FIELD NOTES ON 'MINGNIMALISM"*, How China invented and is reinventing Minimalism
Chinese design is often portrayed as shouty. Brash colours, brassy reds and golds, a profusion of signs clashing with each other. Cheap materials, multiple ornaments and general confusion. Made in China is a decidedly derogatory label, and Chinese design has come to be associated to its cheap and cheerful, badly though-out, poorly copied output.
This runs counter to centuries of Chinese minimalism. Craft during the Song dynasty (10th to 13th century) was a model of restraint. Song Ceramics were pared down to their essential form, and all muted monochromes and deceptively simple lines, and they are today the world's most-prized ceramics. The following early Ming dynasty was the realm of scholars pursuing the arts, living a life of balanced aesthetics and intellectual pursuits over material enrichment. Ming furniture, for example, is almost rustic, elegantly merging sturdiness in function and elegance in form, often thank to elaborate craftsmanship – each piece of furniture assembles through mortise and tenon, without screw or nail. The role of the craftsman was very much to reveal the beauty of the material (sandalwood and rosewood, notably), steering clear of unnecessary ornament. The authorities at the time further fueled this austerity by enacting wealth taxes, which indirectly further encouraged non-ostentatious restraint. The philosophy of Feng Shui was adopted by ruling classes around that time, and dictated that the order of a room and building creates the desired energy flow. One object out of place suffices to create unwanted mess, both materially and emotionally.
The overly busy and ornate 'Chinese style' (lacquered, gold-inlaid, embellished) developed in the latter Qing dynasty, when China opened to the world and sought academics, scholars and artists from abroad, leading to a sort of Chinese rococo. Western artifact entered China through the trade roads with foreign merchants and diplomats - and the natural Chinese curiosity could not ignore these multiple influences, trying to combine and appropriate them all. In turn, the Western newfound love of Chinoiserie fueled the constant race to embellishment.
The cultural revolution in the 1960s somehow put a halt to bourgeois refinement and any design development. For the following decades, the leftovers of Chinese design were frozen in time in their somewhat gaudy late Qing form. Craftsmanship was deemed an elitist pursuit and eradicated. Only elders in rural villages were able to maintain their skill, often with no one to pass it on to, as the reopening of China marked a race to industrialisation and urbanisation. In the thirty years after post-Mao economic reform, China became the factory of the world, spitting out low quality copycats and almost forgetting centuries of stunning design and craftsmanship. It is not without irony that minimalism has come to be associated with Japan, in contrast to supposedly tacky China. Yet, the Song dynasty aesthetics heavily influenced Japanese arts and crafts and architecture, with Song ceramics shaping the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
British writer and Beijing resident James Palmer wrote a fascinating essay on the effect of the Cultural Revolution and how it created a culture of ''corner-cutting" having eradicated craftsmanship and improvisation (the former bourgeois, the latter subversive). The subsequent reopening of China in the 1980s was accompanied by mass export, never providing workers with a feedback loop on products they never got to experience. Quality therefore stayed poor until a substantial indigenous middle class emerged, with its newfound purchasing power.
"It was only in the past two, three decades that China became the world factory, but you can't reduce our whole history to merely that. We've been a pioneer in design before. But then again, there is no point just reminiscing and copying the old designs." Jiang Qiong Er, Shang Xia artistic director (quoted here)
Today, China is finally rediscovering its craft, just as it is about to disappear. Master craftsman and French luxury house Hermes took the bold step of rekindling Chinese design with the house of Shang Xia, created in 2010 to invent modern Chinese design fashion accessories and home décor under the helm of artistic director Jiang Qiong Er. While Hermes and Shang Xia were trail-blazers, Chinese design reinvention is firmly homegrown nowadays.
Architect Wang Shu won the Prizer prize in 2012 and was lauded by jury member Zaha Hadid for "(his) unique ability to evoke the past, without making direct references to history" and she called his work "timeless, deeply rooted in its context and yet universal." Intriguingly, smaller cities with a fine arts tradition often outpace the usual giant metropolises and Chengdu in Sichuan, Guangzhou or Hangzhou lead the charge in Chinese design innovation. Wang Shu's home town of Hangzhou is fast emerging as a design capital, with PINWU Design opening the 'From Yuhang Rong Design Library' to apply modern design to traditional Chinese materials such as bamboo, paper, porcelain and silk. Moreless in Shanghai's M50 art zone is inventing contemporary Chinese design, judiciously balancing 'more or less, the root or the branch. My personal favourite Neri&Hu, an artchitecture practice based in Shanghai and London, has designed a beautifully balanced and poetic furniture series for editor Poltrona Frau.
The recent anti-corruption backlash has no doubt accelerated the thirst for understated design, but it is more so a sign of China's confidence and place in the world that its middle class is starting to eschew Western imported status symbols in favour of homegrown talent. Inspired by the past and inventing the future, China is graduating from Made in China to Created in China, and good design is no longer a Western pastiche and expresses itself successfully in architecture, fashion, interior design – you can spot it in boutique hotels, tea houses, coffee shops, concept stores all over China’s main cities. Resources in English are few and far between, but you can find some of my Chengdu and Hangzhou favourites here and here. Go and explore this fascinating country and discover China's renewal for yourself.
*I read the term Mingnimalism in a inflight magazine about a renovated Chinese resort. Unfortunately, no Google search has been successful in sourcing its author. Please leave a comment below if you know its origin.