Beijing bling

A burgeoning middle class in love with contemporary design is driving a style revolution in China
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What is Chinese design? Is it the ubiquitous willow pattern found decorating plates and lacquer furniture? Is it peony-festooned porcelain vases set among menageries of red and gilded dragons, lions and birds? Or is there no real Chinese design, only cheap versions of essentially Western products? China Design Now, at the V&A, gives a glimpse of what that country has to offer Western consumers today and in years to come.

People: a fifth of the world’s population — 1.5 billion people — are Chinese. In 1982, only one in five Chinese people lived in cities; by 2000 it was up to a third. The country has a rising middle class with consumer expectations, supported by an economic growth rate of 11.3 per cent last year.

'Objects have become important in establishing personal identity in China'

China is set to be not only a major consumer of design items itself but also a provider of new design to the world. “Ours is the first major exhibition in the UK to explore contemporary China,” says Dr Zhang Hongxing, co-curator of the V&A exhibition. “We particularly wanted to look at the role of the creative economy. Our key message is that China is changing, while public knowledge of it here is out of date.”

In China, modern design began to flourish in 1978 with the introduction of leader Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up programme, which led to the use of contemporary graphics and branding within China’s Special Economic Zones. Fuelled by the internet and youth culture, Shenzen, now the largest manufacturing hub in the world, developed as a centre of graphic design. Today, its young designers see themselves as a globally influential force.

Reform: as China’s reforms gathered pace during the Nineties, Shanghai took over as the city of design. The growing middle class was initially interested in luxury brands, stemming from Shanghai’s Twenties status as the Pearl of the Orient. Its residents, eager to Live the Dream, created a market for fashion, interiors and furniture designers, many of whom opened small shops.

Hi pandas
Hi pandas by Shanghai designer Jiji (£5) from the V&A shop
“Chinese design is about reinventing traditions, fusing them with Western influence to create a very individual expression,” says the V&A’s Pearl Lam. “Most Chinese designers are fine art artists doing multi-disciplinary work.”

Co-curator Zhang agrees: “The Chinese like to see something new but that also reminds them of their heritage. I mean deep traditions, not superficial dragons and symbols. A good example would be the chairs by Shao Fan, who deconstructs Ming chairs, creating new ones with modern additions.”

Cultural shift: in China, the home has become not just a way to show off wealth and status but to establish identity. “The whole country is in a drastic shift, cultural identity is changing,” says Zhang. “Through design you can see how people struggle to find a new identity. Objects have become important in trying to establish it.”

Revolution Kitsch enamelware tin jars
Revolution Kitsch enamelware tin jars (£11 each) from the V&A shop
Formerly, homes were communal spaces shared across generations. Since the Nineties this has changed to individual houses and apartments. As well as the living room, home-owners have become increasingly interested in bathrooms and kitchens. Furnishings, floorings and curtains have assumed new importance, influenced by burgeoning style magazines. New ways of living have taken off in Beijing, where property developers such as SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) have identified a market for live-work spaces. Many of these are occupied by creatives who come up with new products that will ultimately find outlets in the West.

Buildings: Beijing is now also a city of international architecture — a third of its Olympic projects have been designed by foreign architects. “This is changing local architecture. The large projects are a good influence,” says Lu Lijia of architects Yung Ho. “Before Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas [whose firm, OMA, has designed Beijing’s new China TV media centre], no one in government circles understood the value of design. The process is now more understood. It is no longer seen as just trophy architecture.”

'Vernacular building is being revived and interest in eco cities is growing'

Lin Jing's ceramicware
Lin Jing's ceramicware (teapots, £145; jugs, £60) feature in the exhibition. Available from the V&A shop
Other major projects, such as a new Beijing airport by Norman Foster, the main Olympic stadium by Herzog and de Meuron, the Water Cube by PTN and the Digital Beijing building by Zhu Peiare are making their striking presence in the city.

Tradition: there is also a revival of vernacular building. Developers, such as SOHO, build new villas using local materials and skills, often in traditional courtyard designs, while interest in eco cities, such as that proposed by London-based CJ Lim, is growing.

Many influential Chinese architects and designers were trained abroad but, with 550 new design schools opening across the country, that is changing. Many Chinese students trained in the UK have found it hard to break out of the straightjacket of conventional thinking but those who have are finding success. It is only a matter of time before young Chinese-trained designers stamp their view of design on locally made products that will become must-haves in the West. For a preview head to the V&A.

* China Design Now, 15 March to 13 July, V&A, Exhibition Road, SW7. Tickets cost £8, or £4 for concessions. To book, call 0870 906 3883, or visit

Liberty: 020 7734 1234;
V&A shop: 020 7942 2696;

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