Shanghai fair attracts do-it-yourself interior designers

Expo featuring 150 brands was intended to draw professional interior designers, but also attracted locals looking to decorate their homes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 5:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 6:27pm

As top global design brands gathered in Shanghai last week for the launch of Design Shanghai, the city's 10,000 square metre Exhibition Centre proved a well-chosen location, with vast domed halls providing an elegant backdrop for the 150 design brands setting up temporary home, and an enormous forecourt for the 50,000 visitors who queued outside.

Originally intended by British organisers Media Ten to attract local interior designers, architects and developers with a mixture of household products in contemporary, classic and collectible halls, the show also enticed a significant number of Shanghainese interested in interior design for their own homes.

"We were confident that China was ready for such an event, but the turnout and level of engagement are testament to an evolving Chinese design consciousness and appreciation of finely crafted merchandise," say Ross Urwin and Darrel Best of Infrastructure, the inaugural exhibition's creative curators.

Exhibitors agreed, reporting particular interest in products showcasing craftsmanship and quality materials. British furniture artist John Makepeace's chest of three carved and hinged "cushions" drew especially keen attention after visitors learned it was made of precious ripple sycamore, a wood normally reserved for violins.

"I've been very pleasantly surprised by the level of interest in how the pieces are made and what makes them special," says Makepeace, who also presented a striking pair of marquetry cabinets, called the Zebra, made in white holly and black oak with scarlet lacquered interiors.

There was also considerable interest surrounding Danish contemporary furniture and accessories brand HAY, with their range of covetable household items including storage boxes and glassware.

"I'm not sure if there is an actual thirst for a particular type of design," says Chief Designer Rolf Hay, "but the entire city is more and more affected by Western culture and I think that this has awoken a curiosity in the Chinese consumer. I believe they are much more interested and open towards foreign designers and the ideas they bring with them."

The show was notable for its wide range of products, from innovative textiles by Fameed Khalique to Britain's oldest family-owned and -run paint-and-polishes manufacturer, Mylands of London, who presented 120 paint shades inspired by the British capital. Handcrafted ceramic-fish lighting sculptures by Scabetti were popular, as were the ultra-glamorous couturier home accessories, such as curtain tie-backs and dip-dye, silk-fringed footstools, by Spina Design.

"We were overwhelmed by the reaction that our designs received in China," says Robbie Spina. "Visitors to the show got very excited about the newness of having that special something that is unique and bespoke. There was a genuine craving for handmade objects and made to order."

Although the show featured a strong showing of design big guns, the curators were keen to provide an opportunity to showcase innovative Chinese designers as well. Stellar Works were a particular highlight with their furniture ranges that combine Danish, Japanese and Chinese influences. One of the most popular on their display was the Ming line, created by Shanghai-based duo Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu of Neri and Hu.

"The Ming Collection is the result of a cultural investigation - an exploration of ancient forgotten typologies, crafts and ornamentation from China," they say.

Pearl Lam Design made an impact with a porcelain installation by Shanghai-based designer Danful Yang. One-Child Policy (2010) comprised 21 handmade intricate porcelain qilin (Chinese unicorns), with each piece representing a member of a Chinese family with "its own personality and physical characteristics".

Meanwhile, at a well-attended series of seminars to discuss the future of design, Briton Ilse Crawford provided insights into her global practice. Up-and-coming designer Yao Yejun presented Mu Shi Tian Gong studio's beautifully functional furniture along with a warning that Chinese designers should try to establish their own aesthetic. "It is time for a new China design, not just a copy of Japanese and Scandinavian style," he says.

For local creative Amber Xiang, it was a case of preaching to the converted. Renowned for her creative bespoke flower-arrangement service, Xiang responded to a suggestion by curator Urwin to "do something different" for the show by creating an innovative pop-up cafe combining a lush landscape canopy, modernist furniture, barista brewed coffee and macaroons.

"I wanted to convey the idea of having a lifestyle everywhere, to be different from the cliché of just selling products in the exhibition, so we invited spectators to enjoy a cup of coffee in the botanical spring garden," she says. "People in Shanghai are eager and thirsty for creative designs."

The cafe florist concept proved such an overwhelming success that Xiang now has plans to establish her own permanent version in Shanghai.