How 'Chinese' should Chinese design be? / by David Hu

An interesting question was posed to me a few days ago: "You've written about pursuing a modern Chinese design philosophy, but how do you show that your designs are Chinese?" I was a bit taken aback by the question, both by its frankness and by my own mistaken oversight that no one would ask it. As it is often the case, designers' perspectives are a complex mix of the logical and the intuitive. The former is what we often spell out for marketers and managers to justify our proposals. The latter we seldom speak about but for which we cross our fingers and hope will draw our audience in: the gut-feelings, the biases, the personalities, and all of the undefinables that we designers hold so dearly. In fact, it's often what fuels our creativity. What if Philippe Starck was asked to articulate the LOGIC behind the Juicy Salif? I'd imagine that even a lengthy speech wouldn't quite capture the essence of the design. And even if he were able to do it, where would the MAGIC be?

Philippe Starck's famous lemon squeezer, the Juicy Salif (1990). Source: Alessi

Philippe Starck's famous lemon squeezer, the Juicy Salif (1990). Source: Alessi

I believe what makes this question particularly difficult to answer is the part of relating the design to a specific culture. It may be easy to see the 'German' in a BMW or the 'Japanese' in a Muji CD player, but they each enjoy the precedent of decades of thoughtful and modern designs; to say a design is German or Japanese is to simultaneously recall the large backdrop of all of the culturally reflective designs that came before. For example, the richness of German car design allows the likes of BMW and Audi to each be unique but still characteristically German. And if a certain design looked Japanese, it's because the visual and intellectual impressions of that piece fit within the boundaries of what Japanese designs are expected to be. The same could be said for the best examples of Italian, British, and American cars and their respective brands and cultures. But could the same be said or done for Chinese design? Probably not. At least not yet.

Nevertheless, the original question is a valid one and one that I now assume will be often asked. But I think it'll be better addressed if it were more pointed: how Chinese should Chinese design be? As is, the original question is a bit like asking a person of Chinese descent to prove that he or she is, in fact, Chinese. Short of a DNA sample, the questioner would probably not be satisfied with any answer because he has already formed in his mind an image of what a Chinese person should walk, talk, or dress like, and the Chinese person in plain view is likewise a contradiction. Furthermore, the question is also misdirected because it would yield a non-constructive answer (e.g. one could fully answer the question with "A lot," and it would get us nowhere.) So my conclusion is this: If someone were to say that my designs look Japanese or European, I will probably first take that as a compliment because I admire many of the best of their designs. Then I would talk about how Chinese philosophy guided me during my design process. However, to look Chinese is, quite frankly, unimportant. But how can that be? After all, if I am developing or pursuing a Chinese design, wouldn't I want a Chinese look? The answer is a resounding no and there is a couple of main reasons for this.

First, modern Chinese design is still in early development. The "look", as many would attribute to designs from countries in Europe, Japan, and the U.S., is actually nurtured over time and built up incrementally as designers found inspiration in their history, experiences, passions, personalities, needs—in short, the sum total of their personal and respective cultures—and then realized them as products. Chinese design simply hasn't had that time or space to grow yet.

Second, Chinese design has yet to build up a repertoire of significant designs that the world can attribute to Chinese culture without depending on clichéd cultural symbols (although I would say the Bird's Nest is a worthy addition). After all, wouldn't it be absurd to expect all Japanese designs to carry some visual relation to samurais, sushi, or the Rising Sun? And so even if a genuinely Chinese-rooted design were to appear now, it would likely not be known to be encapsulating of Chinese culture until much later on, when its effect on later designs becomes more apparent. The seminal work of Charles and Ray Eames and that of Dieter Rams were first exalted not for their cultural relevance but rather for the inspired approaches they had toward bringing useful and beautiful design to the masses.

The National Stadium, or Bird's Nest, in Beijing, China

The National Stadium, or Bird's Nest, in Beijing, China

Given the infancy state of Chinese design, I would say that Chinese design shouldn't 'look' Chinese at all lest they cater to preconceived notions of what they should be. On the contrary, they should be inspired by elements of Chinese history, aspirations, and culture (or, in my case, Chinese philosophies) but made applicable to today's environment. It is my hope that "design of philosophy" will come to represent but a sliver (but an authentic one) of a broad range of Chinese design. If we are fortunate, these designs will, over time, be appreciated and desired for not only what they look like but also what they represent and communicate about Chinese culture. And when these designs collectively help the world better understand and appreciate this culture and design in general, only then can we decide if there's a common visual or thematic identity for Chinese design.

(Images from Alessi and the Beijing National Stadium website)