Modernity in Chinese Design by David Hu

"Contemporary architects tend to impose modernity on something. There is a certain concern for history but it’s not very deep. I understand that time has changed, we have evolved. But I don’t want to forget the beginning. A lasting architecture has to have roots.” - I.M. Pei

I.M. Pei, a Chinese-American architect—perhaps best known for his glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris—revealed a sentiment that I have held for modern Chinese design: that there is a massive push towards creating new Chinese design in the name of modernity without first understanding the past. But before we discuss how this is affecting Chinese design, we first need to understand what modernity is.

Modernity, ideally, describes the best of what the present offers in technology, methodology, and knowledge; that is, taking things that quantitatively or qualitatively surpass their equivalent predecessors and then applying them to an artistic endeavor. This, in effect, requires a knowledge of the past, because history provides the reasons for which and the context in which something has been done, and how well those ideas had served their purposes until the present.

However, as is often the case, modernity can also be unsatisfactory when it is of-the-moment and strictly individualistic. This application of modernity has actually little to do with what is modern and more to do with what is today. There is little consideration to its influence on the future, much less any understanding of its past. This notion of modernity fails because it forgets that it soon, too, will become the past. The fact that it offers nothing progressive makes it unremarkable and meaningless to future generations. This is modernity in its absolutely most short-lived sense.

Mr. Pei was likely critical of the latter interpretation. The imposition of a superficial modernity, then, is the action of taking of what is trendy and then calling the result the best of today's design. Worse, it often claims to be a modern interpretation of the great works of the past. Sadly, this is found everywhere in current Chinese-derived/influenced/inspired designs, and it threatens to strangle the few genuine attempts at creating modern Chinese designs. It creates artificiality in place of authenticity; rewards emotionally-driven ideas rather than true understanding; and reinvents the significance of history and culture according to wavering personal preferences. This is a step that Chinese design must not take if it seeks to be taken seriously and if it truly wants the world to better appreciate Chinese culture.

Recommended Reading: "Designing Design" by Kenya Hara by David Hu

If there is a book about design to which I come back again and again and AGAIN, then it is Designing Design by Kenya Hara of MUJI fame. Published back in 2007, the book is much more than an overview of Hara's work--it's a portrait of the wonderment and humility with which he approaches design: whether it is graphic, industrial, architectural, experimental, or conceptual. The simplicity of his designs (or curated designs) often masks the complexity of his thought process, so thank goodness there exists a book (with excellent English translation) that offers a peek into his mind.

You can pick up a copy HERE.

Satisfaction and the Consumer by David Hu


"man zu" - v. to satisfy or to be satisfied; adj. satisfying

Satisfaction is an important word for a consumer. After all, if a consumer doesn't buy for satisfaction, for what reason would he buy? For any consumer, the sense of satisfaction is derived from obtaining either one or both of two things: necessity and desire. Whether one is buying food to satiate hunger or a weekend house on the beach, there is nonetheless a sense of satisfaction to be gained from obtaining those objects.

But what, really, is satisfaction? If we take a look at its definition with respect to today's usage, satisfaction is the fulfillment of a person's desires, wants, needs, expectations, and demands. In developed countries and areas of general affluence, one might even say that the consumer would only be satisfied if his desires are fufilled. Why? Because having simply met his needs is no longer enough.

This is a distinct departure from the word's original definition, which comes from a 15th-century Latin word satisfacere, meaning "to do enough". It's also interesting when one takes a look at the Chinese word for satisfaction: 滿足 (pronounced "man zu".) The word is comprised of two characters:

滿 - full, fulfilling

足 - sufficient

So, as it is in Latin, satisfaction in Chinese is merely the fulfillment of that which is sufficient. What is most interesting is the fact that people in ancient times--and of vastly different cultures--understood this personal phenomenon and were compelled to define it in such a similarly basic way.

Of course, we people of modern times take these ancient words and definitions for granted, because they are taught to us as mere vocabulary whose social connotations are left for us to explore. But perhaps it would be worthwhile to examine them every once in a while as we reflect on our ways of thinking and acting. What is sufficient? What is desirable? What mixture of those two would be satisfying? Undoubtedly, these are important and useful questions to ask ourselves the next time we are compelled to consume.

Can design benefit the designer's inner self? by David Hu

Confucius once said, "One's passion stems from poetry; judgment formed by the study of propriety; and character completed by the study of music."

Confucius valued poetry (a highly regarded art form in his time), propriety, and music. In fact, he went as far as saying that these pursuits formed the basis of a good person. Beyond scholastic knowledge, can the act of designing contribute in some fundamentally beneficial way to the designer's inner self? If not, can designers pursue design in such a way that it can do so?

What does the passing of a genius mean for the rest of us? by David Hu

Today the death of an influential man sent shocks around the world. Inevitably, every news outlet went quickly to work dissecting his career, his work (or more significantly, his "legacy"), and the "sadness" felt by his fans, his company and employees, and his successor. A news show even brought in a doctor to recount and explain the history of this man's particular disease. In the faster moving world of blog-news, there seemed to be a race to fill their websites with numerous infographics about stock prices and product releases, memorable quotes, and Top 10's of every kind. And the analysis was then followed by, again inevitably, guesswork about the future prospects of his company. This predictable, methodical process would undoubtedly be repeated for many days to come. But what a disservice this all is to the man whose death we are supposedly mourning and whose life meant so much more than the individual achievements and the well-being of his company.

If we were to truly pay respect to the man, we should mourn the loss of the single most valuable thing he gave to the world: his genius. To be in receipt of the work of a genius is secondary to being a living witness to a genius at work. If Leonardo da Vinci lived and died in our world today, we wouldn't mourn the the fact that he invented an unworkable helicopter, nor analyze the monetary value of the Mona Lisa, nor lament the likelihood that no one else would quite again capture the brilliance of the Last Supper. We would mourn the fact that the rarity of a genius has come and gone, the potential of seeing more wonders cut short, and all that talent born to one person have also left with him. Those who lived in the times of great musicians and artists have the rare opportunity to enjoy their gifts, their personalities, their humanity--and experience their work as personal memories, not simply legacies. That is what we have lost today. Generations from now will still remember his work and feel his impact, but they won't be able to enjoy the knowledge of being his contemporary nor wonder, "What's he going to do next?"

Today's world is at a severe lack of people whose innate genius and motivation are perfectly matched to bring inspiration at a global scale--precisely at a time when the world needs it the most. The unrivaled curiosity and drive to explore and understand the world--even in the face of innumerable obstacles and criticisms--are what makes a genius dear and important to the times that he lives in. Today, we mourn the loss of a man's rare passion for excellence, his contagious love for and dedication to his work, and his unwavering belief that he was contributing to making the world — and life — better for everyone.