Friday, June 15, 2007
made in china
sorry for the lack of format.
made in china
In terms of product design, there are two options that China (and the rest of the world for that matter) can turn towards:
industrial design- dealing mainly with functionality, and what designer Pearl Lam calls ‘hyper design’- which deals with a
combination of artistic design/design for daily life/social design. In choosing the topic of design, I had the opportunity to intern with XYZ design, as well as speak with product designers and professors at the Industrial Design unit of Shanghai University of Technology. In having the chance to visit these locations and extensively speak with the individuals within these fields, I was able to learn production methods and ideas of social idealism based on artists’ personal visions.
Chinese design is emphasized mainly by the context of contemporary China itself. By saying this, I mean that China is a place of industrial manufacturing, making certain aspects the process of designing more accessible to current design practitioners in China. In turn, just based on the premise that an object is ‘made in china,’ the act accessing certain materials and going through with the process of designing becomes more easily graspable. Designers are further prompted to explore different outlets, or ‘traditions’ as a medium to integrate art into design.
Industrial design can be defined as an applied art, where creating and developing concepts and specifications both
aesthetically and functionally improve a products marketability and production. In turn, this benefits both the user and the
manufacturer. At the College of Art and Design at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, I was given the
opportunity to interview faculty members as well as product designers-Teddy Zheng, Grant, and Chen Tao. The discourse
mainly focused on the educational system within this field. As with most things in China, they explained how the industrial
design industry began developing in the 1980s. At that time there were only thirteen Universities offering design courses as
opposed to the 220 that contain programs presently. The vast increase of design universities is a direct product of China’s
developing economy. Prior to 1980, products were designed in foreign countries and manufactured in China. Rather than
producing individual ideas and independent design, workers took to the factories, copying the shapes that they were given and paying attention to technical and aesthetic renderings.
The causes of industrial design education are products of Qing Hua and Zhong Nan University. Both set a standard
curriculum which all other Industrial design schools in China imitate. This is the reason why each University’s curriculum is at the same level. However, some have distinct characteristics- such as offering more of an art background or offering more of a science/technology background.
The industrial design unit at the University of Shanghai offers students a four-year program composed entirely of a set of
standard classes. These classes force students to explore a practical concern in technical processes and requirements for
manufacturing products. The goal for the University is to assist students in fulfilling requirements by introducing them to
materials/forms, exploring design outlets and furthering technological design. Within the first year, students are required to
study politics, master English, and explore math, mechanical technology, as well as sketching. From there, the second year
offers more professional classes, exploring costs, graphic design, aesthetics in design, sketches on design, and form fabrication. These classes train the students to use simple materials in order to get a general idea of form making. The next two years offer more specific classes that cater to the students future goals within the design world. This is the time where “real product design” happens. Students are introduced to the process of creating simple structures such as perfume bottles and then move to more complex structures such as mobile phones and vehicles. At this time students are required to take classes in the concept of forms, model making, economics, structural construction, material selection, as well as take part in social contests.All students are required to complete the three levels of the program. So, even if a student is more interested in designing microwaves, he must go through the process of learning technicalities in washing machines, vehicles, etc. At the end of their four years, the teachers introduce the ‘good students’ to independent designers and international companies. The careers of an industrial designer can range from graphic design, to furniture design, to companies such as Shanghai GM, Whirlpool, or Electrolux.After graduation, students are often times encouraged to take a year abroad to gain a higher degree and acquire further skills in the design process. Currently, most students are being outsourced to Japan and Germany. Reason being is that Chinese Industrial Design is based off of Japanese and German influence, (they hate France, they find it too Romantic). In terms of Japanese influence, China mimics their take on details, whereas in terms of German influence, China respects the functionality and durability of products. The resulting product yields no absolute difference between the two influences- both working in conjunction to create products with optimal function, value, and appearance. Today, Industrial Design enterprises in China, as in anywhere, are dictated by the consumer market, thus this is what the design curriculum is based on. Products coming out of China are based on a client’s experience with a product- a synthesized combination of functionality and trends of consumer aesthetic. Concepts and specifications are based off of human characteristic, needs, and interests. Designers must explore and understand visual and tactile.
Where the industrial design units of the Universities deal primarily with functionality, the fine art departments at the same
Universities offer technically run studio courses, which aid designers who want to concentrate more on the aesthetics of design.
From what I gather, it seems as if those who go into ‘hyper design’ tend to have more of a fine arts background- particularly in sculpture. In another one of my interviews I met with artist/designer Hang Feng, who attended Shanghai University as a fine art major, concentrating in Graphic Design. Upon visiting Hang Feng’s studio in Moganshanlu, located in the back area of Art Sea- an upstairs gallery in building 9, I was able to interview him about his schooling in the fine arts field. As a graduate from the system before art and graphics had really become a particularly popular outlet, Hang Feng had nothing but negative things to say about the art programs in China. In his perspective, the Chinese educational system is disastrous and impractical based on the premise that everything the institution teaches stems from rote memorization and exact duplication- there is no freedom of thought. The curriculum in which he was enrolled offered mostly drawing and painting classes, which he deemed as ‘not very interesting.’ To broaden his range of experience and to enhance his artistic skills, he took up a printmaking course on the side, as well as did quite a bit of independent self-study on anything that interested him. Because his graphic design course was actually taught without the use of computers, his semester consisted of classes devoted to drawing exact technical sketches of a pen, or an arrow. Due to this major disappointment, he began to work for advertising companies and magazines to pick up extra knowledge within the graphic design and photography realm. Firsthand experience within these fields acted as the key, which “opens a gate to [him] as everything can be designed differently...
below is his artist.”
In the center of his studio hangs his most recent design endeavor- a circular oriental carpet. As you approach this object
you begin to notice something peculiar going on, the shapes and patterns within the design are composed of nothing but
commercial symbols. Dissection leads to internationally recognizable trademarks of Puma, NIKE, Louis Vutton, and Channel.
As I will mention a little later, this carpet, themed ‘Fake Market’ encompasses one of the more popular themes and trends
within the contemporary Chinese Design scene. The production of this piece called for Heng Fang to oversee the entire project from start to finish. He explained that because workers in China are careless about detail, he found no other choice but to opted to live in a carpet factory for four months in order to direct workers every step of the way. Production of this one of a kind, handmade carpet took approximately a month and a half.
Heng Fang’s studio also displays a series of plastic/paper laser cut outs of the similar Branding-Logos symbols. He has
worked on furniture design as well as other popular culturally Western products, such as a geometrical plastic Christmas tree
sporting logo cutouts.
In my travels I inadvertently had another studio visit. This time with a student/employee at XYZ Design Company named Toni. Similar to Heng Fang, he studies at Shanghai University and has a similar educational background in fine arts- concentrating in sculpture. I was sent by my internship to his studio located at the University. The task at hand was the completion of the beginning stages of a project for design team Julie Mathias and Wolfgang Kaeppner. Through XYZ, this French and German duo presented us with a photo of a vase in the shape of a robot standing about a foot and a half high in length. We were also given a miniature tin robot in addition to this photo. From these two sources, we were expected to produce an exact rendering of a combination of these sources, keeping in mind precise measurements/requirements. A pristine porcelain robotic vase would be the result—partially produced in Toni’s cluttered and congested studio at Shanghai University. The procedure goes as follows:
start with basic wire structure, build up basic figure in clay-body legs, arms head- built out of basic square and rectangular
structures, add slightly more detailed accouchements- a backpack, clamped had, earphones, etc, make sure everything is in
proportion and that there are no flaws. When the clay mold is completed, it will be cast in fiberglass at Toni’s studio, inspected by Wolfgang, Julie, and XYZ design, and then sent to another factory, where it would be produced in porcelain. When this is completed it would yet again be sent to an alternate location for details to be painted on the finished product—the example photo we rendered from sported a series of blue vines crawling up the lower portion of the robot. This is the way things go in China, once the sketch leaves the designer’s hands, their idea is outsourced to manufacturers in order for their work to achieve a perfect industrial finish.
As one can probably gather from previous mentions, the company XYZ Design/Contrast Gallery relates more to the
aesthetics of design. This company was founded in 1992, and the first to focus solely on contemporary design in China. Pearl
Lam, head of XYZ Design/Contrast Gallery, defines art as “a combination of fashion, product design, graphics, painting,
sculpture, furniture design, and architecture, and considers it anachronistic to separate these disciplines into strictly autonomous fields.” Although a purely Chinese based-with locations in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong- XYZ Design commissions mainly western artists. Most recently, projects are based off the idea of exploring the influence of the West on the East. Because the designers supported by this company are from diverse countries and cultures, the products created can be considered as ‘intercultural’ art, which Pearl translates to as “respecting and understanding cultural heterogeneity.” She likes to imagine that each designer her company supports draws from China’s 5,000-year-old civilization in order to create a new means of communication, in turn forming a new visual language within their work. However, in my perspective, the result is Western art (design) and Western ideas. I may be wrong, but the only Asian spin that I’ve seen from designers in her company is their utilization of quick and cheap labor and production. Which I guess is a pretty precise reflection of what China is all about. In my short time exploring this field and interviewing the limited contacts whom I’ve met here, the only real first hand Chinese product design I’ve come in contact with – and by Chinese I mean that the designers themselves were Chinese-- yielded peculiarly similar products. In meeting with artist/designer Hang Feng, in addition to seeing and working on designer Pearl Lam’s most recent work I began to notice a trend. Both individuals produce items that are highly saturated with signs of commercialism, which surprise surprise, is what the contemporary art scene here seems to be presently about as well. Where Pearl designs Ming Dynasty style chairs upholstered in knock-off Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Prada, and every other pretentious high fashion handbag, Hang Feng creates rugs, plastic Christmas trees, plastic sheet hangings, etc inscribed with NIKE, Puma, Louis Vutton, and Channel symbols. The use of these symbols is of course descriptive of China’s new commercial and cultural openness, the rapid urbanization and transformation of cities, the relentless bombardment of consumer culture, and the influences of mass media.The result of this cross-cultural design concept also results in cross-disciplinary aspects of contemporary art and design. In this way, emerging designers with origins in fine art are reinventing traditions as well as creating new forms. This new breed of Chinese designer is linking the past with the future through present day practices. This takes into account the traditional Chinese concept of ‘art,’ which defined any form of creativity as artistic expression, and which made no hierarchical distinction between ‘fine art’ and design.’
So where is the history? In researching both industrial and aesthetic design in comparison to early Chinese design, one can
revert to the ren wen tradition. Both industrial design and aesthetic design can stem from this type of ideology. In the past,
when referring to the concept of art, the Chinese defined it with ‘ji shu’ meaning skill and craftsmanship, and ‘sue shu’ meaning scholarly knowledge (Li Xu, Wen Ren). Art and design stood on an even playing field, and there was no segregation between the two due in part to the extensive academic curriculum for Chinese scholars, also known as ‘wen ren.’ The traditional ‘wen ren’ was deemed as a true polymath- “a complex mix of multiple identities, with a great range of skills at their disposal”(Li Xu, Wen Ren). This meant that aside from primarily being a literary scholar and artist skilled in music, chess, calligraphy, and painting, etc. he should also be a philosopher, scientist, military strategist or statesman. They were expected to compose music, design houses, landscapes, objects such as teapots, brush pots, vases, and furniture with the assistance of craftsmen, in order to share his scholarly sentiments (Li Xu, Wen Ren).For a long time after the wen ren, China experienced quite a long period with no design at all. Individual expression was suppressed to the extreme, and design existed merely as practical function. The severe visual impression cast on Chinese living was: a white porcelain bowl, a porcelain enamel cup, an aluminum lunch box, a bag for military use, a blue and greyinsh Sun Yat Sen’s unifim, military coat, a bamboo thermos, a bare light bulb and cut-and-dry cement dormitory, as well a s a coarsely built classroom, an auditorim, a dining room, and a bathhouse. (Li Xu-wen Ren and Design- Loss of the Wen Ren Tradition.) Due to China’s rapid modernization and suppression of national values due to incidents such as the Reform Movement, 1911 Revolution, May Fourth Movement, and Cultural Revolution, it seems as if ancient lifestyle has nearly vanished, and national pride is on the downfall. As a result, when design once again emerged as an accessible idea, Eastern thought imitated western reference.
Modern Chinese product design is “projected through the context of information, globalization, economic integration and
increasingly homogeneous entertainment; that embracing the uniqueness of our national culture is not only important, but has a response with the broad population as well” (Li Xu, Wen Ren). The tough thing about design, particularly product design, is that it is expected to reflect current trends, and must constantly move with the times, if not ahead of it. Although contemporary China is about rapid transformation, often times traditional culture can be exploited in order to make use of a more advanced ideology. The common conception of Chinese design is that it must reflect a sense of “Chineseness” and obvious “Chineseness.” This means it must show hints of obvious traditional design—as Ming Dynasty furniture as displayed in Pearl Lam’s work, or at least contain a Chinese character or two.
Today, it seems that traditional culture is not being embraced and instead individuals look towards developing the economy by turning to Western ideology. This can be reflected in the fact that it is extremely difficult to find a product with specific
relevance to modern Chinese culture, other than the criteria which I had previously mentioned. This makes it questionable
whether or not the aesthetic system in ancient China can be applied extensively to current life. However, at this present time in history, design has become more of an international market than reflective of a specific marketable culture. Thus, is it possible to manufacture contemporary furniture, vases, washing machines, cars, etc with a particular Chinese quality and without referring to ancient aesthetic? From what I gather, in attempts to create a national language and integrate into the western world, Chinese modern design remains lingering between modernization and internationalization.