Contemporary Chinese design
China is huge. China is becoming topical. Yet China remains mystery to most people in the West. ‘Made in China’ has become a familiar tag, but the spectacular creative energy in modern China is barely known. Starting in the 1980s, the Chinese have rediscovered their pre-socialist past and begun to combine their own traditions with global influences to produce a cultural rebirth. At the heart of this lies a new culture of design.
In the far south of China, graphic designers in Shenzhen began to explore new directions in the early 1990s. In Shanghai, consumerism and urban culture have combined to produce astonishing fashion and lifestyles. In Beijing, monumental architecture for the 2008 Olympic Games transformed the skyline of this ancient capital.
Shenzhen was no more than a cluster of fishing villages on the northern border of Hong Kong, but in 1980 China’s new economic reform policy turned these villages into the country’s first Special Economic Zone, the world’s largest manufacturing centre. By the 21st century, Shenzhen had become the youngest and newest city in China, with a population of 10 million and an average age of 27.
Shenzhen is the birthplace of contemporary Chinese graphic design. As the centre of China’s printing industry, it attracted a pioneering generation of young design students and professionals. They established graphic design as a creative discipline, set up the first independent practices and experimented with a new graphic language, completely different from the political propaganda of the past.
Today, graphic design is flourishing in many Chinese cities. It has become very diverse in form and style, with the younger generation embracing both global and local cultural influences. New directions include collaborations with artists, the use of new technologies and an identification with China’s fast-growing youth culture.
Shanghai has been China’s foremost international city since its origins in the mid-19th century. Known as the ‘Paris of the Orient’, by the 1920s it was the third largest financial centre in the world. It was also the birthplace of ‘China modern’ – the first motor car, the first feature film and the first qipao dress all appeared in Shanghai.
After the Communist revolution in 1949, many Shanghai residents left for Hong Kong. Following its redevelopment in 1992, Shanghai’s fortunes have revived and it has now surpassed the early-starter Shenzhen. Many emigrants and their descendents have returned and are taking part in the city’s cultural renaissance.
With the economic transformation of China has come a new consumer society and an urban middle class. Trendsetters, taste-makers and designers are constructing, designing and consuming a new dream. But at the same time, some creative individuals are questioning this mainstream consumerism, striving to balance commercial pressures with a unique creative vision.
Beijing has a unique status. Home to the imperial palace and court since 1420, it is China’s political and cultural centre. As host city of the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing entered the fast track of urban transformation. Sports and cultural infrastructure, commercial housing, business facilities and sustainable cities were planned and built on a spectacular scale. China is eager to project to the rest of the world a new, modern image.
Beyond the grand schemes and commercial ambitions, a new generation of architects and urban planners, mostly practising independently from the state system, is searching for its own vision of modern China.
This content was originally produced to support the exhibition China Design Now, on display at the V&A South Kensington between March 15th and July 13th 2008.