Beijing In Bloom

Emperors once lorded over it and now designers are doing the same. With hip hotels and homes sprouting up, and the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Paul Andreu vamping up the skyline, Beijing is a blossoming kingdom for design breakthroughs.

This is a great leap forward from the grey-suited, Communist world of the late 1970s. During the three decades that China was shut off from the rest of the world, designers went wild from Modernism to Postmodernism, finally settling down to Minimalism.

‘Chaos emerged,’ wrote SY Zheng in an essay called Contemporary China’s Interior Design after 1978’s liberalisation. Designers had barely grasped Modernism when Postmodernism came hurtling in. Forced up a steep learning curve, they created a mish-mash of styles, almost as if in a cruel parallel to Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers campaign. (During the 1956 campaign – whose slogan was ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend’ – the Chinese Communist Party encouraged people to give their opinions and solutions to problems.) A skyscraper topped with a pagoda roof is a regular sight.

By the 1990s, Yue Mingjun, Fang Linjun and the Luo Brothers burst forth with garish-coloured sculptures and Maoist graphic icons, taking pot shots at politics and society in the Cynical Realism and Political Pop movements. Designers, such as Li Hu and Chang Yungho, returned from studies or work in the US to join their counterparts, such as Ai Weiwei, in shaking up the scene.

‘China has been gradually getting its confidence back after the fast development of its economy,’ says Hank Chao, who heads award-winning Shanghai group MoHen Design. He believes that Chinese designers are learning to value their past, but says that they still do not know how to best use traditional design elements. ‘They first learnt more from adjacent countries such as Japan, or from other Chinese provinces like Hong Kong. These places Westernised much earlier, and have learnt how to mix their own design language from the past with contemporary elements,’ he says.

One ‘returnee’, Zhu Pei, gave artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s 200-year-old house in the heart of Beijing a Minimalist treatment, with traditional Chinese furnishings, light wood and glass panelling to add a subtle touch of modernity, while retaining rugged brick walls. Musician, tea-master and artist JinR – multi-hyphenated talents are common in the large city of big dreams – is renowned for her signature über-chic, yoke-back chairs, latticed doors and folding screens, which are reinterpretations of the Ming- and Qing-era furniture that dominate Beijing’s traditional homes, and are inspired by the Chinese philosophy of Tao or ‘the way’.

Beijing design would have a strong Chinese touch, says Hong Kong designer Kinney Chan, marking the difference emerging from it and Shanghai. Chan noted it is usually larger in scale and developed from an architectural way of thinking, whereas Shanghai designs are more ‘boutique’ and smaller in scale. Hong Kong designs are more conservative and commercial.

Douglas Young, founder of Hong Kong label Goods of Desire, finds that even the Chinese consumers are different. ‘Don’t be surprised to find that many mainland Chinese customers are more “with it” than local Hong Kong people,’ cautions Young. ‘They are often more open to new ideas than customers from “established” communities. Mainlanders appreciate our sense of humour, expressed through cultural irony.’ Young is known for his irreverent home accessories using Chinese text, images of Hong Kong and graphics from Maoist propaganda materials. ‘Chinese people want a complete change in their lifestyle. They want something that nobody else (including the Italians) have had before.’

Life for designers has not always been so rosy. Just ten years ago, according to Chan, Beijing developers used Hong Kong designers from foreign-based companies. Imported furnishings were in fashion, as local products were inferior in quality, and, due to political issues, ‘there were many restrictions in the [local] design style’. But improvements in China’s manufacturing capabilities – which is why it became the ‘factory of the world’ – has reversed the trend, so that local materials and foreign designs are now preferred.

The burgeoning purchasing power of the Chinese market and the draw of the Middle Kingdom is not lost on foreign companies. With the country’s retail sales expected to quintuple in the next decade to 30 trillion RMB (£2.15 trillion), international brands are fighting to get a piece of the pie. Brands such as Cappellini, Poltrona Frau and Hansgrohe made themselves household names in Beijing, while Philippe Starck created the LAN restaurant-club-bar, a pastiche of Mongolian tents, powder rooms, rhino heads, ornate mirrors, leather seats and plastic chandeliers. Atlanta-based interior design consultancy HBA has also been stamping its mark all over the 3000-year-old city, with not less than 13 projects, including the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott. Multi-entertainment venue Legation Quarter, whose proprietary venues ‘don’t have any Chinese-inspired interior design’, will open near the Forbidden City this year. The 10 220m2 area will include an outpost of the London nightclub Boujis, a Daniel Boulud restaurant and a Patek Philippe store. Near the Great Wall – the only man-made structure visible from space – is Jackson Hole, which looks like a set from a Western movie.

However, elsewhere there are stalwarts of tradition such as Red Capital Club and Hotel Côté Cour that take up Beijing’s famous enclosed atrium houses or siheyuan (courtyard dwellings). The US-owned Red Capital Club ‘once belonged to a notorious female spy and Manchurian revivalist who plied her trade using all assets at her disposal’. Stolen away in a hutong near the courtyard homes of many of China’s past and present leaders, it took one year for traditional craftsmen to restore. The cigar lounge is outfitted with Marshal Lin Biao’s (Mao’s ill-fated successor) chairs and the dining room decked with imperial robes and calligraphy paintings. Hotel Côté Cour, meanwhile, is a sanctuary of Venetian plaster, glass mosaic tiles and Chinese antiques, set around a lily pond and a century-old date tree.

‘Beijing has grey courtyard dwellings and the red-brick walls and glass tiles of the Imperial Palace. Various design styles live here together harmoniously,’ muses Meng En, chief executive officer of the DCB group, a non-profit-making, on-line organisation for designers. ‘It can be counted as a signature style of China. Such a unique characteristic will continue to exist, especially afterChina has truly connected with the world through the Olympics. Through the collision of Chinese and Western cultures, more and better works will be produced.’ •

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