Designers need to embrace richness of Asian culture, Jeff Shi Da-yu says

Asian design takes centre stage at forum highlighting the role of regional culture and philosophy guiding creativity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 3:37am

Jeff Shi Da-yu's intricate Ping Qi Xian wooden screens are typical of the way the Taiwanese designer draws inspiration from Chinese culture: On a trip to Fujian's Wuyi mountains last year, he came across trays for drying tea and realised the craft of weaving together fine strands of bamboo could be used to make screens boasting trellis patterns loaded with significance.

"That special kind of weaving looks so beautiful," he said. "But it also has a specific function for everyday life. Without this weaving, the Chinese wouldn't have oolong tea."

Shi is one of the major designers from around the world participating at Knowledge of Design Week in Hong Kong.

Organised annually by the Hong Kong Design Centre, this week's event offers workshops and talks aimed at informing designers of the latest ideas and trends. This year a main theme is the relationship between design and culture.

Shi feels there is a lack of Asian designers drawing on the region's culture in their work - which he began to notice after returning from the US in 1996 - and established Dragonfly Gallery in Taipei with the aim of promoting local design. This realisation helped to shape the direction of his own work.

"I realised we were promoting western design and we couldn't find anything from our own culture," he says. "Eventually, I began thinking, 'Why shouldn't we have our own design, related to our own culture?'"

Many Asian designers, Shi explains, receive a design education that is very western in nature. They learn western design concepts and seek to design things accordingly, creating objects the western design world can recognise. In China, Shi says, there is a particular tendency for designers to emulate or produce facsimiles of western design.

"A lot of people, they copy a lot of western design," he says. "Why should we copy? We have a beautiful culture here and we have our own ways of living here. We should look more into our own culture to try to create something creative or original."

At Knowledge of Design Week on Friday, Shi will discuss how one might develop a philosophy based on Chinese culture instead, beginning with rethinking what it means to be a designer.

"We should first define the position of designers in Chinese society," he said. "In China, people typically tend to mix the concepts of design and art or simply regard them as the same thing."

Redefining the notion of what a designer is, he says, will help to elevate the status given to craftsmen and women, who typically are looked down on in Chinese society. Through this change of mindset, Chinese design can begin to incorporate elements of local craft that play an important part in the country's culture.

To support his arguments, Shi can point to almost any of his own designs. His Gang Rou (literally, "strong" and "flexible") chair is another example of a contemporary design inspired by traditional Chinese culture. The chair takes many of its features from Ming and Qing dynasty furniture, adopting old Chinese carpentry techniques that produced seating that was sturdy yet flexible and comfortable.

Like traditional Ming and Qing chairs, the Gang Rou has a graceful horseshoe-shaped section curving into two armrests and is created with a range of joints, including a "diaphragm-like mechanism", that hold parts together without needing nails. "During that period, the Chinese had the best furniture design in the world," Shi said. "It was very scientific, very smart."

Instead of the expensive hard wood traditionally used, Shi reproduced the classic design features in lighter and more environmentally friendly bamboo, which he also uses for his screens. The strength of bamboo, one of Shi's favourite materials, and wide range of uses are aspects he learned from Chinese culture.

Masayuki Kurokawa, another of the speakers at this Friday's Asian Cultural Forum, is an example of a designer Shi would applaud: one whose approach is very much rooted in Asian philosophy and culture. For Kurokawa, designing a product is an expression of Buddhist values.

"Buddha lives in our heart, and love towards others lives in our heart," he said, adding that in Buddhism the self is a microcosm of the universe, that the big can be contained in the small, and even inanimate objects can have a spirit, which "can be expressed by our designed products".

Not surprisingly then, he said he viewed objects as living beings. Giving objects a particular shape and function helps them take on a life of their own, an idea that is brilliantly illustrated in Kurokawa's GOM series, arguably his most celebrated design work and now part of the New York Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.

For GOM, Kurokawa took everyday objects such as pens, coasters, ashtrays and pushpins, and clad them in thick rubber, a material that fascinates him because of its elasticity. Thus he transforms them from the mundane and sterile to ergonomic and energetic pieces that have their own living energy.

At Knowledge of Design Week, Kurokawa plans to talk about how another aspect of Asian culture - the idea of yin and yang, opposing and equal forces - might be applied to design, arguing that an object can be seen as creating different forms of energy.

"In Asian thinking, people make products that can release energy. For example, the happiness when one receives a product is a kind of energy. But at the same time, the product creates pollution, which is also energy. The product is linked to ideas of yin yang."