A Tour of China’s Design Cities: Shanghai

December 17, 2014

For the Shekou project, Luisa Mengoni, Brendan Cormier, Sunny Cheung, and Rong Zhao travelled to five cities in two weeks, to research the current state of design in China – to see how design is produced, perceived, consumed, and discussed across the country. All of this, to figure out how the V&A, through its work with the Shekou Design Museum, can contribute in a meaningful way to the broader ambition of China to become a significant design presence in the 21st century. Over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing reports from each of those cities – Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing – and the thoughts and observations gained.

Shanghai, November 22nd-23rd, 2014

We said goodbye to Shenzhen and arrived at Shanghai. My initial impressions of the city were very positive – there was an immediate sense of history through the architectural details of the city (including some nice examples of early 20th century Art Deco). The French Concession area was also particularly attractive with leafy tree lined streets and small boutique fashion shops and eateries dotted throughout. There was a generally more refined character emanating from the region compared to Shenzhen.

Shanghai is the largest Chinese city by population (and the largest city proper by population in the world, exceeding 24 million.) Shanghai is also one of the main industrial centres of China so there did appear to be higher pollution levels than in Shenzhen (which had gone some way to protecting air quality such as banning petrol-driven motorcycles.)

Perhaps as a result of the venues we visited, there appears to be an especially well developed, vibrant creative scene, especially in the Fine Arts and one of its design strengths appears to be in fashion as evidenced by the number of luxury brands and flagship stores as well as smaller local boutiques prevalent here. Although not commonly worn now, one of the more recognisable pieces of distinctly ‘Chinese’ fashion is the Shanghai styled qipao which is a more stylish, figure-hugging version of the historical cheongsam which still regularly inspires the contemporary works of Hong Kong and Chinese film-makers and designers.


Rockbund Museum

Our first appointment was the Rockbund Museum which was actually the first public museum in China and located in the former Royal Asiatic Society building. The building itself takes the form of a traditional kunsthalle-type space with no collection, and contains high ceilings with certain floors interspersed with advantageous balcony views. The space was part of a renovation in 2007 by David Chipperfield Architects as part of the Rockbund Urban Renaissance Project and the building today seems particularly versatile for a range of contemporary art shows. The space holds three temporary exhibitions a year, one from an international artist, one Chinese and one is formulated as a special event or commission.

The exhibition that we saw was Breathe Walk Die by Ugo Rondinone which consisted of a series of performance-like interventions by local participants dressed as clowns, dotted around the space providing ample feel good photo-ops for visitors (and of course we were no exception).

We met with the new senior curator Li Qi [李棋] for a coffee (sadly for us though, flat whites are a rarity in China). Li Qi is the former editor of the China Arts newspaper and told us a little bit more about the gallery’s program and dictate. It was enlightening to hear that exhibitions are chosen by an academic committee composed of both internal staff members and international consultants. They seem to strike a good balance between local and international talent so far and are aiming to reach an international art savvy audience as well as engaging locally through their public program. Finally Li Qi mentioned that the special program slot for 2015 was an exhibition of Asia-Pacific artists in association with Hugo Boss.

Clowning around with Senior Curator Li Qi

Pearl Lam Galleries

Pearl Lam gallery is a well-known and established gallery which started life in Hong Kong in 1993. We visited the special project space in Shanghai which was showcasing an exhibition of international artists called Words Tend to be Inadequate. In addition to contemporary Fine Art, the gallery has branched out into promoting contemporary design, dedicating the basement floor of the gallery to this venture and funding an artist-in-residence program for international artists and designers. We were introduced to these works by the artist and designer Yang Danful. We were particularly interested in the work of Maarten Baas who has created a series of what looks like melted plastic furniture recreated entirely in wood. The attention to detail is quite astonishing and creates a real sense of trompe l’oeil. However, thinking more critically, the works in the design section were slanted to a more craft-based approach. Whilst this lent itself well to more luxurious one-off items of distinction (appropriate for a gallery setting) it meant that many works only dealt with design notions in a broad brush conceptual way – for example using mass produced copied designer handbags to create one-off works.

Pearl Lam_sml
Chairs designed by Maarten Baas


Yang Danful – Shanghai Gallery of Art

After leaving Pearl Lam Gallery we met up with Italian design Enrico Cinzano who is undertaking research on sources of traditional materials in China. Together we visited an exhibition by Cui Xiuwen in the Shanghai Gallery of Art at Three on the Bund before having a bite to eat in the New Heights restaurant which offered really stunning views of the city.

When posed the question of what the new V&A gallery could offer, Danful was particularly interested in seeing more comparisons between Western and Asian designs, either using a historical framework or through an interpretative perspective. This wasn’t so surprising and certainly are ideas that could be read in her own work, which seemed interested in notions of Chinese and Western styles and in exploring high craftsmanship levels and skill in the production of one-off pieces.


Power Station of Art – the 10th Shanghai Art Biennale

After leaving Three on the Bund we made our way to the opening of the Shanghai Biennale. Situated on the left bank of the Huangpu River, The Power Station of Art is housed in a former power station on the site of the Shanghai Expo 2010 and is China’s first state-run contemporary art museum.

This was the second time that the gallery had hosted the biennale and it felt suitably grand in scale, with an abundance of fashionably dressed individuals and free cocktails. Situated over three floors, the theme of the exhibition was ‘Social Factory’ and the theme asks what constitutes the production of the social and how notions of ‘social facts’ (and hence fictions) are constituted (although admittedly I found that this wasn’t immediately obvious on viewing the show.) Of particular interest to us as a group was a film about miners by Zhao Liang and a series of architectural grilles by Liu Chang installed on the upper floor which silhouetted against billowing curtains. These appeared to change the rigid architectural forms into a type of animated line drawing.

Shanghai Art Biennale_sml
The former power station has some impressive views


Shanghai Museum of Glass

The next morning, we arrived at the Shanghai Museum of Glass. Now in its third year, the museum was established in 2011 by the CEO Zhang Lin and is based on the site of a former glass factory. The museum is privately run and currently invests around 7 million a year to the museum’s activities. As well as the museum, the site incorporates a café, creative learning centre, a new VIP design shop, members area, another gallery (which housed an exhibition called Keep it Glassy) and artist studios, which they hope to expand in the future, making it a hub for the glass community.

The ticket price of CNY48 was a touch on the higher side but did include a free shuttle bus from the station as the location of the gallery is actually quite remote and probably goes some way to reflect the museum’s desire to become self-sufficient. Inside, the museum itself was designed by a German interior design company and played out as a kind of discovery museum with a mix of hands on interactive activities, cases, videos and live demonstrations. One issue with the design was that the text was extremely hard to read in some areas as the graphics at times were a little bit too busy but in general the displays were very high quality in terms of finish and lighting. Some items such as the LED-embedded glass was also informative.

An interesting temporary exhibition by the researcher Shelly Xue (researcher, glass artist, curator and lecturer at the Institute of Visual Art of Fundan University) was on display and showed various contemporary pieces of glass. Shelly mentioned an interesting fact that contemporary glass artists have recently been experimenting with formulae for making glass due to the secretive nature of scientific research for industrial applications such as mobile phone screens. Therefore, many artists have had to ‘rediscover’ techniques for themselves through a process of trial and error.


Wang Qin

Later we met with Wang Qin (one of the artists in Shelly’s show and lecturer at the College of Fine Arts of Shanghai University) who introduced us to his Arcadia series. This consists of boxes with viewing holes through which one could view delicate landscapes. He also showed us his scholar studio series which consisted of incense burner, screen, brush holders, miniature vases, ink containers and seals. Again, the notion of hand-craft, historical reference and small-scale production was particularly relevant to this artist and the pieces from his small studio adhered to a principle of artisanal pieces. Wang Qin also produces a series of cast glass hands (to commemorate a birthday for example) and that these are produced commercially to support his artistic practice. Interestingly although he could upscale he explained that he wanted to keep his studio small – presumably for exclusivity and quality control purposes.

I left the meeting thinking about the meaning of design for Western and Eastern audiences and how craft and design as a term seemed to be used almost interchangeably in China. I also thought about how certain cultural artefacts inevitably lose their aura through mass manufacture and how certain specific materials perhaps themselves receive far more cultural reverence in Chinese culture (for example jade and porcelain.) Objects made with these materials (and through cultural traditions that stretches to modern times, such as calligraphy and tea drinking objects) are therefore imbued with a cultural significance through the simple choice of using very specific materials.

Wang Qin pours some great tasting tea


Baoshan Red Town Centre

We met with Qing Ma who showed us around Jamy Yang’s Design Museum, an idiosyncratic range of daily objects ranging from radios, lamps, typewriters and phones. In general, the collection was displayed in a fairly interesting grouping of similar items albeit with absolutely no interpretation or labelling. This made it only really suitable for a kind of direct visual inspiration as opposed to any didactic critique of what the designer’s intentions were for collecting items. Yang’s own contemporary collection, housed separately to the historical items contained some attractive items of design and held a few surprises including some beautiful packaging examples, an automated luggage case prototype and a Tyvec sofa which reminded me of the Cabbage Chair by Nendo and was surprisingly comfortable to sit on.

Part of Jamy Yang's eclectic arrangments
Part of Jamy Yang’s eclectic arrangments


Shang Xia

Later that afternoon we met with Clara Lin at the flagship Shang Xia store. The store was situated in an ideal location for its clientele in the high-end shopping district opposite stores such as Louis Vuitton and this area seemed to me to really display Shanghai’s status in China as a hub for modern high-end fashions.

Clara introduced us to the store’s product range and explained that it was originally conceived by the fashion house Hermes and aimed to introduce luxury items to the high-end Chinese design market by focussing on traditional Chinese culture and high craftsmanship mixed with innovation. One particularly striking example was a coat made by hand pressed felt which created a product which contained no seams or stitching (surprisingly even for the pockets.)

Clara mentioned that 80% of the sales from Shang Xia were from local Chinese customers interested in items with distinctly traditional Chinese values and that they recently made special edition furniture for the Christie’s sale in October which completely sold out.

The items we were shown were all extremely well produced and there was a distinct fetishisation of the skill it took to hand manufacture the works (using ‘authentic’ traditional skills) and the sheer effort involved in their creation. These were evidenced by the beautifully shot and edited videos of the processes in action. One left the store feeling that although the products were beautifully hand crafted, there was nonetheless an overly elaborate focus on human effort as luxury commodity.

Shang Xia's interior shows great attention to detail
Shang Xia’s interior shows great attention to detail



China Academy of Art (CAA) / Bauhaus Museum

We took an early train from Shanghai to Hangzhou. The Shanghai train station was quite far out as it was positioned directly next to the airport. Unlike in many other countries, I hadn’t realised that a passport was needed to buy a train ticket in China, but luckily I had left it in my backpack from the previous night thus thwarting my chance of a day to myself!

We met with Professor Hang Jian (杭间) the director of the Bauhaus Art Museum and assistant to the Dean of the China Academy of Art. We talked about a 20th & 21st century collection purchased from a private collector by the Hangzhou government to be specifically housed in the new Bauhaus museum which has national aspirations. Of the 7000 design items in the collection, around 350 are specifically Bauhaus objects. Prof Hang (whose own professor went to the Bauhaus in 1923, and who established the first design school in China in Qinghua) has studied this period extensively and written about Chinese designers who were contemporary to, or had been directly inspired by the Bauhaus’ teachings. It is an area in design history that attracts strong interest; the recent ‘Design as Enlightenment’ exhibition drew in over 350,000 visitors in only one month.

Prof Hang Jian
Prof Hang Jian

This show (and future pedagogical tools such as ours) will be essential as disciplines such as product design in China are developing at a slower pace compared to others such as graphic design and fashion. Prof Hang stated that the reasons are that products design as a discipline in China has only been around since 1979 so Western design is already too well developed in terms of a head start. In addition he cited that stated-owned companies had lacked competitiveness in the market thus limiting innovation. Prof Hang finally gave us advice on our own exhibition development, highlighting that Shenzhen audiences will have high expectations for the exhibition design.

The weather started to take a turn for the worse, whilst we walked around the Xiangshan campus of the China Academy of Art and admired the architecture of the building which seemed to complement the specialisms of the programmes it offered (folk, applied arts and crafts). The Xiangshan venue was designed by Amateur Architecture Studio which is run by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu. The venue had a very classical aesthetic and it was obvious that careful attention was applied to specific views and to the general atmosphere of the place. The site itself is based on the Chinese character for enclosure ‘Wei’. Its other campus in Nanshanlu also offered courses in modern, abstract and contemporary art. The academy also features other courses in the fields of Design, Architecture, Public space, Media/Animation and Multimedia.


Daan Roggeveen & Carol Yinghua Lu

We returned to Shanghai and had a bite to eat before winding up the day with a cocktail or two with Daan Roggeveen, an architect and researcher. Daan has invested a large amount of time in pioneering research on the effect of Chinese urbanism in Africa. We were impressed as dedicating so many resources to a topic is something not necessarily done so by other architectural practices. Also present at the bar was Carol Lu who is a writer, contributing editor for ‘Frieze’ and a curator working with several institutions (including a recent collaboration with OCAT in Shenzhen).

In conclusion I would say that there is evidence of nurturing design culture in Hangzhou which is a region that, on the whole, tends to produce more specialised items for domestic consumption as opposed to the large scale factories in the Pearl River Delta region which produces goods for large corporations on a global scale. Advocates such as Hang Jian understand the importance of design innovation for China’s future development and he is using his position of influence to positively educate and inspire future designers and creatives so that they can transition from a culture of copying to one of innovating.

1 comment so far, view or add yours


What a great initiative! It’s great to see collaborative projects like this taking place. I wonder if you have come across the blog Design China http://www.design-china.org? Although it lacks a critical voice in places, it’s an amazing resource! I hope you will find it useful!

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