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.
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. And one that needed addressing.
The answer seems to be twofold and though it will take time, the cogs are in motion. Some foreign brands are speaking out, adopting a more transparent approach and promoting their successful experiences of Chinese manufacturing and trying to counter an image of universal inhumane working conditions and the assumption that outsourcing is only ever for quantity and cost over quality. This is soon to be backed by a Chinese government initiative. In its 12th five-year economic plan, investment in Chinese design is high on the agenda in a bid to alter the perception that China is just a factory where the creative ideas of the developed world are brought to life.
Also, as domestic consumer demand increases this presents an opportunity to educate the Chinese population and foreign brands about quality Chinese design and better manufacturing models. Here Monocle tracks down international and Chinese firms and projects doing just that: from the Hong Kong brand exporting traditional Made in China tableware to a New York fashion label practising boutique manufacturing and the Japanese retail giant promoting everyday Chinese products.
If these initiatives – together with a new generation of skilled workers (last year China had around 30 million graduates in design-related courses) – spell the beginning of China’s transition from just a manufacturing-based economy to one also based on innovation then Made in China could one day carry an entirely different connotation.
Name: Jia Inc, Hong Kong
Mission: Taking China’s tableware tradition to the rest of the world
Jia Inc’s founder and president, Christopher Lin, is on a mission to persuade the world that it needs good Chinese design. Since launching Jia Inc in Hong Kong three years ago, his products have been taken up by everyone from five-star hotels (Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong) to top chefs Alain Ducasse and Pierre Garnier to leading museums, including London’s Victoria & Albert and the Pompidou in Paris, to French department store Le Bon Marché.
It is easy to see why so many are convinced. Jia Inc has modernised Chinese cookware and tableware to resonate with contemporary western and eastern tastes and has developed a brand with design at its core. At his Kowloon HQ the 10 employees discuss manufacturing techniques and global marketing strategies.
“We focus on the oldest cookware in the world – some of these designs were first made in bronze 3,000 years ago,” Lin says. “If it has been around that long, surely there’s something right with it. We take advantage of China’s design heritage and manufacturing skills.”
Although some manufacturing is done in Taiwan and Vietnam, most of the ceramics products, the glassware and bamboo components are made in China. And it works – Jia Inc recorded a €6m turnover in 2010.
Lin brought French consultancy DNA on board to shape the direction of Jia Inc during its second year and help it grow in western markets. The next step is to roll out Jia Inc across China, which requires a certain amount of education. “In China copyright means ‘copying is right’,” jokes Lin. He is aiming to stock Jia Inc in 15 shops in China by the end of this year with a careful marketing approach aimed at educating shoppers in the virtues of buying original design rooted in their own heritage.
Name: Muji, Tokyo
Mission: Turning China’s undesigned heritage into a commercial enterprise
Since it started in 1980 Muji’s mission has been to “find” ordinary products – a teacup, a sock, a plastic bottle – and tweak them to give them a Muji identity. This mission has recently taken the Japanese firm to China. “China isn’t so design-oriented yet,” says Takashi Yajima, head of Muji’s household division, “but they have a very long history of simple, functional, everyday things.”
Yajima and Naoto Fukasawa, a design adviser for Muji, went on a shopping expedition to China, hunting for everyday products that had been honed into perfect household items. They bought and photographed dozens of goods: wooden benches, polypropylene shopping bags, ceramic bowls and plastic bath stools.
These products tend to be brightly coloured or highly patterned so the pair tracked down the factories and asked them to produce versions for Muji that were similar but without the decoration. The orange bath stool is now white; so too is the patterned blue porcelain bowl from the pottery city of Jingdezhen.
Yajima whittled down the selection to 31 products for the first limited-edition range and put them on sale in Japan in the autumn. Making a virtue out of “Made in China” was something new for Muji and for its Japanese customers. “It wasn’t so easy at first,” they said, “but the image of Chinese products being bad is changing.” The slender oak bench, which came in two sizes, was a sell-out.
They are expanding the range and collaborating with four young Chinese designers to find new items. “At first they thought they’d be creating something new – they didn’t know that it’s just as important to find something good.” The next range, which includes 30 new items, is due out in March.
With its China project, Muji is quietly cultivating a taste for simplicity just as it did in Japan 30 years ago. “These products are great works of design,” says Yajima. “We hope the Chinese will appreciate them too.” At the moment the products are only on sale in Japan – the real change will come when Muji finds an audience for them in China.
Name: 3.1 Phillip Lim
Mission: Boutique manufacturing supports communities and keeps crafts alive
In just under six years, New York-based clothing label 3.1 Phillip Lim has grown wholesale revenue from $2.8m (€2m) to $60m, a success that’s partly down to its manufacturing structure. From day one, Lim and his business partner Wen Zhou have run production from their factory in Shantou. With full control over the facility, the duo are leading the way in changing perceptions about clothing manufacture in China. “We are not alone in this approach,” says Lim. “We want to open doors for other fashion brands, and help revitalise the dormant entry-level designer market in the US.”
Rather than exploiting cheap labour and poor standards, the factory promotes “boutique luxury manufacturing”. Each item is worked on by one person to produce a premium quality product with a reasonable price. “Fashion can be desirable and pragmatic,” say Lim. “Wen Zhou and I came from humble backgrounds and it ingrained in us some core values.”
Starting with 40 employees, the factory has now created over 1,000 jobs in the village and is committed to supporting the Chinese market. “Being involved in retail in China isn’t just about jumping on the bandwagon,” he says. “It’s about being there to educate, to learn and to understand who your customer is and also your position in the market.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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 jingdaily.com, which tracks the luxury market in China.