End of the bling dynasty

By the time you finish reading this sentence, 10 new apartments will have been built in China, the world’s biggest construction market. But what exactly is going to be put inside them?

In ages gone by, Chinese interior design inspired the world – think of the porcelain vases in Victorian England, or Asian silks in the court of Versailles. Today, however, China’s interior design industry stands in a state of aesthetic confusion. Those new apartments going up are more often than not filled with a mishmash of styles that have yet to fully mature. Although promising modern styles have emerged in recent years, contemporary Chinese design has yet to re-emerge as the global force it once was.

In terms of business, if not style, there’s little doubt that China’s interior design industry is thriving. Revenues are booming despite a slowdown in the property market this year, and consumers have more disposable income. “The design market is rapidly expanding, though this is largely to detriment of quality,” says Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, a British designer who recently travelled to China to visit prospective projects.

Global design fairs have quickly migrated towards the new market: the annual 100% Design Shanghai, which was founded three years ago and will open again in November, reported a 23 per cent jump in visitors last year. This month the first Beijing International Design Triennial is launched, with curators including Dunne & Raby of London and Gilda Bojardi of Milan Design Week exhibiting at the gigantic new National Museum.

100% Design Shanghai in 2010

In terms of aesthetics, designers say the industry is still finding its feet after decades of neglect during the communist era. “Interior design didn’t really exist in China before the late 1980s, when economic liberalisation began and people started owning their own homes,” explains Jason Wang, director of J&T Environment Art Design. “Before that, all housing was assigned by your work unit and it was all the same, just a bare lightbulb and a concrete floor.” China’s economic reforms began in 1978 and shifted the economy to a more market-based system, including private home ownership and salaries. Leader Deng Xiaoping summed up the mood by declaring that it was right to “let some people get rich first”.

During the heady days of the 1990s, as the economy opened up to the world, modern China took its first steps into interior design. The results were mixed. “A lot of people fixed their homes up like karaoke parlours, because they thought that was what was stylish,” recalls Wang. “All silver and gold and mirrors, with disco lights.”

Thomas Dariel (left) and Benoit Arfeuillere, co-founders of the Shanghai-based design firm Lime 388

Concepts of what wealth should look like were often imported from popular Hong Kong TV serials such as The Bund, Yesterday’s Glitter and Love and Passion. The homes on display – with gilded chairs, ornate furniture, lots of crown mouldings and glittering light fixtures – came to represent the ideal for a well-off household.

Lost in the melee was Chinese design, which was all but stamped out during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Liu Feng, founder of F+L Design Beijing, says the tumult of the 20th century took a toll on aesthetics. “In the past each Chinese dynasty had obvious channels of continuity to pass on its culture, like tea-drinking customs or the lifestyle habits of the literati. But after the May Fourth movement [of 1919] and the Cultural Revolution, everything was cut off. Then after the economic liberalisation [of the 1980s], everything was totally westernised.” Although modern Chinese styles have re-emerged in recent years, western styles were more popular during the formative 1990s and continue to dominate today.

Sometimes these western styles get mixed together in unusual ways. “Five years ago, we might meet with a client and present him with three completely different styles – modern minimalist, French Victorian, or more bling-bling. And he would say, ‘I want a little bit of each one!’” recalls Benoit Arfeuillere, a French designer who co-founded design firm Lime 388 in Shanghai in 2006. “But now clients have a clearer idea of what they want.”

A ‘haozhai’ interior

One of the more lucrative corners of the market today is the luxury suburban villas favoured by China’s urban elite. Known as haozhai, or “opulent mansions”, they command decoration fees of Rmb 3,000 to 5,000 per sq m, including construction and furniture, says Liu. Total decoration costs could ring in at as much as Rmb 5m (£491,000) for a villa of 1,000 sq m. And often houses are redecorated every few years because of low-quality construction materials, or changing tastes.

Many are stocked with new furniture imported from Europe. “The nouveau riche love foreign things,” says Liu. “It could be European, Spanish, American. They just want to copy the entire lifestyle.” Arfeuillere says his clients are similar. “Chinese really don’t like to use ‘made in China’”. With the appreciation of the renminbi, it is also getting cheaper for them to do so.

However, Chinese customers are increasingly rejecting the ostentatious styles of the 1990s and moving towards more simple, practical styles. This year’s design catchword is huanbao, or “environmental”, which typically translates into using higher-quality materials that are safe and energy-efficient, such as insulation, natural lighting and lead-free paint. Wang says he has just finished designing a wind-driven ventilation system for one commercial client in Beijing who is going green.

Some clients, particularly overseas Chinese and expats, are beginning to favour Chinese-influenced styles. But it isn’t always easy to update the classics. “Our lives will never be like they were in the old days, sitting in a long gown, drinking tea in a courtyard,” says Liu. “We have to get rid of the fussiness of the old style ... make it simpler, convenient for modern life.”

Chinese designers who have gained acclaim on the international stage have often kept the flavour of their roots. Shanghai-based Neri & Hu, whose founders are Taiwanese and Filipino-Chinese, have won plaudits for projects such as the Waterhouse, a boutique hotel in Shanghai built inside former Japanese army headquarters. There’s also increasing demand for contemporary interpretations of the traditional Chinese courtyard, or siheyuan, like the one by Neri & Hu for the Whampoa Club in Beijing. Chinese social patterns fit into their designs as well, such as a recent apartment model in Shanghai for “three-generation” families where the grandparents live under the same roof.

Neri recalls the decision to launch in 2006 in Shanghai, as opposed to London or New York. “We were very critical of the Chinese condition [of design] at that point. But being Chinese ourselves, rather than just criticising we wanted to be part of it.”

He says China has moved far beyond the wholesale copying that dominated 10 years ago, when wealthy Chinese might build a White House or a château on their estates. “The trend nowadays is the idea of a new abstract Chinese language. It’s not a superficial understanding of Chinese concepts. And it’s not about being purely Chinese.”

Still, for the average mainland Chinese homeowner, design is only slowly developing as an aesthetic. Take Yaguangya Decoration, one of the larger interior design firms in Beijing, which handles about 5,000 homes a year. “What we do is very different from in the US, where you might have one designer for a house,” says Peng Guihua, who founded the company in 1997. “In China it is really a full-service package. You choose some [furniture] brands, pick a designer, and then the company will do everything for you, including construction.”

Critics say this contributes to a sort of commoditisation of design. “Many designers’ ability is very low,” says Zhang Qingping, editor-in-chief of Interior Design + Construction magazine. “The apartment decoration companies make most of their money from engineering, so they will throw in the design for free. Since the cost is low, designers just copy or transplant designs on to the new space.”

Optimists say the freedom of design in China and clients’ willingness to pay for the very best creates the conditions for design that is truly experimental. “In China everything is possible and there are no limits,” says Arfeuillere. “Everything is new and everything is going so fast, you can’t predict anything.”

Leslie Hook is an FT Beijing correspondent. Additional reporting by Gwen Chen and Tamzin Baker

Beijing International Design Triennial September 28-October 17, en.bidt.org/doc/12/29.html

100% Design Shanghai November 3-5, www.100percentdesign.com.cn

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.