V&A at Design Society, Shekou

In 2014, the V&A began a partnership with China Merchants Shekou to help them in their ambition to establish the first major museum in China devoted to design. Located in Shekou, at the western edge of Shenzhen, Design Society is a cultural hub taking its name from the fact that design is both a noun and a verb, and has the ambition to become a place that inspires action, stimulating the growing design scene in Southern China.

The V&A both advises on the project, including professional training for Design Society staff, as well as providing content. A dedicated gallery showcases design exclusively from the V&A's permanent collection, weaving a broad narrative about the value of design. Design Society also features several other gallery spaces managed by Design Society staff, which will explore contemporary design and its impact on society, through an exciting and varied programme.

The Design Society home is the Sea World Culture and Arts Center, a large multi-purpose building designed by renowned Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki. The structure is marked by three large cantilevered event spaces, each looking out to a distinctive geographical feature: the sea, the mountain, and the city. A monumental landscaped staircase wraps around the cantilevers, allowing users to climb up to a rooftop plaza, and back down towards the sea, creating a seamless connection to the adjacent park. The building is a dynamic mix of galleries, museums, shops, and events, all anchored by Design Society.

Why China, why Shenzhen, why now?

For decades, China has served as the factory of the world, producing much of what we consume and use in our daily lives. Particularly in Southern China, and across the Pearl River Delta, cities like Shenzhen fostered a vast manufacturing ecosystem to respond to global demand. Today, however, there is a decisive shift occurring, as entrepreneurs, designers, and policymakers seek to take that manufacturing infrastructure and know-how, cultivated over the years, and turn it into a robust design economy. In 2008, Shenzhen was designated a UNESCO City of Design, explicitly signalling its ambition to compete with other design capitals around the world.

While the ambition is clear, there is also a huge appetite for design. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are enrolling in design courses every year. A massive and growing middle class are becoming enthusiastic consumers and advocates of design. And policymakers are turning to design to address some of the vastly complex social, environmental, and infrastructural challenges of a growing country.

The Sea World Culture and Arts Center, designed by Fumihiko Maki and operated by Design Society, which houses the new V&A Gallery. © Design Society

Amid all this enthusiasm, the timing is right for Design Society, as a cultural hub which can provide critical discourse, historical context, and new opportunities. At the same time, Shenzhen itself offers plenty of insight, from which Design Society and the V&A can learn. The city's unique manufacturing landscape, and the speed and manner in which design plays out, offers a new paradigm to study and understand. For designers and design enthusiasts from the rest of the world, interested in China's design scene, Design Society will play a vital role as an entry point into this exciting context.

The V&A Gallery at Design Society

The V&A Gallery at Design Society is part of the V&A's largest international initiative in its history. With over 250 objects from its permanent collection on display, it offers local audiences a unique opportunity to explore the historical and geographical diversity of its holdings, while exploring critical issues about design. Special to this project, several new made-in-Shenzhen objects have been acquired, and sit side-by-side with other objects from the collection, creating links between design in Shenzhen and elsewhere in the world.

Values of Design at V&A Gallery, Design Society. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The gallery is built around a narrative of 'Values of Design' and looks at how we have historically valued design and, in turn, how design has produced value. By seeking out historical claims as to the value of design, it is split into seven broad sections, each representing a different value claim, and filled accordingly with objects that either support or dispute that claim. The ambition of the gallery is to trigger the audience to reflect on their own values, and how those values influence the things we make and the way we make them.

The gallery was designed by Sam Jacob Studio, with graphics by Fraser Muggeridge studio, and films by Alice Masters. The gallery design responds to the different values by drawing on a rich variety of materials, processes and technologies. Each helps articulate and manifest the conceptual context for the objects, making the visitor experience more immediate and visceral. Thin strips of LED screens are also embedded into the build, working as moving wallpaper which visualise the atmosphere of each theme.

The gallery presents design as more than just a matter of 'good' and 'bad'. Instead the show creates an arena of different and sometimes conflicting possibilities. It argues that design performs many different roles depending on its purpose, its attitude and its context. The design of the gallery organises space, material and media to make this argument both intellectually rich and experientially visceral, advancing a sophisticated understanding of the way design shapes the contemporary world.

Research in action

While preparing for the opening of Design Society, the V&A undertook several smaller projects, in an attempt to learn from Shenzhen, better understand the local context, while at the same time build up a local network, and test out different working practices with the staff of Design Society. This 'research in action' included a curatorial project called Unidentified Acts of Design, as well as a learning project called Hello Shenzhen.

Unidentified Acts of Design at the Shenzhen Urbanism Architecture Bi-City Biennale, 2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For the 2015 Urbanism\Architecture Bi-City Biennale in Shenzhen, the V&A's curatorial team undertook a research project about the design landscape of Shenzhen, with the greater goal of making local acquisitions for the gallery. Unidentified Acts of Design profiles a series of cases where design is playing out in the region, outside of the conventional designer studio. Each of the cases builds on the region's unique eco-system of rapid growth, bounding ambition, and easy access to supplies and know-how. From the work of knitwear technicians to engineers creating build-your-own robot kits, from anonymous Shanzhai mobile phone production to villagers building their own urban neighbourhoods, the project shows how design is less a label, and more a process, and how that process is in full-swing in the PRD. Unidentified Acts of Design also operated as a platform for engaging local communities and as a test site for approaches to learning and interpretation. Alongside the exhibition we hosted focus groups with key audience groups such as local designers, design lecturers and teachers as well as running workshops for families, public events and talks.

During March 2017, we hosted our first designer-in-residence as part of the British Council's Hello Shenzhen project. UK-based designer and engineer Ross Atkin was invited to Shenzhen to engage students and young people with problem-solving through making, using objects that feature in the opening exhibitions of Design Society as inspiration. For the first project we worked with design students from two Shenzhen technical colleges to create interactive toys in partnership with a centre for children with autism. The project was both rewarding and inspiring, so much so that we invited Ross to return to Shenzhen in October 2017 to collaborate on a new learning project, building upon this model for designer-led education. This time Ross worked with 20 primary school pupils to create furniture prototypes for the school's roof garden. These ambitious learning projects formed part of Design Society's pre-opening public programme, to engage with the community in Shenzhen and test out approaches and pedagogies for the learning and events programme.

The Crafty Robot. © Ross Atkin