Ross Urwin portrait

"Bored" Chinese are turning from fashion to furniture

Interview: ahead of this month's Design Shanghai trade fair, creative director Ross Urwin explains how furniture and product design are fast eclipsing fashion as China's new retail obsession.

Urwin told Dezeen that Chinese shoppers are becoming "bored with the whole fashion industry" and are starting to spend their money on design for the home.

"Fashion, although it will always be important to the Chinese, has hit saturation point," said Urwin during an exclusive interview in London. "So they're turning and saying, what else can we get excited by? I think it's definitely the design world."

"People generally are going to live with design much more and spend their money on it," he added.

Riding this wave of interest, Design Shanghai was set up last year by events organisation Media 10 – the group behind London's 100% Design trade fair.

Moving from Hong Kong luxury department store Lane Crawford, Urwin joined the event as creative director just three months before the inaugural edition in February 2014, which received 48,000 visitors over four days.

"If they had tried to do the show two years prior, I don't think it would have worked," Urwin said. "Everything happens so quickly in China."

The second edition, taking place from 27 to 30 March 2015, will be double the size. Along with major international brands including Vitra, Moroso, Seletti and Hay, the event will present a showcase of work by a dozen emerging Chinese designers and will include a range of companies from China.

"We want to really celebrate the local design firms and designers," said Urwin, who pointed out a renewed interest in traditional Chinese craft among the country's shoppers and predicted the decline of fake designer goods.

Perhaps predictably, Urwin also believes that Shanghai will overtake Beijing as the country's design hub – which would play to Design Shanghai's advantage. He said that designers and brands are relocating to escape "life-threatening" pollution levels and lengthy travel times across the capital.

"Logistically, a lot of international brands find it impossible to work [in Beijing] and they are now looking to Shanghai," he said. "It is much smaller, it feels like you can manage it."

Read an edited version of our interview with Urwin below:


Dan Howarth: What have you changed since last year's inaugural Design Shanghai for this year?

Ross Urwin: It's bigger. It's double the size. The SEC in Shanghai, which was a gift from the Russians, is this amazing and very ornate building which is huge-scaled, massive ceilings, lots of marble columns and decorations.

We had the first floor last year and we have taken that entire space, the two floors, and outside we are building a marquee for registration because we anticipate a lot of people coming. Last year they were queuing for nearly three hours outside in the rain to get in.

We have a lot more of the brands that were sitting on the fence and had heard about the success, and want part of that – they see the potential in China. For example Moroso. Last year we tried to get them involved, but they have got a stand this year.

Foscarini, Seletti. There are lots of brands that you would see at shows in Milan or Paris or America that are finally coming to China for the first time. Also, because we have three different halls; collectable, classic and contemporary, we have to expand on those.

Dan Howarth: Do Chinese brands and designers have the opportunity to showcase at Design Shanghai?

Ross Urwin: Absolutely. At the last show, we brought in a couple of Chinese brands that worked on features with artists but, because of the timing, we didn't have enough time to really look for interesting designers.

We want to really celebrate the local design firms and designers. One of problems you have though is actually finding ones that are at that calibre. I am involved now with putting together a platform for emerging designers and it's what I have always wanted to do, since I arrived at Lane Crawford.

Now that I have the opportunity, I have been working with AD China and fingers crossed we will put on a platform at the show for around 10 to 12 existing Chinese designers. But they are not really that well-known. We don't want to take designers that people are already writing about around the world.

Dan Howarth: Beijing is better known as an arts and design city than Shanghai, is that right?

Ross Urwin: I think that might change. A lot of the Beijing artists and designers and creatives are moving to Shanghai because of the pollution levels in Beijing. It's life-threatening. If the pollution goes, you try and get a cab, and then to go to a meeting which is sometimes two, two and half hours away, it's just ridiculous.

Logistically, a lot of international brands find it impossible to work there and they are now looking to Shanghai. There has always been this competition between the two cities and I would say, not just because I am bias with Design Shanghai, but I'm listening and seeing what is going on in the city.

It is much smaller, it feels like you can manage it. Whereas in Beijing you go there and it's like "where do I go? what do I do? what do I see?"

Dan Howarth: Is the popularity of last year's Design Shanghai indicative of the Chinese attitude towards design at the moment?

Ross Urwin: Absolutely. I would have told the guys at Media 10 that if they had tried to do the show two years prior, I don't think it would have worked. Because everything happens so quickly in China. If something happens in Europe or the States, and it's the new big boom, within a month in China it is everywhere.

Seven years ago the Chinese were less travelled and less aware of what is going on elsewhere in the world. There's now a large amount of Chinese people coming to [Western] cities and looking at design, staying in design hotels and wanting to take that back to China. There are very few great stores, department stores or design stores that are doing it properly.

What's new is the hunger for really interesting innovation, which wasn't there a couple of years ago. It's changing, and it's changing at such a fast rate that I really believe that what they're doing with Design Shanghai is something important.

I think that fashion, although it will always be important to the Chinese, has hit saturation point. There are so many shopping malls that have had so much money spent on them. And they're empty, because they don't offer an experience to the consumer.

Five years ago people were going there to buy all the brands. Now they're going and feeling a bit lacking in emotion when they do that. So they're turning and saying, what else can we get excited by? I think it's definitely the design world.

Dan Howarth: Do you think that brands are going to start opening design stores in these malls?

Ross Urwin: I'm not sure about these shopping malls, because they're a bit too fashion-focused. The people that I know are looking at new shopping malls that are not driven primarily by fashion, they're also looking at partners that have showrooms that represent different brands.

For any brand entering China, you have to be careful who you partner with. I've seen a lot of hiccups happen when people have been promised the world and then five years later they're not selling their beautiful products. The reason that they're not selling is because the person is showing the amazing design piece next to a fake or a mahogany vintage piece from the 1800s.

A lot of people don't know how to edit design, so the design brands that are entering the market need to be visiting on a regular basis or they need to have someone that's on the ground who can make sure that their DNA is well kept. That often gets ruined very easily.

Dan Howarth: Are we seeing the creation of a new contemporary Chinese design style?

Ross Urwin: Absolutely, that's what I'm really looking forward to seeing.

Chinese design is steeped in this historical traditional craft. With Communism it was just pushed away for so many years, you wouldn't talk about that sort of thing, you wouldn't buy that sort of product.

And suddenly in the last 20 years, they have been given this freedom. They have gone to the west and now they are like "its not feeding me anymore, we've got this historical heritage traditional skill which is amazing". And I see that being huge in the future. It has to be.

Dan Howarth: What do you anticipate for the Chinese design scene in the coming years?

Ross Urwin: I think there's going to be more and more events. The emphasis from the art world and fashion world will change.

I am seeing the words design and product design a lot more than I was in the past so that is definitely going to evolve. And I think people generally are going to live with design much more and spend their money on it.

I think it's that case of, as I said earlier, that they are slightly bored with the whole fashion industry. Bored in the sense that they just want something else, they want that experience. You look at art over the last five years in China and it's just gone "whoosh".

But I question how much of that art is art that is sold because it is loved and appreciated and how much is sold is because it is just a way to invest money that is going to make more money.

There is a difference with design because you live with it. A lot of the art that is bought at these shows is just locked away in a storage unit. I would like to think that the design pieces, the Prouvé that is sold in Design Shanghai from one of the French galleries, is going to be used in someone's beautiful home.

The consumer is going to be looking for more shows like Design Shanghai. The property developers, the architects, they don't have the time to fly to all the shows around the world, so if they have got it on their doorstep, it's a win-win. We come to them.

Dan Howarth: Do you think that brands in other parts of the world have to respond to this and make themselves present?

Ross Urwin: I'd like to think that they would, and I know that a lot of people are listening now. Just a couple of years ago, even with Lane Crawford, trying to get brands to sell to us, to sell in China, there was a lot of hesitation. They are not ready; "its too soon, our focus is in America".

A lot of American designers don't think they really need to step outside of America. They are doing well in America. They are busy enough. So I would like to encourage more of those people to actually see how, I wouldn't say simple, but how straightforward it could be to actually have a great market in China as well and how their product would be so appreciated in China because it is such an evolving market.