Taiwan’s Golden Pin awards focus on products for the global Chinese community

Chinese spirit reflected in works in Golden Pin Concept Design Award

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2015, 3:14pm

There are dozens of design awards around the world, but Taiwan’s Golden Pin strays from the pack in one important way, by considering how design serves the world’s ethnic Chinese community. That’s the explicit focus of the Golden Pin Concept Design Award, which is being given this year for the first time to conceptual products that serve the unique needs of Chinese people.

“Philosophies, ideologies, principles and symbolism, often ancient in origin, are an integral component of modern huaren societies,” reads the award’s official preamble. “And yet the role the huaren world plays in shaping the design of everyday objects remains largely unexplored.”

International designers have taken notice: Golden Pin received 2,384 entries from 17 countries around the world. These have been whittled down to 45 finalists from Taiwan and the mainland. Lee Weilang, creative director of Taiwan’s Afterain Design Studio and one of the award’s judges, says this is because non-Chinese designers have a hard time grasping the idea of zhong guan, or Chinese spirit. “This concept is already difficult for huaren people to grasp. For people from outside the huaren group, it’s likely even harder,” he says.

Finalists include Link Hanger by Jia-jin Lin, who reinterpreted traditional Taiwanese window frames to create an interlocking clothes hanger, and Yan Shi Cai Yao, a project by the Southern Taiwan University of Science and Technology to create individually packaged Chinese medicine blends. China Central Academy of Fine Arts was shortlisted for  A Shining White Orb of the Full Moon, a hotel based on an ancient poem by Li Bai.

But huaren design isn’t limited to the Concept Design Awards: the concept also informs many of the 565 winners of Golden Pin’s long-established Design Mark awards for completed products, architecture and graphic design.

But what exactly is huaren design? Lee says it is shaped by a distinct approach to family and social interactions. “Generally speaking, huaren don’t like to be alone,” he says. “They prefer a collectivist over an individualistic society. Over time, this fear of being alone has developed into a cultural feature.”

Another judge, Hong Kong industrial designer Vivian Cheng, says the idea of huaren design is rooted in Chinese philosophies of space and craft. “When you buy a product from this region, it should have a local flavour,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you’ve got to have a dragon or a phoenix; it means it should be embedded with Chinese philosophy or lifestyle. It’s not on the surface, it’s inside.”

By way of example, she points to Ming dynasty furniture, whose simple lines continue to influence designers today. (Danish designer Hans Wegner’s Ming-inspired China Chair, released in 1944, has never gone out of production.)

Cheng serves as a judge for a number of different design awards – she was involved in Germany’s BraunPrize before travelling to Taipei for the Golden Pin – and she has seen an evolution in how Chinese designers are reflecting their roots. “I saw a lot of people trying to mix traditional materials with contemporary approaches,” she says, like using bamboo or traditional nail-free methods of joining wood.

“We believe that connecting to local culture is one way to revive the Taiwanese manufacturing industry,” says Joy Yang, creative director of Taipei’s W2 woodworking studio, whose W2 Chair won a Design Mark for product design. “Our connection to local context is based on personal experience: we are second-generation woodworkers. Taiwan has a very well-developed woodworking tradition, and that’s something we’re very proud of.”

When you buy a product from this region, it should have a local flavour. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to have a dragon or a phoenix; it means it should be embedded with Chinese philosophy or lifestyle
Vivian Cheng, industrial designer

The W2 Chair takes inspiration from traditional Chinese stools, with a simple four-legged structure and saddle-like bench. The seat is made using honey-coloured hinoki wood salvaged from a demolished 80-year-old house, while the legs are made from dark kassod wood, joined together with a mortise and tenon joint structure, a method used throughout the world for thousands of years. Yang says she was eager to use hinoki because it is a common material in Taiwan, its colour doesn’t fade over time and it is especially fragrant.

While there is an obvious link between the W2 Chair and a long tradition of Chinese woodworking, many Golden Pin finalists serve huaren needs in more contemporary ways. The Air Table from Hangzhou’s Tao Design studio is a horn-shaped side table that incorporates an air purifier, heater and air conditioner: a direct response to the air pollution and toxic building materials that plague city dwellers in China.

Singapore-based studio Black Design won a Design Mark in spatial design for CREATIVE©ITIES, a 2013 exhibition in Kaohsiung that highlighted creative ventures in cities around the Asia-Pacific region.

“We wanted to avoid the idea of creating an exhibition concept that was one-off and the information expires the moment it was launched,” says Black Design creative director Jackson Tan. Instead, his team created a content database filled with crowd-sourced information that was collected over the course of the exhibition’s run.

This approach continues to inform Black Design’s projects. For Singapore’s 50th anniversary this year, the studio asked Singaporeans to send in postcards with their single most cherished memories; they then used the 200,000 submissions to create a crowd-sourced map of the city’s emotional landscape.

One of the Hong Kong-based winners for a Design Mark in communication design takes an even more radical approach to exhibition design, by removing a museum from its physical context. Last year, local studio Vision Desire was asked to create a virtual journey through the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences in order to promote the institution’s inclusion in the Google Cultural Institute. The firm’s partners, Jack Lau, Beatrix Chow and Vincent Fu, used computer graphics to tap into the museum’s history as a research centre established after the 1894 plague epidemic.

The video they produced is nothing if not cheeky: viewers follow a rat into the museum, which then comes to live with animated pill-cutters, herbalists and researchers superimposed on real-life images of the building’s interiors. “Museums are always presented as static places – boring exhibitions with long descriptions,” says Chow. Instead, “museums could be viewed as an open book that takes you into different decades of history.”

Chow says she appreciates Golden Pin’s focus on huaren design, because while certain design principles are universal, they can be hard to reconcile with different cultural contexts. “When we were students, we learned most of our design concepts or the fundamentals of design from Western design magazines or books,” she says. “Unfortunately, most of the theories are only adapted to the Western design system or culture. There seemed to be something missing, something not quite right, when we tried to apply them in our own community or society.”

Chow says Hong Kong designers are a good position because they have been exposed to both Western and Chinese ways of thinking. Vivian Cheng agrees: “We always say this is a place where East meets West – and this is true. I was educated in a European way but I am also Chinese and I grew up in a very traditional family.”

In early October, Cheng and the other Golden Pin Concept Design Award judges gathered to whittle the 45 Concept Award finalists down to just three winners for "best design of the year", each of whom will pocket NT$300,000 when the winners are announced in early December. In addition, 30 of the best Design Mark recipients will go on to receive a Best Design Award in December.

Vivian Cheng was impressed by the quality of the entries; she says it is a sign that ethnic Chinese designers are growing more adept at using their design skills to tap into their cultural roots. Ten years ago, she saw a lot of conventional products “with a Chinese twist,” she says. “Now they do it from the inside out.” [email protected]