At just 30 years of age, Lao Jianhua already has an impressive portfolio, including mobile phones, Italian coffee bar interiors, Bosch display kitchens and high-end furniture. He was the youngest project manager at leading Chinese brand Haier and became head designer there within two years. But in China he’s practically a veteran, he says, with the native design industry, especially in the field of product design, still in its infancy.
Just over ten years ago, home appliance giant Haier created an in-house design team – the first of China’s manufacturers to do so. Since then, the idea of home-grown design talent has spread, but there is still a way to go. Jianhua wears his own Chinese heart proudly on his sleeve. He describes himself as traditional, and talks of his roots in his hometown of Shaoxing with warmth. Yet first and foremost, he sees himself as an international designer. ‘The world is very small nowadays. You can’t close your door to outside influences – you need to interact,’ says Jianhua.
Even though Jianhua works in branding, interiors and graphic design as well as products, it is the latter that excites him most. ‘Interior design is specific to a place, whereas you can take products everywhere,’ he explains. ‘It’s fun when you see a product used.’ But he is aware that China lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to certain product design – it is at its best in home appliances and electronics, but furniture, ceramics and glassware are still the domain of other countries. ‘Very long ago, China excelled at ceramics and furniture design. We need to look back at our history and culture, and recapture some of that craftsmanship,’ says Jianhua.
It’s equally important to learn from other cultures, he adds. Jianhua has worked for Japan’s GK Design and Italian designers such as Luca Trazzi, and appreciates the Japanese simplicity and team approach, as well as Italy’s long history of craft, beautiful forms and quality. But it’s Chinese aesthetics that are closest to his style. ‘It’s like eating a dish from a different country,’ he says. ‘You might like the taste of it a lot, but you still wouldn’t eat it every day.’ Jianhua describes Chinese style as ‘colourful, very warm and intricate’. ‘The Chinese Ming dynasty has the most wonderfully designed furniture, and I have studied this to help me understand my own culture and techniques,’ he says.
At the moment, Jianhua is at the Victoria & Albert Museum as HSBC Designer in Residence. He is running a studio in the new Sackler Centre for six months, with regular open-studio sessions, and has access to the collections, which he has already perused for inspiration – he is particularly enamoured by the Islamic art for its decorative qualities, and by the early British stained glass windows. But Jianhua is most inspired by everyday life and people. ‘You can learn about style and material by looking at the collection, but it’s not alive,’ he says. ‘You need to get out and watch people, and understand users’ real needs regarding their social habits and environments.’
Jianhua shows a palpable excitement about his Sackler tenancy. He is keen to explore British design, exchange ideas with visitors and take full advantage of the freedom the residency provides. Even though he founded his own studio, JY Design, in Shanghai earlier this year, the constraints and challenges of working for clients are ever-present. The next six months will let him develop his own style, which he describes as ‘the simple way’. ‘Simple, not in terms of form, but in terms of the use and treatment of materials,’ he explains. ‘I want to use materials’ innate character, and not force anything. It should also be beautiful, to reflect good quality.’
By the end of his residency, Jianhua hopes to realise a range of product concepts. He also wants to throw open a window to Chinese culture, and when he returns to China, he’s keen to bring some of the V&A’s educational ethos back to help Chinese product design take that next step.
Lao Jianhua’s first open-studio session is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 on 12 December, from 2pm to 7.30pm