Janice Blackburn, a curator and design collector who has an indefatigable excitement about the young designers she discovers, declares: “This is by far the hardest thing I have ever done.” On Friday she will open Unfolding Landscape, the first western show of work by graduates from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing’s prestigious design school, at Sotheby’s in London. The selling exhibition runs until November 8.
Chinese arts and crafts are currently the focus of intense global interest. But while the west has become familiar with the best Chinese fine art and photography over the past 10 years, Chinese design has remained hidden from view. There have been intriguing glimpses: from time to time talented students pass through the Royal College of Art in London, and through the generosity of Pearl Lam, a Hong Kong heiress, collector and curator who has been showing Chinese design alongside art at fairs in London, Paris, Miami and New York for nearly two decades, the V&A owns four “deconstructed” chairs by Shao Fan, a painter, sculptor and designer who pioneered the concept of reconstructive furniture with Ai Weiwei.
Blackburn’s speciality is discovering “what’s going on in parts of the world less obvious for design”. She has brought graduates from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design to Sotheby’s, as well as graduates of the renowned Eindhoven Academy in Holland. An introduction to Professor Min Wang, dean of the CAFA design school, enabled her to visit the school in March and, with the help of Ben Hughes, a visiting professor of industrial design from Central Saint Martins, select a show of CAFA graduates to bring to London.
According to Blackburn, both the students and the college are thrilled: “They want to transform the universally received idea of China from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Designed in China’ and ‘Created in China’.” For Professor Min Wang, the title of the show, “Unfolding Landscape”, is an invitation to the UK audience “to unfold and discover the emerging landscape of contemporary Chinese design”, which until now has been mostly unfamiliar, “like the scenery hidden in a scroll of Chinese landscape painting.”
Blackburn has been most surprised by the sense of freedom: “While the initial training, especially in furniture, is narrowly disciplined, with all students required to master traditional techniques with materials such as wood, rattan, ceramic and lacquerware, they are also encouraged to experiment and to engage with contemporary ideas such as sustainability. Creativity is highly valued.”
Many of the pieces in the show are one-offs, while Blackburn has also been able to show photography, which is taught at the school. The pleasure has been in the discovery of “very thoughtful, labour-intensive work. It is sophisticated, very unusual and not especially ‘Asian’.” Highlights include Huo Yijin’s graduation project, an updated version of that classic Chinese object, a tea tray. He used traditional craft technology discovered when researching China’s Jun kilns to create a tray that changes colour in reaction to the heat of the tea.
A collaboration between CAFA graduate Hu Keren and RCA graduate Qin Xue has produced two chairs and a table crafted in acrylic with Qing Dynasty wooden carvings inserted into each item. “The designers say they were striving to find a way to integrate this beauty into modern design, because China is becoming disconnected from its past. In the rush for modernity there is a danger of good being thrown out with bad,” explains Blackburn.
She was impressed too by Liu Yingchuan, now at the RCA, who “produced a book in an edition of three which combines etching, screenprinting, traditional printing and photography, and which is the story of her grandparents’ home where she spent her childhood. Her work is quite exquisite.” Meanwhile Yue Zhou’s carbon fibre and epoxy furniture “Shifting Shadows” was inspired by a famous Chinese poem. Blackburn comments, “They do put a lot of themselves in their work.”
She had not been to China for 20 years and was moved to find that amid the brashness of Beijing and Shanghai (“There is not a luxury brand that does not have a flagship store here”) students were determined “to establish a Chinese design style quite distinct from that, which will become the luxury of the future.”
Blackburn pays homage to the supportive influence of Beijing’s Wuhao Curated Shop, a cult design destination, set up two years ago by the French design connoisseur Isabelle Pascal in a siheyuan, or courtyard home, that belonged to Wanrong, the last Empress. Pascal “is creating a market among both Chinese and western collectors,” Blackburn suggests. This has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese establishment. The Beijing Design Festival, inaugurated last October under the direction of Aric Chen, an ex-New Yorker, was repeated this year with support from the ministries of Education and Culture.
Blackburn has not been the only one attracted by China. On November 8 Liliane Fawcett is opening the exhibition Chinese Design Today at Themes and Variations, her Notting Hill Gate gallery. This will feature a number of commissions made in collaboration with Chinese designers of different ages who, in Fawcett’s view, make up a distinct post-Mao generation. Some of them, such as Shao Fan, are already well-established in China.
The inspiration for the show was a trip to Beijing three years ago. On a visit to the famous 798 creative district, Fawcett says that she “was taken aback that although there was enormous exposure for paintings and sculpture, I could find no outlet for design or ceramics.”
Tracking the designers down in their studios, she says that she “found several trends: very avant-garde, computer-designed furniture, which utterly rejected its roots [for instance, the futuristic ‘Triangulation Series’ of pieces by Zhang Zhoujie]; colourful upcycling [as in the work of the Shanghai artist Gu Yeli] and an older generation using traditional shapes but with very modern materials.” Another name to watch is Xiao Tianyu, currently a rising star on the Beijing design scene, a younger designer who is determined to incorporate local Chinese traditions into his personal style. Meanwhile Li Naihan’s shipping crate furniture expresses a history of uprootedness while also creating a new home.
Finally, in search of ceramics, Fawcett beat a path to the old Imperial furnaces at Jingdezhen where she found Fiona Wong and Caroline Cheng, “both very interesting artists”. As she explains: “It was time for a location in Europe to do something.”
‘Unfolding Landscape’, Sotheby’s, 34-35 New Bond Street, London, November 2-8. www.sothebys.com
‘Chinese Design Today’, Themes and Variations, London, November 8- December 8. www.themesandvariations.com