Ten years ago, Wallpaper* sent a team of its best people to survey modern China. Aptly named ‘Made in China’, the special issue explored the vast landscape of the country’s creativity, connected with its movers and shakers, and attempted to paint a picture of its future. In the past decade, we have witnessed China’s rapid development in its creative industries, surpassing itself in every way. What was seen as the world’s factory has evolved to become ‘China by Design’.

China’s fortunes have fluctuated vastly throughout its long history, but now, thanks to its colossal manufacturing industry, its meteoric economic rise since the late-20th century has generated a middle class that is reviving interest in the nation’s culture. The country that gave its name to one of our most ubiquitous goods is seeking to return its once-famed diverse culture to the world stage; this time, however, it plans to achieve it by engaging with the creative community via focused networking and exchanges.

In 2003, Nanjing University – one of China’s most prestigious academic institutions – established the Natural Heritage Institute (NHI). A decade into documenting the nation’s heritage, the NHI joined forces with China’s Nationality Culture Foundation, setting up the Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development Fund (CHSDF) in 2013 to preserve traditional crafts and cultural diversity, and ensure that skills are passed onto future generations. In addition, it aims to promote these national assets to the global community and help them to flourish in the contemporary world.

In the last century, China’s economic development took precedence over cultural growth. And, as in many other cultures, the nation is now facing immense challenges in reclaiming and nurturing its cultural legacy. ‘Stability and prosperity lead to a growth in culture,’ says Kang Jiaqi, executive director of CHSDF and founder of the cultural enterprise Dongfang Fengshang. She believes that cultural preservation and proliferation have become key factors in future growth. China’s commitment to promoting innovation and entrepreneurship is manifest today and, as one of the largest growth areas in the world, the potential for its creative economy is vast and unquestionable.

‘More creatives are becoming aware of Chinese aesthetics, and more Chinese elements and typologies are being incorporated into global designs’

Combining its governmental, commercial and media networks, and the NHI’s extensive database and excellence in research, CHSDF aims to connect local and international creative communities and businesses for development and collaboration, while at the same time re-evaluating China’s contemporary cultural identity. ‘As an ancient civilisation, China has a diverse and complex cultural heritage,’ says Kang. ‘The current changes China is undergoing are having a profound e ect on our society and culture and it’s time for us as a developing country to nd the right direction for future growth.’

One of CHSDF’s focuses is to promote East and West collaboration for their mutual benefit. The possibilities for profound partnerships are boundless as brands look to make headway into the market and resonate with a Chinese audience. ‘More creatives are becoming aware of Chinese aesthetics, and more Chinese elements and typologies are being incorporated into global designs,’ says Kang. ‘We will help them to broaden their journey of discovery in the East and expose them to Eastern references, ideas, talents and artisans to make this happen.’

In order to preserve and continue harvesting the creative assets of 5,000 years of history and the 56 ethnic groups across the land, CHSDF has gathered a team of national and international experts with access to resources in academic institutions, government bodies, museums and private associations; the first national conference ‘Global Design: Inspired by China’ was held in the capital in January 2018 as an official inauguration of the initiative; and, in the coming year, it is planning to set up regional information and operation hubs around China, each of them focusing on the region’s unique culture and resources to develop partnerships for international creatives and brands aspiring to venture into China.

Since 2004, Rossana Hu, co-founder of Neri & Hu Design and Research Office in Shanghai, has led a team, which now numbers 100, who between them speak more than 30 languages. She says, ‘We like to offer different readings into what is represented traditionally. Foreign companies are taking the market very seriously, but the interpretation of the culture has been one-dimensional.’ From Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat, a hotel in the Jiangsu region inspired by the courtyard- house typology of vernacular Chinese architecture, to the ‘Ren’ furniture collection for Poltrona Frau, based on the simple lines of the Chinese ideogram for ‘people’, the duo are committed to their craft, whatever the scale.

Many designers have already taken their first steps into China. London-based Paul Cocksedge Studio created ‘Manuscript’, a public sculpture that drew its inspiration from paper, a Chinese invention, for the inaugural edition of Beijing Design Week in 2011. Since then, the studio has continued to explore the culture and its unique offerings.

‘What we’ve found especially rewarding is the enthusiasm and open-mindedness to do things that haven’t been done before, to push limits and to experiment.’ — Paul Cocksedge

And when home-grown Chinese furniture brand ZaoZuo launched in 2015, it appointed Stockholm-based Italian designer Luca Nichetto as its creative director. ‘The idea of “design for the middle class”, a very common concept in the West from the 1950s to 1970s, is now happening in China,’ says Nichetto. He believes that if the country’s centuries of know-how are harnessed to contemporary production, ‘Made in China’ could be a new benchmark in the future.

In partnership with CHSDF, Wallpaper*, Time and Fortune have joined forces and launched China by Design, a digital hub to reveal stories of Chinese artistic heritage and contemporary creativity, discovering and acknowledging the ties and future opportunities between East and West. Taking seven design disciplines – industrial, handicraft, fashion, interior, architecture, digital media and sustainable design – we will talk to creatives from di erent cultures about their experiences with China, and how this is translating into their work and businesses. And to further illustrate the proposition, starting from November we will be revealing China by Design in 100 Names to celebrate designers who have shown an understanding of Chinese culture, excellence in its application and expression, and have successfully helped both to reinterpret the ancient culture for our contemporary and future life, and to drive China’s creative industries forward. Through these collaborative exchanges, China hopes to inspire – and be inspired by – the creative community around the world. §

CHSDF is due to open seven regional information and operation hubs in megacities including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Xi’an, Zhengzhou, Chengdu and Hainan in the coming years, as groundwork for promoting East and West collaboration. Working with the Oriental International Modern Art Council, whose advisory members are leaders in commerce, media and fashion, and come with international experience, each hub will function with a multifaceted approach.

The China By Design Hubs

  • Creative Centre: To provide consultation, materials, production facilities and venues to global designers
  • Content Centre: To collect, organise, preserve and showcase documentation, including texts, photos, videos and items related to the use of Chinese cultural elements by global designers
  • Media Centre: To create and broadcast studies and reports, and to receive international press
  • Academic Centre: To create joint research projects with international institutions
  • Tourism Centre: To develop products to meet the rising demand for cultural tourism

At the same time, the cultural enterprise Dongfang Fengshang will launch ‘China Cultural Assets Digital Platform’, which will make research materials, including documentation, images and videos of the nation’s heritage, available to all. The platform will help designers and companies both to navigate the cultural landscape and to develop products and businesses in China. It will make use of blockchain technology to improve the business environment for national and international entrepreneurs by furthering intellectual property protection and international co-operation.

As originally featured in the October 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*247)