Visible in the iconic buildings by star architects, from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid, and in the proliferation of museums, high-end hotels and other-worldly retail spaces, design and culture in China have come a long way.
On the ground, the swift rise of home-grown talent is notable. Its creative landscape has also matured dramatically in the last two decades.
As the industry moves towards a post-pandemic era – one that continues to see change unfold at seemingly lightning speed – the agility and innovation of Chinese design are proving more significant than ever in the transformation of our world, which has changed irrevocably since the start of the year, and led to us viewing the findings presented here in a very different light.
However, one thing still stands: in 2020 and beyond, China remains an imposing presence on the world and we are privileged to be a witness to this.
In this report, CatchOn, a Finn Partners Company, evaluates the trends shaping the state of design in China and the extraordinary architects, designers, creatives, and tastemakers leading the charge.
Trend 1: Design collectibles
As the definition of luxury evolves in China, collectibles are in the spotlight. A renewed commitment to quality, creativity and fine craftsmanship means collectors are looking for unique pieces with their roots in movements as diverse as global modernism, industrial design and Chinese contemporary art.
The high numbers of Chinese buyers visiting international as well as domestic art and design fairs are a testament to the growing desire for individuality and authenticity. Their aim? To source authentic one-offs that cross both design and art disciplines.
Shanghai-based Studio MVW, founded by Chinese designer Xu Ming and French architect Virginie Moriette, was one of the first to focus on collectibles. Represented by Galerie BSL, the duo recently launched a Patagonian quartzite and brass table from their nature- inspired JinYe (gold leaf) series.
Similarly, Beijing- and Los Angeles- based Gallery All, founded in 2014 by Yuwang and Xiaolu, has an impressive roster of Chinese and global contemporary artists creating edgy, experiential displays for powerhouse shows such as Design Miami, Design Basel, Shanghai’s West Bund Art & Design and Jing Art Beijing.
With China now the world’s third-largest art market, the future of design collectibles is bright.
Trend 2: Asian sensibility
Refined minimalism, understated luxury, quality furnishings and a desire for comfort and functionality form the basis of a more thoughtful approach to interior design. Attracted to a subtle Oriental aesthetic and commitment to space and light, Chinese consumers are pushing for more artful, contemporary designs that are accessible to all.
Yuichiro Hori’s furniture brand Stellar Works is a case in point. His Japanese roots bring together East and West, heritage and modernity, as well as craft and industry in the brand’s Shanghai workshop.
Modernist Nordic brands like Fritz Hansen and Hay, as well as domestic label Zaozuo’s streamlined, Scandinavian-inspired furniture and homeware collections are also garnering a large following among young urbanites.
Also garnering attention is the Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain resort outside Chengdu that showcases its connection to nature with a clean, uncluttered, organic design. Much of its wooden antique, Chinese-style furniture is locally made, underscoring its commitment to give back to the community.
Trend 3: New generation, new energy
Interest in design is at an all-time high in China, with growing numbers of emerging new designers launching brands and collections, forging fresh identities and setting the scene for a change. With a growing sense of self, these upcoming stars are committed to innovation and quality – and making their presence felt, both locally and globally.
The boom in the number of mobile-connected urbanites interested in design has also helped in their discovery and promotion – and the growing lot of platforms for exposure.
Annual design fairs in China and overseas are big business and showcase an increasing number of China-based participants. With a keen eye on the future, the shows’ organisers know it is prudent to create special exhibition areas to support young local talents.
Besides reflecting their roots through design, new designers are also keen to nurture a global outlook. Take Ximi Li, founder of contemporary design brand Urbancraft. Educated in Shanghai and Milan, he creates timeless furniture such as his Jiazhuang (‘dowry’) steel, leather and oak dressing table that combines cultural fusion with quality craftsmanship.
There is also increased confidence in creative thinking. Designers to watch include Mario Tsai, who prefers to “use less, design better” and is committed to restraint through design, as seen in a sustainable approach to his Mazha modular lighting and lightweight aluminium Gongzheng table collection.
Trend 4: Sustainable vision
Sustainability is a hot topic in the country’s design industry. Increased environmental awareness, an emphasis on recycling and efforts to blend craft and creativity with a sustainable outlook mean more designers are creating objects we want to treasure.
The early Chinese society was built upon a sustainable agricultural economy, where people naturally followed no-wastage principles. This message has been noted by both Chinese designers and consumers, who consider sustainability an important factor that drives purchase choices.
The founder of Yuue Design, Weng Xinyu reimagines daily objects with his Upcycling Shared Bicycle furniture made from discarded Mobike parts. Wu Wei, founder of Thrudesign, uses only FSC-certified woods from sustainably managed forests to create his pieces.
Traceability is an important consideration for both designers and consumers, too. A good example is fashion designer Ban Xiaoxue’s 2019 Fall/Winter collection of traceable Merino wool knitwear that was produced with The Woolmark Company and leading spinner Xinao.
Offering supply chain transparency and a history behind products, the Merino wool he uses can be traced back to farms in Australia.
Travel is also on the sustainability radar. On Hainan Island, the upcoming nature- focused 1 Hotel Haitang Bay, Sanya, is committed to eco- conscious architecture through its design by Oval Partnership. Vernacular architecture, locally-sourced materials, living green walls and roofs,as well as energy-efficient technologies, are integral to 1 Hotels’ eco-oriented, luxe-level ethos.
Trend 5: Experiential retail
Offline shopping has attracted China’s mobile-savvy consumers with its “special events” status that highlights places where shoppers can visit and engage with brands, as well as be inspired and entertained, and interact with friends.
With this, forward-thinking brands have moved away from traditional product- and service-based stores in favour of creating diverse and immersive retail spaces that emphasise experience and exploration.
In this changing retail landscape, tools such as personalisation, customisation, and virtual and augmented realities create social media- friendly spaces that motivate shoppers to share experiences. Pop-up stores are also proliferating – and made more desirable by limited time frames.
Sensory perception is key. Shanghai-based Aim Architecture’s work on beauty retailer Harmay’s flagship store situated in Beijing’s Sanlitun, possibly the most fashionable shopping zone in the Chinese capital, has been a huge success.
Offering a sense of theatre, the warehouse-style space is accessed via two tiny doors set into a glass brick facade. Customers get to engage with products and see how they are distributed and delivered.
London architecture firm Sybarite and Gentle Monster co-designed Beijing’s SKP-S, a fashion brand incubator whose museum-like space houses fashion labels in futuristic pods to create a journey with varying landscapes ripe for experimentation
Trend 6: Together forever
Collaborations, partnerships, connections… Finding new ways to work to get your message across is vital to brand success in China.
Interiors have become the new playground for 18 aesthetic expression, thanks to younger design fans who curate tailored online lifestyles that express their aesthetic style and personality to share via networks such as WeChat, Weibo and Xiaohongshu.
Global-local collaborations are one route to success. Luxury carpet brand Tai Ping, for example, targeted Chinese consumers by teaming up with Shanghai-based couture house Atelier by Fang and translating lead designer Fang Yang’s passion for origami into artisanal rugs.
Then there’s Neri&Hu, which has been receiving global awards for its Twelve A.M. collection for Molteni&C.
From a brand perspective, the people at KOLs (key opinion leaders) tap into an increased desire for individualism and authenticity, aligning themselves with products and designers that further reflect their take on style and culture.
Also in the spotlight is industrial designer Jamy Yang, founder and director of Shanghai-based consultancy Yang Design and lifestyle brand Yang House, who was flagged by Forbes as China’s most influential designer. His soulful Chinese aesthetic and commercially viable designs have garnered him nearly 100 design awards.
Trend 7: Design destinations
The growing appreciation for good design is driving domestic travel choices, with second- and third-tier cities like Chengdu, Chongqing, Qingdao and Xi’an using design innovation and creativity in multiple sectors to lure visitors.
Experts also argue that lower-tier city residents represent 35 per cent of true luxury consumers in China, so local investment in design and architecture pays dividends on many levels.
The coastal city of Xiamen in east China’s Fujian Province is becoming a design hotspot. Blink Design Group – known for luxurious hotel experiences across the globe – is working on the upscale lifestyle boutique hotel Andaz Xiamen. Further afield, architectural firm WATG has built 87 luxury villas perched in a mountainous landscape on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau for The Ritz- Carlton, Jiuzhaigou.
Trend 8: Craft and culture
Inherent in the history of design, craft appeal is proving to be increasingly important when it comes to making design choices.
Consumers are forging emotional connections on an aesthetic level, revealing a desire and deep-rooted respect for handmade products offering exquisite craftsmanship and a sense of heritage, and designers are responding with deep dives into research projects to weave craft history into contemporary living.
With their appetite for discovering what has gone before, millennials have a profound interest in culture. Emerging designers have also tapped into the craft aesthetic.
Among them is Furong Chen, founder of Xiamen-based Wuu, who produces timeless, research-driven collections blending handcrafted techniques with a modernist vision. His twistable T lamp series has been well-received internationally.
Trend 9: Digital revolution
China is determined to become the world leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI) by 2030. The pace of change is considerable, with consumers and far- reaching mobile operativity – who could live in China these days without the all-pervasive super app WeChat, for example? – transforming how people live and work.
The Made in China 2025 policy includes a commitment to technological advances in many areas, including solar power, battery technology, drones and electric cars.
New-generation designers are exploring creative processes in the design-tech realm, too.
Independent designer and digital artist Zhang Zhoujie of Zhoujie Zhang Digital Lab, for instance, uses computer- generated algorithms and designs to make his origami- like Endless Form stainless steel chairs.
The algorithms help to map the real world and produce different chairs based on human interactions. They are then constructed with traditional hand welding and polishing.
Trend 10: Star power
China is known for its skyline- defining statement buildings. In these increasingly patriotic times, the country has remained committed to working with international “starchitects” while simultaneously recognising the power of its home-grown architectural talents.
Zaha Hadid Architects continues to redefine innovation with its record- breaking projects. The Beijing Daxing International Airport, with its starburst floor plan, is reportedly the largest single- structure airport in the world, and the 45-storey Leeza SOHO skyscraper in the capital’s Fengtai District has the world’s tallest atrium that rises through its centre.
Demand for innovation has spread to second- and third- tier cities, too. In the northern port city of Qinhuangdao, Open Architecture built the cave-like UCCA Dune Art Museum under a dune on a beach in a bid to preserve the natural ecology of the site.
Meanwhile, Beijing-based Vector Architects emphasises the role architecture plays in the community with the Changjiang Art Museum in Taiyuan. With galleries arranged around a light well, the pale brick volumes of the structure include a public space that links a residential community and the city.
Visit www.catchonco.com for more on this report.
This article was first published in Home & Decor