China's astonishing economic success will have serious repercussions for Western designers. A heavy investment in talent is about to catapult the country into the centre of the world's design stage. Tom Dennis takes a look East.
Every five years, the Chinese government draws up five key tasks it wishes to undertake. In 2003, it wasn't infrastructure, education or political reform that made the top five, but changing the little tags we in the West have become so accustomed to seeing, from 'Made in China' to 'Created in China'. The subtlety of the change speaks volumes - China no longer wishes to be the world's factory, but the world's creative driving force.
"There is a tremendous amount of focus on creativity and creative skills in China," enthuses Scott Burnham, creative director for Urbis in Manchester and curator of the recent China Show there. "From industrial design to graphic design, China realises that it has all the hardware in place to produce everything from functional to fanciful objects and materials. What it lacks is the creative input, which, for most production, is still coming from the West."
For a country in which graphic design has been traditionally associated with Maoist propaganda and the functional aesthetic - almost half a decade after the Cultural Revolution - Chinese design is largely starting from year zero. As Burnham points out, there's no previous generation to learn from. Nevertheless, it's not a question of if, but when the Chinese will join Japanese, Scandinavian and British designers as a creative driving force with serious global reach.
Only a matter of time
"Once the creative skills become embedded in Chinese creative culture and intellectual property production, the transition will be complete, from culture and design media being made in China to being made by China," says Burnham.
"The art and design scene in China is growing exponentially. It's the most rapidly growing creative scene today, largely fuelled by the economy," Burnham continues. "That said, there is a gap in the market, because the most profitable work being done by Chinese designers and design houses is for Western clients who want to move into Chinese markets."
Part of this new creative firepower comes from Chinese design schools, which are quickly gaining a reputation as world-class institutions. Colleges such as Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts, the China Academy of Art, located in Hangzhou, and the College of Design in Guangzhou are now offering courses in architecture, apparel and clothing design, industrial art, digital design, sculpture, illustration and photography. And they've already turned out many high-profile students, among them graphic designer Beibang; Jimmy, one of Asia's most popular illustrators; and X2R, the famous toy designer, graffiti artist and graphic designer.
Surprisingly, all these artists have a marked Western style, which begs the question: what about Chinese design itself? If its impact is expected to be as big as China's growing economic influence, what influence can we expect China to have on the global design scene?
"Although Chinese style is considered similar to Japanese style, it's actually a distinct one with a longer history," argues Mazakii, a 22-year-old illustrator and designer, based in Guangzhou, China. "In Western eyes, colour is most essential to a piece of art, which can attract people in a fraction of a second. But both modern and traditional Oriental styles work more on the details, especially lines and curves, which are the second, deeper attraction."
More specifically, Mazakii considers Chinese-style illustration to be of biggest potential impact, specifically because of the Chinese education system's reliance on calligraphy. "Chinese people regard calligraphy as a very important type of art," she says. "They believe handwriting reflects personality and that they must learn calligraphy before they even start to master Chinese handwriting."
Yet even though mainstream design is coming to the fore, underground and urban art remains in its infancy. Street art and graffiti is almost non-existent, and although exhibitions such as Get it Louder and the British Council's Aftershock show shed some light on the country's emerging talent, it's still difficult for up-and-coming Chinese artists to make their mark.
Burnham for one believes that the West has an almost exploitative attitude to Chinese art. "Today it's hard to find the commercial art world paying attention to much else. I do fear, however, that a lot of the attention is almost entirely investment and speculation-based."
Even if this is true, Mazakii considers Chinese influence an inevitability - if only because of the sheer size of the country: "There is a trend that more and more Chinese artists have caught the world's attention," she says. "I believe that, sooner or later, a new wave of Chinese art and style will be presented. With 1.3 billion people and 1.3 billion ideas towards art, we will make the world more vibrant."
Isn't it time the world took notice?