Design Shanghai connects with Chinese middle class eager for high-end interiors
Design is fast becoming big business in China as increasingly affluent middle-class consumers discover an interest in high-end interiors and collectable products.
The first signs of this emerging market came last year when 47,000 people queued in the rain outside Shanghai's neoclassical-style Exhibition Centre for a glimpse of the inaugural Design Shanghai, a four-day exhibition, by Essex-based Media 10 events group, that promised a taste of some of the most famous European brands.
The show, in its second appearance, in late March, doubled in size to 300 exhibitors, with a significantly expanded offering of local designers, up from seven to 30, showing a range of luxury products that more than matched the aesthetic standards set by their international counterparts.
One of the highlights of the show was a collection of ultra-contemporary furniture by Design MVW, a Shanghai-based design studio co-founded by Chinese designer Xu Ming and his partner, French architect Virginie Moriette. The duo's refined works included several contemporary wall lamps inspired by an art deco building on the Bund, and a striking jade-green geometric bronze- and glass-top desk, referencing traditional Chinese style but sans cliché.
Frank Chou's Beijing-based design studio also stood out for its highly original furniture, including a striking steel frame chair that wouldn't look out of place in a chic Parisian home.
Shanghai-based dynamo team neri&hu, renowned for their modern Chinese aesthetic and focus on artisanal skills, unveiled a sleek new light design for Parachilna (shown ahead of the Milan design fairs this year) and their contemporary interpretation of the traditional Chinese sedan chair for ClassiCon.
The studio also showed a range of modern design classics, such as a Zisha tea set series created from naturally pigmented clay found around Lake Tai in eastern China.
"The overall content of Design Shanghai was definitely more sophisticated than the year before, but when a country is deprived of design for a long time, it is natural that people both young and old are interested in trying to know more," says the studio's co-founder, Lyndon Neri.
The Beast florist-cafe returned for the second Design Shanghai in a much larger space, where its Shanghai-based creative founder, Amber Xiang, used 500 purple magnolia trees, 200 sakura trees, 300 willows and 125 bags of pine bark to create an intriguing forest-within-the-city retreat for caffeine-loving visitors.
Some of the most interesting booths reflected ambitious collaborations between Western and Asian designers or those who took design inspiration from the local context.
At the entrance of the event, for example, fashion house Bally presented its six-metre by nine-metre Jean Prouvé demountable wooden-and-steel pavilion, designed in collaboration with famed Swiss architect Pierre Jeanneret, together with a modernist-inspired art installation by the Chinese artist Wang Yuyang.
A China theme was also seen with Swarovski's monumental four-metre circular sculpture with 8,000 Swarovski blue crystal droplets suspended within a galvanised steel frame. The artwork by London-based artists Frederikson Stallard reflects the company's Waterschool charity programme aimed at promoting responsible water resource management within the Yangtze River basin.
Also on show was the Hong Kong-based Fort Street Studio of husband-and-wife team Brad Davis and Janis Provisor, with a selection of their luxury hand-knotted wild silk rugs. The couple have worked with artisans in China since the late 1980s to create rugs with a watercolour-like painterly look. The aforementioned Frank Chou was also a highlight with his elegant Kuan Chair, created in collaboration with Italian brand ILPO.
A number of big global design names were featured, such as Vitra, Marcel Wanders, Miele and Danish textiles brand Kvadrat with The Picnic booth designed by Raw-Edges Design Studio with strips of newly designed textiles by Aggebo & Henriksen and Maxjenny Forslund hanging overhead.
David Gill Galleries had a particularly strong showing with a sinuous series of Zaha Hadid-designed tables and a fireplace together with Francis Sultana's Bodil Chair.
According to the show's Hong Kong-based creative directors, Darrel Best and Ross Urwin, the event marks an end to the days of China being associated with cheap fakes.
"The Chinese appetite for design has expanded exponentially over the past decade or so. They are embracing modern design with the same relish as they did art 10 years ago," says Urwin.
First time exhibitor Alex Chai, managing director of Hangzhou-based Grado furniture and accessories brand whose house-shaped Archi Box set of trays drew crowds, agrees.
He says the event also shows that young Chinese designers are more confident about developing their own aesthetic.
"There are no copies to be seen at this show so we are judged on the same level as everyone else and that is exactly what we as designers want."