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On a recent Saturday afternoon hundreds of people queued in the drizzle outside the Shanghai Exhibition Centre. With its Stalinist neoclassical façade and lofty spire, the centre, built in 1955, pays homage to the friendship between China’s Communist party and the Soviet Union. Today it holds galas and expositions such as Design Shanghai, which bills itself as the city’s first international design event.

Organisers underestimated the show’s appeal. Over four days over 47,000 visitors attended, viewing exhibits from 150 designers. Inside, thoroughfares were clogged and people squeezed into lectures. This staggered Rossana Hu of Shanghai-based product and interior design company Neri & Hu. It is the first time, she says, the public has shown a real interest.

For decades China, the “factory of the world”, has been a manufacturing powerhouse. Until recently few outside a nascent elite could afford to invest in their homes. In 2000 just 4 per cent of urban Chinese households were middle class (earning between $9,800 and $37,000 a year) according to research by McKinsey, a consultancy. With an annual GDP growth in double digits for much of the past decade, by 2012 68 per cent of China’s urban dwellers had reached these figures. McKinsey predicts that by 2022 a new upper middle class (those earning $17,300 to $37,000) will account for 54 per cent of residents in China’s cities.

The market potential of the rising nouveau riche is well documented. At Design Shanghai most exhibitors are premier European brands vying for exposure. “One thing that is clear is that [Chinese] tastes are evolving hugely,” says Sharon Leece, editor-at-large of the Chinese edition of Architectural Digest. “Before, people didn’t have an interest. Now there’s an understanding of how design can add value to life.”

China has a long history of craftsmanship and carpentry. Some of the world’s oldest and most precious ceramics, jade sculpture and bronze work came from the country. Design in the contemporary sense, though, is up and coming.

Song Tao, founder of Zizaoshe, a Beijing-based furniture design company whose name means “self-made”, thinks the discipline is in a period of cultural reclamation. During the reform and opening period that succeeded the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, local designers were dwarfed by overseas brands perceived to be of higher calibre. “Now the copycat phase is ending, and I can see a creative freedom,” Song says.

Song’s furniture references China’s heritage, fusing the “perfect lines and proportions” of Ming dynasty design with modern concepts and materials. Weathered elm planks and a stainless steel “bamboo” ladder, a spin on the sort that is ubiquitous in China, form one table ($6,700). Other pieces are combinations of glossy lacquer, the plastic PMMA and boards of reclaimed wood joined in the sunmao method, an ancient technique.

Other designers are returning to locally sourced materials and traditional craftsmanship. Not all are overtly Chinese. “We like things that are not trendy, that have a timeless appeal,” says Hu, who with Lyndon Neri founded Neri & Hu in Shanghai in 2004. The pair are China’s most prominent designers, winning a contract in 2011 to redevelop London’s Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, while Wallpaper* magazine recently named the company its designer of the year.

“The beauty is in the raw material,” says Hu. She points to the Zisha teacup series, which is hewn from the purple-hued zisha clay found around Lake Tai in eastern China. Shaped into handless vessels, the cups come in natural shades – chocolate-brown, olive, ochre – and retain the graininess of the clay’s texture.

A standout piece from Neri & Hu’s latest product line, a collaboration with London-based company De La Espada, is the Lattice pendant light. It consists of three intersecting brushed-brass poles that culminate in azure, blown-glass bulbs, which, from certain angles, resembles a deconstructed Chinese character. “We see a real interest in a more abstract and modern language coming out of China,” says Hu. “Designers used to be about traditional motifs, forms and colours, but now we’re seeing ways of reading concepts and applying materials that are not stereotypical.”

Yuichiro Hori, of furniture design company Stellar Works, aims to create one of China’s first global design brands. Incorporated in 2008 in Hong Kong, Stellar Works has creative directors in Copenhagen and factories in Shanghai. Designs reflect the company’s management structure. The Lunar collection is coolly Nordic with Asian flashes: one concertinaed screen of ash wood has cut-out panels based on antique Chinese coins.

Stellar Works benefits from the scope and flexibility of China’s vast manufacturing sector. To produce handmade pieces in Europe is costly. “We are looking for a company that can use natural indigo to dye wood,” says Hori. “To get a deep blue you have to dye maybe 30 times. If I ask in Germany or Japan, they don’t want to do it.”

Michael Young, a British-born designer who moved his studio to Hong Kong in 2006, was also drawn to the region’s manufacturing prowess. “Six years ago sitting in Hong Kong, I felt a massive buzz – we were on the forefront of new things,” he says. “Bluetooth had just been invented. No one had thought of making a USB into jewellery then. We designed the first wireless speakers.”

In a recent collaboration with the Hong Kong-based industrial design company EOQ, Young took over an engineering electronics factory. One piece from the resulting collection, the Bramah light, has a simple silhouette that belies its multifarious formation. Each shade is shaped from a solid block of aluminium and milled on a lathe to create fins through which light can diffuse.

“There is going to be a new generation of Chinese visual expression that people will find fresh,” says Jingjing Naihan Li. The 32-year-old Beijing-based designer grew up in China but graduated from the Bartlett faculty at University College London. Her portfolio incorporates diverse projects, from skyscrapers rendered into foot-high candles to a collection called The Crates, where chairs, cupboards and a cocktail bar fold into self-contained stainless steel boxes.

A hexagonal rosewood dining table featuring a sprawling graphic ($8,800) dominates Li’s booth at Design Shanghai. Inspired by folklore from the southern province of Guizhou, it depicts the birth of the universe. “In China things are evolving so fast, but these southern tribes have their own gods, their own language and medicines,” Li says. “People know less about Guizhou than Tibet.”

Li set out to present this remote culture to appeal to modern tastes. She asked an artist to render one folktale into an illustration, which she digitally inlaid on to the wood in ivory resin. She plans to expand the series to include other furniture types.

“I think [the Chinese] have this boldness to do whatever we feel is OK,” says Li. “It seems there are no boundaries at the moment.”

Additional reporting by Xia Keyu










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