Design republic— China


China makes cheap products to order. Could it ever make well-designed ones too? Monocle looks at the companies who think it can and are leading the way.

Cheap, mass, production, well-designed

Chinese manufacturing had a very public wake-up call in 2010. In May the world’s media pounced on reports of nine suicides at electronics producer Foxconn’s main Shenzhen plant where the output included the recently launched iPad. With international companies outsourcing manufacturing to China facing accusations of having “blood on their hands” and shaky export demand (within months, the­Purchasing Managers Index showed a 2 per cent drop in China’s manufacturing output) there were people in central government who realised they had an image issue…

Q&A- Liu Guanzhong

Professor of industrial design, Tsinghua University, and vice-chairman of Chinese Industrial Design Association

What is the government’s strategy regarding China’s transition to a design nation?
The government has realised that the model of economic development based on manufacturing must be transformed into a sustainable economic development model. It advocates independent research and development, research in the application of technological innovation and product innovation. It has proposed reforming the education system and introducing a new industrialisation initiative to build a powerful design and innovation-oriented nation.

Why now?
Our economic development has been about export, imitation, processing technology, processing equipment and quantity. Despite the speed of our development we are paying the price of wasting resources, polluting the environment, selling cheap labour and being subject to the economic strategies of developed countries.

What needs to happen for the rest of the world to see China as more than a factory nation?
The key is not just to make something but to create something. The government needs to provide strategies and resources to promote and support design. Businesses need to incorporate and encourage design thinking. Design has business and economic potential too. Only once this has been understood and the economy transformed will China become a nation of design.

On the Calendar

Beiing's first design week

By Sun Qun, managing director of Beijing Design Week and publisher of ‘Abitare’ and ‘Case da Abitare China’

Already a centre of contemporary art, architecture and film in China, post-Olympic Beijing is seeking a leading roll in design. It is beginning to develop a sense of self-awareness and of mission. The municipal government has a long-term goal of branding the city as China’s capital of design. With government funding and private sector investment we are organising the first Beijing Design Week (BJDW) in 2011.

As managing director of the programme, I’m keen that we don’t just organise a week-long design festival for a small circle of the design world. The theme is “design landing” and authenticity, originality and creativity are our keywords.

BJDW’s long-term goal is to provide decision-makers and the public with an understanding of the importance of design as a comprehensive and systematic solution to living problems.

The focus is on three areas: environmental and public space design to demonstrate alternative solutions to Beijing’s severe traffic and pollution problem; industrial design to strengthen our domestic market performance and improve the competitiveness of Chinese business in global markets; and design education – a promotional programme for nurturing young talent and encouraging international exchange.

The theme “design landing” reflects our attempt to plant a seed and let design take root in China. We hope Beijing Design Week will be just the tip of the iceberg.

Q&A - Ville Kokkonen

Design director, Artek

China’s manufacturing isn’t all bad conditions and cheap labour – brands outsource for quality and skill too.

What products does Artek manufacture in China?
Part of Artek’s lighting collection involving specific metal processing.

We’ve lost the high-quality metalwork manufacturing in Finland and we found the quality we needed in China. Part of the production is still done in Finland where the skills still exist. What’s important, besides quality and pricing, is the reliability of delivery and a logistics chain that functions well.

Are there any logistical difficulties?
The logistics work perfectly and we can control our buying according to the needs in all our markets.

Why is there still a stigma attached to the “Made in China” label?
It’s inevitable wherever there’s a concentration of outsourced manufacturing. “Made in Japan” had a similar stigma 20 years ago. Maybe there will be a “Made in Africa” stigma in the future.

**Do you think anything is missing in a product that is made in China but sold by a heritage Finnish brand? **
No, we’ve always manufactured in different countries and locations. The most important thing is to focus on impeccable quality control. It’s also vital to be transparent about our manufacturing, not fool consumers about where things are made.

The luxury market

Companies making their mark in China

The Chinese spent $10bn (€7.5bn) on luxury goods in 2009, a figure expected to jump by 23 per cent in 2010. But luxury companies realise that they must be creative to generate buzz and ensure brand loyalty in a crowded marketplace, which is why many have begun to roll out limited-edition “China-only” lines.

BMW designed a special model called the M3 Tiger to coincide with the Year of the Tiger, while Ferrari has teamed up with artist Lu Hao to create a one-off 599 GTB with a paint job that resembles a cracked-glaze Song dynasty vase.

Two Swiss watchmakers have unveiled special-edition Chinese designs: Jaeger-LeCoultre’s watch features a lotus flower face and Titoni’s depicts a flying panda based on a painting by Zhang Qikai.

Hermès has made the biggest leap, launching Shang Xia, a brand for the local market. The first boutique opened in September, stocked with clothing as well as home furnishings made from Chinese materials such as bamboo and porcelain. “This appears to be an attempt by brands to increase their visibility and differentiate themselves while taking a gamble that Chinese consumers will gradually favour products with more traditional Chinese design cues,” says Avery Booker, editor of, which tracks the luxury market in China.


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