Interview: Aric Chen

With the city brimming with anticipation and activity in the lead up to Beijing Design Week, Creative Director Aric Chen shares his festival highlights and thoughts on the future of design in China.

Please tell us a bit about your background. What led you to work in the design industry as an independent writer and curator? And what did you do prior to moving to Beijing?

Growing up in Chicago, just a few blocks from buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies, Saarinen and others, I was always interested in design and architecture. I went on to architecture school, but quickly realized I was better at looking and thinking about design than actually doing it. So I got an MA in design history in New York, where for the next ten years I wrote for various magazines and newspapers, and began curating later on.

Can you tell us about the concept behind BJDW 2011? What were the processes involved in the creation and curation of the festival? What were some of the key themes you addressed? What do you hope to achieve with this year’s BJDW?

BJDW is a government initiative. But I should perhaps first say what it’s not: it’s not a tradeshow, nor an exhibition, biennial, triennial or anything like that. It’s really more a platform–or I prefer to say “mechanism”–for building a stronger design support structure in Beijing, for getting all the ingredients necessary for a healthy design scene to come together at the same time. With top-down support, I’m hoping we can help create a better condition for creativity from the bottom-up, by carving out this space (in fact, spaces throughout the city) where designers, organizations, brands, and so on can show what they do, while engaging each other and the public. At the same time, we hope to have a positive impact on the city as a city, by not only presenting exhibitions addressing sustainability and urbanism, but in fact helping, we hope, to steer development in a more positive direction, as with our events in the historic neighborhood of Dashilar.

Can you give us an overview of some of the highlights of BJDW? What are some of the events or exhibitions you are most looking forward to?

In Dashilar, which is really a very special historic district just south of Tiananmen Square, we’ve been fortunate to cooperate with Beijing Dashilar Investment Co., the state-owned entity that’s overseeing development of the area. Dashilar was for centuries the commercial center of Beijing. But in recent decades, it’s fallen into serious disrepair and now, redevelopment pressure is immense. In China, as everyone knows, you can’t do much without government support and here, we’re fortunate to have that support in terms of exploring models of development that are perhaps more sensitive–to both the historic fabric, and the existing community–than what’s happened previously in Beijing. As part of a broader plan laid out by the architect Liang Jingyu of Approach Architecture, we’re bringing exhibitions, installations and pop-up shops to spaces throughout the neighborhood with the aim of acting as a catalyst for transforming the area in a more organic, positive and thoughtful way.

Beyond that, there are lots of things I’m excited about: in 751, a former gas plant adjacent the 798 art district, we have around 30 exhibitions and events, including a 3-D printing workshop from the Academy of Media Arts, Cologne, and a 3-D film on future cities that was the Australian contribution to last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. There’s an exhibition of the well-known designer Stefano Giovannoni, parkour demonstrations, and a huge presence of Dutch design. Elsewhere, a project called Switch On will bring around 30 site-specific LED lighting installations to historic Ditan Park. Tom Dixon will be mounting one of his pop-up Flash Factories at the Crossover showroom in Sanlitun, with lots of other exhibitions, and dozens of talks, workshops, and so on, throughout Beijing.

The first Beijing International Design Triennial (BIDT) runs parallel to BJDW, can you give us a brief overview of the exhibition, and what visitors can expect.

The Triennial is organized by Tsinghua University and will take place at the newly-renovated National Museum of China, on Tiananmen Square. With the theme “Ren: Good Design,” it will have five sections, each overseen by a Chinese and international curator, exploring topics ranging from innovative uses of bamboo to fantastically out-there, hypothetical proposals for the future. It’s great that we’ll have such a strong anchor for Beijing Design Week.

Design is being quoted as the next big thing in China. Do you agree and how do you see it evolving over the next few years?

I absolutely agree, simply because there’s no other choice. That old cliche of going from “Made in China” to “Designed in China” is in fact an economic imperative. The current manufacturing economy isn’t sustainable in the long run. And neither are China’s current patterns of urban development, its levels of environmental degradation, and so on. Design isn’t the only solution to these issues by any means, but it’s a big part of any solution. Beyond that, you have increasingly sophisticated consumers who are demanding more from the products they buy, and Chinese brands are going to have to respond. Greater economic confidence also leads to greater attention paid to lifestyle. We’re on the cusp of something with design in China, and it will be fantastic to see how it all pans out.

Do you think the design coming out from Beijing reflects the country’s unique culture and characteristics? Or do you think local designers are often influenced from abroad?

I’m often asked what advice I’d give to young designers in China, and my response is always to tell them to pay close attention to what the rest of the world is doing–and then forget about it. And what strikes me is that the designers I tell this to understand immediately what I mean. Young designers in China don’t want to simply follow Western trends, yet they’re also trying to find their way within an internationalized context. They also know that “Chinese design” isn’t just about reinterpreting traditional motifs. But creating something really new is difficult. While I think there’s a lot to be done in drawing from Chinese heritage–especially in reinvigorating crafts–what fascinates me more is the question of what it means to design in China today, what are the conditions in which you’re designing, in terms of the speed, the market, the socio-economic context, etc. I think there’s a lot of room for exploration, in coming up with a “Chinese design” that has nothing to do with the color red, or abstracting latticework or playing on Mao-era kitsch.

Beijing is said to be reinventing itself, being compared to Berlin in the 1990s. Can you describe the energy, spirit and what is currently taking place in Beijing? How have you found the move to China personally?

Not all my Berlin friends agree, but it’s funny you mention Berlin, because Beijing has always reminded me of that city. I think there’s this sense that both places seem to be perpetually works-in-progress. And that, to me, is what gives them their creative energy. You feel like there’s always work to be done, that there’s still room for possibility. That you’ll never completely understand the place, because not much is really defined and that which is isn’t always apparent. That’s what drew me to Beijing in the first place, and I haven’t been disappointed.

Do you think Chinese people are becoming more attuned to design and do you see a demand in people wanting and appreciating “Good design”?

Yes, completely. Though at the same time, you go to some European countries where everyone is so design-conscious, and everything is so designed, that it feels stifling–in fact, over-designed. There’s something exhilarating and inspiring about the messiness, for lack of a better word, of China. You wouldn’t want to lose that–though I don’t think we have to worry about that happening for a while.

Which designers, artists, writers, etc, have been influential and inspire you and the work you do?

My dear friend Tobias Wong, who passed away last year, taught me how to see design beyond design.

5 Beijing Questions:
Your favourite neighbourhood in Beijing and why?

Dashilar, for its past and future.

Favourite Beijing restaurant/cafe/bar/store?
Stores: WUHAO, Fei Space. Bars: Mesh, The School, Zajia. Cafe: The Vineyard. Restaurant: Depends.

Memorable Beijing experience so far?
Just watching the city change is memorable.

Local creatives people should know about?
There are lots. But architect Li Hu, who was formerly Steven Holl’s man in China, has developed a proposal to transform the 2nd Ring Road into a park. It sounds like a pipe-dream, but you never know. I like that people can still think big in Beijing.

Describe your perfect day in Beijing?
Wandering around aimlessly.

Beijing Design Week