Face of the future
With the unrest in Tibet and nearby provinces and the Beijing Olympics just around the corner, it seems almost inevitable that any conversation about China quickly turns to politics, especially in the west. The British media is so focused on that subject there is little knowledge or comprehension about the huge and rapid growth in the Chinese economy and how lifestyles have changed as a consequence of globalisation.
An exhibition, China Design Now, which has opened at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, seeks
to partly redress this by exploring the latest explosion of new design in China.
The subject is so vast the challenge was how to encapsulate so much in one exhibition. The answer, its two curators Zhang Hongxing and Lauren Parker concluded, was to divide it into three areas. 'The development of the new design culture has been huge and complicated, so we took the approach of focusing on the regions that are the most industrialised and urbanised: Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing,' Zhang says. This can only offer a snapshot of the rapid changes, he says, so each city is a starting point for the exploration of different fields of design, and a glimpse of the new generation of designers and architects who are shaping fashion, product and urban design.
The focus begins with youth culture and the dynamic growth in graphic and product design around Shenzhen, which the curators have named 'Frontier City'.
Zhang says this border city was chosen because of its status as the first Special Economic Zone and its youthful population - the average age is 27.
From this the viewer is led to Shanghai, the 'Dream City', where Parker says 'we wanted to look at fashion and film, lifestyle, consumerism and the emergence of the middle classes'.
Finally, the visitor is taken to Beijing, the 'Future City' where the exhibition culminates in power politics and that most tangible feature of the explosion in architecture, from the Olympic venues and new airport terminal to the CCTV centre.
Shenzhen is the most enlightening of the three cities because its rapid growth in the shadow of Hong Kong came as a surprise to a western audience.
This is an audience brought up on the notion that China is where cheap products are manufactured in vast quantities to western specifications. The fact the city has a burgeoning design industry is news.
The entrepreneurial spirit has lured Chinese designers back from art colleges abroad and from other parts of China, to a city where they are creating new products such as trendy trainers, funky skateboards, and cult toys - not just for export but also for Chinese youth.
'Design in China's cities has changed beyond recognition in the past two decades,' says Zhang. 'This is the moment when you can start talking about things being designed in China, not just made in China.'
Hong Kong gets a quick look in at the start of the exhibition, with graphic images acknowledging
the pioneering work of this city's Alan Chan and Kan Tai-keung in the 1980s.
Also on display are works including Chen Shaohua's 1992 Graphic Design in China exhibition poster of two legs (one clad in a business suit and the other in traditional Peking opera costume) twisted together, as a metaphor for the birth of modern Chinese civilisation. The young graphic designers are exploring a new language that turns its back on the political propaganda of the past.
'In the 1970s and early 80s a designer would have been in trouble for doing this and in the official media people can't express political emotion, but to express it artistically or in design is fine,' says Zhang.
The graphic quality of Chinese calligraphy is a particular area of exploration for designers, while there is little figurative work. There is a witty poster by Wang Xu of a tree fork and bird's claw positioned in photographs to resemble the Chinese words for them.
'This is the first pioneering generation, born in the late 1970s and early 80s, to be exploring graphics and visual language, toys and animation,' says Zhang.
'They are interested in global and traditional Chinese imagery and young Chinese are very open to influences from elsewhere such as Korea, Japan and the UK, particularly the music culture in Britain.'
There are many examples of the new Chinese popular culture, ranging from web design and
comic cartoons to branded consumer products.
This demonstrates that the design-conscious street culture is not the exclusive preserve of London, New York and Tokyo youth and that there is a thriving creative group expressing itself in Shenzhen. An Ernst & Young survey says China is expected to surpass the US to become the world's second-largest consumer of luxury goods (after Japan) within a decade. Shanghai is the exhibition's shorthand for another important new demographic group in Chinese society: the rising middle class.
The second part of China Design Now looks at the mainland's new consumer society with its desire to show off its affluence with eye-catching clothes, modern homes (such as Thames Town outside Shanghai which recreates a small English town) and consumer objects of desire such as cars, computers and mobile phones.
'We wanted to reconstruct the decadence and glamour of the 1930s and its slightly dark underbelly of life,' Parker says of the dark evocative layout (the skilful lighting and design is by the architects Tonkin Liu). There are case studies ranging from a mock-up of the Crystal Bar at TMSK, to the furniture, fashion and glassware producers emerging from Xintiandi, the shopping district redevelopment in an old residential area.
It draws on the influence of the media in glossy lifestyle magazines such as Vogue China and the late artist Chen Yifei's Vision magazine, which have an impact on taste, along with glamorous movies and commercials. Actress Zhang Ziyi's deal with mobile phone company Soutec, for instance, results in slick advertising that appeals to the aspiring middle class.
Similarly, Wong Kar-wai's feature film In the Mood for Love highlighted the cult of romantic nostalgia that still permeates Shanghai, although it was shot in Hong Kong. The city continues to be regarded as a place of luxury, glamour and exotic excess.
Wong created one of those stylish films that also had an influence on fashion trends, reviving the cheongsam, which Maggie Cheung Man-yuk wore throughout, her changing costumes reflecting the progress of time. It also has nurtured a certain patriotic pride among consumers in China's nascent fashion industry.
While global luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Dior are increasing their presence in China, designers such as Han Feng, Wang Yiyang and Lu Kun create the clothes fashionable women want to wear. 'These designers cater for a niche market among creative, design-aware young professionals who are interested in homegrown designers,' says curator Zhang. 'I think the international brands now realise they have to think about working with homegrown creative forces in future.'
With its focus on creativity, China Design Now looks at the positive aspects of modern China. 'Our message is that China is changing,' says Zhang. 'It is no longer under the rule of Mao ideology. It produces and will continue to produce designers and architects who are keen to be part of the international design community.'
China Design Now, until July 13. For more information go to vam.ac.uk