Reclaiming the Narrative of Making in China

“Culture can’t survive if it can’t be commercialised, and we can’t survive without culture”

 – Wu Qingyou, Founder of Eslite, A cultural and creative platform that nourishes tradition and innovation.

We have just returned from an incredible, eye-opening, trip to Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a UNESCO city of design just across the water from Hong Kong. The city has been a designated special economic zone in China since the late 1970s and now boasts the largest creative talent pool in China, with a population of approximately 12 million and an average age of just 32 years.

China is a place like few others. With an open-source platform acting as the launchpad for many modern Chinese entrepreneurs, and with an intimate knowledge of manufacturing, processes and products can develop fast. Entrepreneurs and designers both national and international flock to Shenzhen, with its fast pace, can-do attitude to making and hub of industry expertise. The city is home to several high-profile success stories such as Huawei and TenCent and is the epicentre of a region referred to in recent decades as the Factory Floor of China.

To many, China remains the factory of the world, better known for its short-term manufacturing history than its expert craftsmanship legacy spanning thousands of years, or its innovation-led present and future. But there are those, particularly in major creative and cultural hubs such as Shenzhen, who are reclaiming their agency and design heritage, updating it for the 21st century and beyond. China is home to some of the oldest uses and developments of materials that today we take for granted such as porcelain and silk. For millennia, highly trained Chinese artisans created masterpieces rooted deeply in their own traditions, styles and stories.

While staying in Shenzhen, we came across a number of examples of the burgeoning interest in design and making in China. On our first full day in the city we were lucky enough to attend the opening of a new department at the leading Shenzhen Polytechnic: Cultural & Creative Products Development Institute.

To complement in the inauguration, which was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning, there was an exhibition featuring an exceptional selection of work by the professors who would be leading the course, spanning diverse disciplines including woodblock printing, ceramic, batik, sculpture, screen printing, papercut, and textile crafts specific to certain ethnic groups in China. The creation of a new department and the demand for these skills is testament to a growing appetite to re-engage with these skills and products in a professional capacity.

Our purpose in Shenzhen was to continue this dialogue with an exhibition that showcased Scottish design and craft alongside carefully selected designers’ work from the local community.

East-West Exhibition

We were invited by Shenzhen Creative Investment to curate and host an exhibition for Creative December (part of the city’s annual cultural events programme). The theme of this exhibition focused on mutual appreciation and respect for culture. Sharing the exhibition space with three very different local design companies, the exhibition as a whole explored the points of similarity between design and making practices in East and West.

It demonstrated that as a design studio and representing designers and makers, we have much more common ground than difference with our counterparts in Shenzhen. Collectively we spoke of the significance of culture and the challenges we face in creating pieces that have a resonance with contemporary audiences, engaging them in historical and cultural narratives.

We formally launched the exhibition with a talk from our founder and creative director Gillian Scott about the exhibition and the wider cultural and creative context in which Craft Design House operates. With the aid of an interpreter, Gillian spoke about the importance of finding ways to engage the public in discussions about craft and heritage, and about the ability of culture and design to transcend borders and language barriers and connect people of diverse backgrounds.

Later we joined the creative directors and founders of Fire Wolf and Lofree, two of the companies participating in the exhibition, for a roundtable. The discussion focused on the potential and necessity for both engaging with cultural themes and finding ways to make them commercial. It transpired that our core values were very much the same: the authenticity and quality of work; the ‘soul’ of a work that has passion and a story behind it compared to a fake that replicates the design but with no sympathy for the underlying meaning; the importance of independent design; focusing on innovation but also on heritage techniques; the challenge of finding a means to reconcile these our history with our present and future and create something relevant for today but respectful for yesterday.

Forging Connections

We had the privilege of visiting F518 Idea Land and OCT Loft, both born from repurposed industrial complexes, now dynamic creative zones within the city. With some incredible graffiti, greenery, and hipster coffee hangouts these areas are now the workspaces of tech innovators and craftspeople, interchangeably creating solutions to the conundrums of modern life and the accessories to suit. F518 Idea Land is home to the Shenzhen Edinburgh Creative Exchange which has helped a large number of businesses in the sister cities to connect and collaborate in recent years, talent sharing across the world to embrace and develop expertise on both sides, while OCT Loft hosts a regular market of artisans from across the city and sets the tone for aspirational interior design across the city.

Several days after the inauguration of the new department at Shenzhen Polytechnic, we visited, meeting up with the professors and some of their new students as they started their courses, to chat about innovation, sustainable materials such as washable paper, and the challenges of packaging ceramics and other fragile items for shipping – they had some really impressive solutions, designed in house by the course-tutor for packaging design. We also met a leading woodblock printer who had a studio in the university. He produced his own work which was exhibited in the Polytechnic Art Gallery, demonstrating and inspiring students with his designs. They were astoundingly detailed large-scale panels, each one taking around one month to complete. Through his designs he explored themes such as materialism and escapism, and his work had a dystopian but curiously uplifting quality to it.

We travelled to the WuTong artisan villages at the foot of the WuTong mountain and spent a delightful morning getting lost down alleyways, stumbling across vistas of the surrounding mountains, and meeting with artisans and designers specialising in silk embroidery, wood turning, hand-dyeing of fabrics with local plants, teapot making, screen printing and illustration to name but a few. The pace of life was undoubtedly slower there than in the city and the atmosphere more tranquil.

Visiting high end malls in Shenzhen was eye-opening. Our hosts had mentioned that it was possible in some malls to get ‘hands-on’ with certain crafts. In fact, we saw workshops that didn’t just enable you to paint pottery but actually to make the foundation pieces by hand-throwing on a potter’s wheel. There were leather workshops where you could pay for materials and space at a workbench or take classes in making handbags or shoes. There were jewellery benches for hire and tutorials in a similar set-up. There were baking studios where you could learn how to make or ice cakes and biscuits. There were painting and drawing studios. All these workshops had customers engaged in making things.

Whatever we might have read or heard about there being little engagement with craft practices in China clearly hadn’t seen how popular these DIY studios were, and this, along with so much else that we saw and experienced, gives us hope of not only a ‘Created in China’ and ‘Designed in China’ future, rather than the ubiquitous ‘Made in China’ labels we find now, but also for a resurgence in traditional and modernised craft practices and an interest in pieces made using these techniques.