Leading Italian kitchenware company Alessi, in its first collaboration with the Beijing Industrial Design Centre, has engaged eight mainland architects to reinterpret one of the most mundane and humble products: the tray.
The design project, titled the (Un)Forbidden City, is on show at The Landmark until next Friday. It is an attempt to explore the potential of Chinese product design. The twist is that the project has inverted the usual creation/manufacturing process: these are Chinese ideas realised in Italian factories.
'The 'designed in China, made in Italy' aspect of the project has created quite a stir,' says Gary Chang of Edge Design, the project curator and one of the eight architects involved.
Chang says that the core aim of the project is to showcase Chinese design and challenge architects to 'think small'.
'We chose architects as their thinking is more rounded when it comes to a subject. Industrial designers do not necessarily have as wide a consideration of the product as architects do,' says Chang, adding that the project was a good opportunity for architects to get out of their comfort zone and deal with the issues of mass production.
Unlike previous Alessi collaborative design projects, Chang decided to keep the number of participants low. 'I proposed eight architects, as eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture. It was also a good number to work with.'
Chang was charged with the task of selecting the seven other tray designers, and with state-favoured architects at the fore on the mainland, the politics of whom to choose and not choose was initially an issue.
'I'm not a person keen on doing political things. Most projects happening in China can be quite political, so I asked for the freedom to choose the architects,' he says.
Chang failed to persuade legendary architect I.M. Pei to come out of semi-retirement. But he still managed to produce an impressive list, including the 2012 Pritzker prize winner (and the first Chinese to receive that honour) Wang Shu, as well as other globally renowned names Ma Yansong, the founder of MAD architects, and Zhang Lei.
The tray was chosen as it is an unremarkable piece of homeware, says Chang. It also symbolises the idea of 'offering' - in this case the offering of ideas and a fresh look at Chinese design.
The eight trays themselves vary wildly in design. But each puts a new spin on uniquely Chinese inspirations including bamboo, the lotus leaf and - in the design by Wang - the aerial outline of the Lion Grove garden caves in Suzhou.
Chang says that the eight trays will soon be available for purchase from the Alessi catalogue. Unlike other similar Alessi design projects that tend to veer towards the experimental, the (Un)Forbidden City project has a strong retail angle.
With the initial success, Chang hopes the project will morph into something bigger and take in more everyday objects. 'The tray is a good starting point. I imagine in the future we will do more projects and invite more people to get involved.'