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陈雯西 Wen-Xi Chen 2015-11-24 14:00

Astylishiy  dressed, neatly coiffed, and slightly bleary-eyed Frank Chou enters the lobby of the Andaz hotel in downtown Shanghai. In person, the designer looks almost too young to have accu- mulated his numerous accolades. He apologises for his tiredness, “I’ve been up since 4am,” and orders a coffee. Chou is the founder of Frank Chou Design Studio, a Beijing based furniture design studio and con- sultancy that’s been gaining plenty of attention in recent years for their unique contemporary offerings.

For Chou, success has brought an endless stream of long-haul flights, exhibitions, design conventions and early mornings, such as the one he was having today. Having own to Shanghai from Beijing for a series of exhibitions and talks, he’s off to London immediately afterwards to show off his goods at the London Design Festival. “I’ve always liked the sound of London but this will be my rst time to actually go there.” Chou says,“It's definitely the best city in the world now for designers. One day, if I have the opportunity,I would like to set up an office there."


Despite warm receptions at prominent shows such as this year’s Design Shanghai and Expo Milan, Chou still sees the London Design Festival as a new milestone for his company. Although he is proud to display his studio’s emphasis on the balance of Eastern and Western influences and aesthetic sensibilities, Chou is also acutely aware of the perils of being branded “Chinese”. Too many times, even well-meaning curators and creatives in the West have tended to reduce China down to a few simplistic motifs, rather than a real, thriving, modern culture. “Some designs that really emphasise its ‘Chineseness’ may be novel for Western audiences, but I reckon that in order to be truly embraced by the established industry, the design must be able to repeatedly nd its place in everyday use.”


People like Chou are behind Chinese design’s rise to the global spotlight. Young,individualistic and equipped with technical skills and exposure to the international scene, these designers are sending the message to the world that they shouldn’t dismiss China as a place of innovation. “The whole design scene is noticeably improving. China has been catching up quickly to the industry leaders in the West... but that’s not the dif cult part. The real test will be the push beyond that.” While extremely optimistic that the design industry is heading in the right direction, Chou admits to seeing a whole plethora of obstacles: “Modern China has only really existed for a few decades, and interior design is of course much younger still. It’s very normal for there to be issues associated with its relative infancy. In fact, it would be strange if there were no problems!” Truly top- notch design is like a delicate bonsai tree; it takes time to nurture and requires the correct conditions to really flourish. “Take the Song Dynasty for example, people had the time and energy to really ruminate on matters of aesthetics, and that’s how they managed to create some of the most beautiful designs in Chinese history.”


Chou’s affinity for creativity started in childhood. He was always drawn to creative pursuits whether it was drawing, design or music. Chou reveals, “Even if I wasn’t working in my current field, I’d still be doing something creative... whether it’s film or music.” The quietly spoken designer looked almost sheepish when he revealed that he is in a rock band, and not only that, but is the lead singer. When asked if his parents always supported his creative endeavors, Chou couldn’t help but laugh: “My parents never really approved or disapproved of my interests as a child... it didn’t matter what I did as long as I was doing something! I was always quite independent, so I don’t, in fact, think they knew what I was doing most of the time.”


In addition to designing furniture, a big part of Chou’s business is helping international brands to launch in China. Navigating the delicate and complicated web of brand marketing, consumer perceptions, pricing and more, is no easy task. “To really land rmly in China is very dif cult and a lot of work has to go into it.” he explains. “It’s not simply a matter of opening a shop and nding a distributor. Often international brands will price themselves here as a luxury brand and once a furniture brand is considered ‘luxury’, the sales model completely changes. Even a company like the Danish design brand Hay, which would not be considered a luxury brand in their home country, is nonetheless quite expensive relative to many local Chinese brands.” Even so, Chou recognises that not all companies require branding and marketing to the same degree, or even at all. In a more crowded marketplace, where consumers have more choice, it is important to brand yourself, while in other marketplaces where choice is scarce, consumers may happily snap up your product regardless of how you present them. Chou says, “The higher you market your project, the higher the demands that places on branding and marketing. In my opinion, the vast majority of local brands are just hitting that stage of increased branding demands but they don’t necessarily realise the importance of good design.”


Chou compares this to how people go through “three phases” of designing their home: phase one is when the inhabitants don’t see the value of design and they wonder why they should fork out their hard-earned money for such things. With that in mind, they will go and pick out the pieces for their home only to nd that, despite picking out all their favourite items within their means, they don’t like the final result. “Most people lack the ability to imagine their space as a complete whole,” the designer explains, “and so it is very difficult for them to cohesively put together so many different materials, colours, shapes, etc. in a way that looks pleasing”; Phase two is when the home owners realise they need a designer, but armed with little knowledge of where to look, who to talk to and how to communicate their vision, the results can be hit or miss. “Many people stop at this phase,” Chou says, “it is the rare few that reach phase three; These

clients understand that it is important to nd a designer that matches their vision, and under- stands the importance also of communicating effectively with the designer and knowing when to intrinsically trust their judgment. You may realise that perhaps not one item in the house is the one you most wanted, but it comes together for the best overall effect.”


Ahead of his exhibition in London, Chou shares his view of the West versus East paradigm: “Despite the shift of economic power in recent years, the West’s aesthetics are still the benchmark for good design. Because of that, they will judge your work from a position of power... perhaps not explicitly or consciously to your face, but subconsciously through the structures that they’ve built up; whether it’s industry standards or just the way they interact with you.” Once upon a time, not so long ago, luxury home-wares made in China were the most exquisite in the world. A strong country, with strong support for craftsmanship and quality and a passionate pool of skilled workers can certainly put Chi- nese design back on its pedestal. And while designer studios like Frank Chou Design may ultimately just be looking out for their own business, they inadvertently advertise the rise of homegrown innovation every time they set up their booth at a design fair.



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