When Beijing-based Paul Gelinas and his Chinese business partner Xiao Mao first came across pieces of vintage wooden Chinese furniture discarded in trash heaps in the city’s old alleyways, they knew they had hit on gold.
It was 2002 and the pair were opening a café in the capital with two other partners. They wanted to create an old-fashioned look that recalled a bygone China. But the only furnishings they could find were either cheap and mass-produced or brash and bling. Instead, they made their own pieces, inspired by furnishings locals had thrown out, many of which dated back over half a century.
What began as a few one-off pieces turned into a brand. In 2008, Gelinas and Xiao launched Lost & Found. The serene flagship store sits on one of Beijing’s most iconic hutongs, a leafy alleyway which is home to the ancient Confucius Temple. It is a fitting location for a shop selling pieces such as the sturdy made-to-order oak and leather “Old Guy Chair”, which is based on the government-issued armchairs of the 1960s.
Lost & Found, which opened its first store in Shanghai a few weeks ago (it has two branches in Beijing), is one of a number of homegrown, high-end furniture brands championing a return to Chinese design and craftsmanship. At Lost & Found, all the furniture has traditional Chinese mortise-and-tenon joints; many pieces are handcrafted.
“There is a huge resurgence of interest in traditional crafts right now,” explains Aric Chen, creative director of 2012 Beijing Design Week, which showcases innovative art, furniture and architecture. “China is looking for designs that feel somehow authentic.”
This is part of a larger “global trend”, says Chen. But in China – a country dogged by its reputation for counterfeiting and copying – the resurgence has taken on particular significance. Local designers, many of whom have spent time abroad or collaborate with international partners, want to “return China to where it was for most of recorded history: not the maker of cheap, low-quality goods but rather a world centre for the making of the finest goods,” Chen explains.
The government is spearheading a drive to transform China’s economy from low-cost manufacturing to high-value innovation. In 2006, former president Hu Jintao stated that the country must move from “made in China” to “designed in China”. The appeal has not gone unheeded. Events such as the government-backed annual Beijing Design Week are helping to change the international perception of what China can produce.
In 2010, domestic furniture sales hit Rmb262.4bn, up from Rmb37.6bn in 2002. And consumers are not just buying more – they are buying better. The wealthy are starting to value quality, original design and the use of natural materials. For the first couple of years at Lost & Found, Xiao says, the majority of the brand’s clientele were expats. Today she estimates that as many as 80 per cent are Chinese.
Hidden behind a pair of faded red doors on a grimy hutong, in a courtyard that once housed China’s last empress, is the appointment-only Wuhao Curated Shop. Founded by French arts consultant Isabelle Pascal in 2010, Wuhao stocks “designed in China” brands. Each room is decorated to reflect one of the five Chinese elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Standout pieces include chairs by Xiao Tianyu, in which an austere Ming dynasty-style wooden back slides into a comfy cushioned pouf. Shaped like smooth pebbles, they are reminiscent of a Chinese rock garden.
Li Naihan is a young Chinese furniture designer who sells her wares at Wuhao (her pieces are also stocked at Lane Crawford in Beijing and at luxury boutiques in London, Paris and Hong Kong). Li’s plywood “Crate” series was inspired by the government’s demolishment of large swaths of Beijing. It ranges from a vast home entertainment system to a dressing table. Each piece can be snapped shut for easy transportation.
“It occurred to me that we could design things that are mobile and easy to move around with you,” explains Li at her home in the funky Beijing art community Caochangdi. Li admits that her designs are favoured by the younger generation, those who “understand the point of being super-playful and who also move around a lot”.
Li’s work is conceptual – in the series she is now developing, “I Am A Monument”, a wardrobe mimics the iconic looping towers of the China Central Television headquarters. Yet Chinese craftsmanship also plays a crucial part. In Li’s nearby studio, head carpenter Zhao Changxi works with the CCTV prototype looming over him.
Zhao, 48, trained as an apprentice in his native province of Hunan over three decades ago. He does traditional joinery, but such skills are now rare. “Today, carpenters don’t have an opportunity to practise hand-making pieces,” he explains over the din. “Most furniture makers use machines. It is getting harder and harder to get highly skilled craftsman.”
For some Chinese brands the answer to this conundrum is to design in China, then make abroad. The Shanghai-based Neri&Hu, which will debut this May at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, collaborates with established European brands.
Co-founder Rossana Hu created the Sedan chair with the German company ClassiCon. The chair sports a plastic seat suspended on a solid oak, walnut or metal frame. The sleek form screams modernity. But closer inspection reveals references to the elevated sedan, a mode of transport used historically by aristocrats in China.
Such subtlety is deliberate. Neri&Hu has chosen to address Chinese identity, not through motifs, materials or colours, but by alluding to China’s heritage. “Culturally driven design does not necessarily need to be alongside anything that is formally evident,” explains Hu. “It will happen in the mind. The hidden meaning is much more interesting.”
Whether “designed in China” will come to be recognised on an international scale is an open question. “Design depends very much on credibility,” explains Chen, noting that this remains a challenge in China. “Do you believe in the values that the design piece represents?”
But before Chinese furniture goes global, it must build a bigger following at home. Paul Gelinas believes this is only a matter of time. “The Chinese market is desperate to fragment. There is super luxury stuff and then there’s Ikea,” he says. “There is definitely room for high-end furniture that is affordable and comfortable. The [Chinese] aesthetic doesn’t need to die – it can be brought back to life using modern ideas of quality. We’ve [tried] earnestly to find this new Beijing aesthetic.”