogant, but the reality is that this generation of designers is not going to be that great. We ourselves are not going to be that great,” he says cheerfully. “We’re just paving the way.” It looks like his lungs are safe for now.