<< back to News

China Design Now


The much-talked about exhibition stands as one of the shows of the year, coupled with that other impressive cultural showcase, the Beijing Olympics it all points to an opportunity for the nation to present to the world its newa beginning. China has woken up to the power of consumerism, technology and design.The first thing that strikes you about the exhibition is its graphic design. Cyber fonts, neon lights, electric blue, pink and other techno flouros take the place of archetypical red and gold, silk painting and calligraphy. It automatically throws you into an out-of-the-box mentality. Prepare to challenge what you think you know. The twenty-first century boom is presented through a tri-city mechanism, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing all uniquely different but integral and interconnected to the design revolution. We took a look at the path to greatness…




Presented in the exhibition as the‘Frontier City', Shenzhen is the youngest city in China and the alleged birthplace of Chinese graphic design. As a country bound by its communist political system, free expression has not always been easy but a new generation of young design professionals inextricably linked with street culture, technology and other design disciplines began to use graphic language as an alternative and representative voice. Concepts like‘design' are a given and a right in Western society but unbelievably, China did not even have a word for‘graphic design' thirty years ago and it wasn't until the late 1990's that universities began offering design courses.

Together, these new-found designers used their collective force to establish China as a design centre in its own right communicating to the outside world with their graphic vocabulary. Of the three cities, the one thing you notice about Shenzhen is how much the new visual art is heavily traced with elements of the heritage visual art, reminiscent of Chinese lettering and painting. It reads as the first, steady step in a cultural shift. From this starting point came an urban youth-shift realised through music, film, independent magazines, fashion, collectibles and club culture.


Shanghai has long been romanticised as a bustling, international city described as the ‘Paris of the Orient', commonly associated with the chic twenties. It has also been a vehicle for a new-found consumerism and defines itself as the ‘fashion capital' of China. A fashionable lifestyle complete with a set of style-icons and new media channels has fuelled an aspiration for something more akin to a Western lifestyle with fashion magazines, film, celebrity and cosmetics. Xintiandi is the luxury district which best combines Western allure with Eastern cool. The past thirty years has seen a social development close to what we would describe as a ‘Middle Class', hungry for status symbols which were once a roof over the head and are now designer clothes. Fashion is an inevitable by-product of a design revolution with Shanghai possessing some promising young talent from Ma Ke, Wang Yiyang and Zhang Da creating commercial creativity whilst referencing Chinese costume and avant garde deconstructionism.





Finally, we come to the capital city and the hub of Changing-China. Thanks to the hosting of the Olympics, the infrastructure and architectural and landscape of the city has fast-tracked to urbanisation. Commercial architecture is big business especially with more and more of the population flocking to the cities at fast pace. However in the bid to urbanise Beijing the balance between profit and sustainability arises.

It's hard to imagine‘in this day and age' that there are cities only just realising their potential to become ‘modern'! Where as London revolutionised in the sixties, New York in the seventies, Beijing will be in the noughties.. It makes one wonder, when the time is right what other world cities will have their moment. Five years ago, the Chinese art scene was practically non- existent! Five years. 2003. It's remarkable to witness something that happened so long ago for us. Now big fashion brands, theatre, festivals, haute cuisine are all part of what it is to be Chinese. In a way it is a kind of sad realisation, a kind of acceptance that the days of old and tradition will soon be completely eradicated and our lifestyle- our consumerist, hectic, fast-paced life is the life craved and aspired to by most peoples.

Not everyone is falling for the new modernism with artists like Wang Fei desperate not to forget the spirit of Chinas past, a past and rooting which itself is a deeply rich and enthralling one.

All images © V&A 2008

By Becky Lyon

<< back to News