Cane and able
Taiwanese designer and founder of the avant garde Dragonfly Design Centre, Jeff Shi is in town to speak at Business of Design Week. Shi is part of a growing group of Chinese contemporary designers who take their cues from traditional bamboo crafts and culture.
Although bamboo has been used in Taiwan for centuries, the number of craftsmen learning traditional techniques has dwindled in the past 30 years. In fact, the industry in Taiwan has declined, as most bamboo factories have relocated to the mainland. Shi hopes to reverse this trend.
Shi has just returned from a trip to the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, one of the few universities in Taiwan that still offer courses in traditional carpentry. He was there to promote traditional bamboo-working techniques. Shi also held a Bamboo Project exhibition earlier this year, showing contemporary bamboo works by Taiwanese designers Chou Yu-jui, Chih-kang Chu, Chen Chun-hao and Chang Shih-wen.
He's not alone in his cause. Freeman Lau recently curated Rethinking Bamboo, an exhibition held at the First Beijing International Design Triennial in September and October this year. It showed 200 bamboo works from China and abroad.
For Shi, re-examining the past has led him to environmentally friendly products and processes. It has also helped to create a distinctly Chinese contemporary design language. From the way he talks, it is clear that the ideology behind his work is just as important as the products themselves.
'I'm trying to do something which has a positive influence on our own culture, and show the world there's a good, sustainable design solution from the Chinese,' he says. 'In my opinion, design and traditional crafts are all trying to resolve the problems of everyday life. But they had something different in the olden days; that is, they respected nature. I think that's a very important quality, and we need it. We have to use contemporary design concepts to revive those old techniques.'
One of Shi's goals has been to show the potential of the material. His Chair Jun-Zi and Chair Qin Jian - both Red Dot Design award winners - reveal the flexibility and resilience of bamboo. The Bamboo-Iron Triangle table shows the rigidity of the material, and his Bamboo Tube LED light emphasises bamboo's natural form.
Shi has also designed a combined floor, wall and ceiling covering and light system made of bamboo and LED lighting. In his first foray into material design, Led-Bamboo, LED lighting is hidden behind a yellow bamboo veneer and a layer of pale green glass.
The design of the covering is based on a rhombus and can be arranged to form around 40 patterns. Shi created Led-Bamboo in a bid to promote bamboo flooring and LED lighting.
It took more than two years to make. He says this is one of the few light sources that experts agree are environmentally friendly. Creating sustainable products and practices is very important to Shi. 'I think designers should have a social responsibility. They should not only indulge themselves,' he says.
Shi has not always focused on bamboo and the environment. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1989, he went to work as a designer for the prestigious jewellery brand Harry Winston in New York.
Although Shi says his three-year stint at the luxury label was great training, it was also restricting.
Shi says he had to hide who he really was. 'When I worked at Harry Winston, I had to work as if I was a Westerner. The people who saw my designs assumed I was from France or Italy, or another European country. If I'd shown my face, some of the customers would probably have had doubts about the work.'
As if to prove a point, Shi went on to become the first Chinese to win the prestigious De Beers Diamonds International Award in 1996. But despite this honour, Shi ended his career in jewellery design and returned to Taiwan.
He set up the first Dragonfly store in Taipei shortly afterwards. Today there are also Dragonfly shops in Beijing and Shanghai. Shi says he also hopes to open Dragonfly Bamboo, a shop dedicated to products made predominantly of bamboo.
Shi says he is also trying to raise funds to build a bamboo lab that connects traditional craftsmen with young designers. It will also develop new bamboo-based materials.
One of these materials is a liquefied bamboo. In the future, Shi hopes that this liquefied material may one day replace plastics.
'My goal is not only to design, but to also combine the traditional craft with new techniques and technology. That is what I am aiming to achieve.
'I want to show there's a way for Chinese designers to start from something original that's related to our culture and our everyday life.'