Preview: Design China Beijing pushes sustainability amid climate crisis concerns

With installations that reimagine tradition and highlight waste, the festival aims to showcase sustainability in one of the world’s most industrial nations.

Design China Beijing returns in September for a fourth edition with the theme Nature, Nurture and Sustainable Beauty. The focus of Beijing’s four-day festival, organisers explain, will be sustainable materials and industrial research. It aims to showcase China’s “pivotal role” on the global design stage, the festival’s team says, bringing together both home-grown and international speakers, as well as a trade show of over 100 brands and designers under the umbrella of sustainability.

The unavoidable question is China’s environmental record. By most measures, China is the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter. Research suggests that the country emitted around 27% of the world’s greenhouse gasses in 2019 – more than the entire developed world combined (the US and India came in second and third respectively). Rapid urban development and industrial growth may have made China an economic powerhouse but not a leader in sustainability. So far, only a lockdown has had moderate success at driving down pollution levels.

Render of Unfinished Garden

The participating designers are aware of this tension. Jae Li, curator of design platform Green Connections, explains how witnessing these changes has driven him to pursue sustainable endeavours – a feeling that may be gaining traction in the country. In September 2020, President Xi Jinpeng announced a nationwide goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. “Sustainability became an overnight buzzword,” Li says. And while there is far to go, it marks a change compared to the recent past, according to Li. He recalls developing previous  environmental initiatives which faced difficulty thanks to the “mentality of China’s design and building industry” as well as economic ambitions.

“The lesson we learned to truly make a difference was not to wait for the government to feed us,” Li says. “Our industry has to educate and prepare ourselves to get ready first.” Green Connections brings together range of designers from fields including consulting and academia to share ideas to drive sustainable practices in design. It will also collaborate with brands from around the world, including 3M and Hay, to showcase the latest projects at Design China Beijing.

Sustainable Hutong concept

Though the festival’s projects will be future-facing, local designers are also keen to incorporate tradition into the design landscape. Yuchen Guo’s conceptual Sustainable Hutong space puts a new spin on the residential courtyards that populated old Beijing (many of which were demolished in the mid-20th century for new developments). Guo’s version will be both an exhibition space and materials lab, “exploring the impact of rapid urbanisation and the concept of public space as a community shared resource”, according to festival organisers.

For his part, Guo explains how the concept is a way to apply a cultural and social lens to sustainability and show “how it can impact everybody’s lifestyle and everyday life”. The space will be able to adapt to changing needs and though this year there are no plans for designers to collaborate (as people might have in the original hutongs), Guo says he would like to explore this in the future. The designer has also developed Unfinished Garden, which leads visitors to the hutong area. This installation presents recycled ceramic waste in mounds, in an attempt to grab visitors’ attention and to prompt conversations around waste.

Yi Design’s ceramic waste material

Brands exhibiting at Design China Beijing include some familiar names from around the world. Aquafil will present its regenerated nylon material Econyl (seen in the banner image). Office furniture suppliers Interstuhl will outline its renewable energy approach – it manages to save around 243 tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the company. Alongside international brands, the festival will present speakers such as Morag Myerscough and Chinese architect Sun Dayong to discuss themes around regenerative design.

Perhaps more significant is the festival’s showing of Chinese design companies. These include young designers from one of China’s leading design schools, Central Academy of Fine Arts. Yi Design will also introduce its new material made from ceramic waste. Prompted by the 18 million tons of ceramic waste produced annually in China, the design studio has created a material that can be used to produce bricks that absorb and re-use rainwater.

Design China Beijing takes place 24-27 September 2021. More information can be found on the festival’s website. 

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