China is becoming a creative superpower in design says Marcus Fairs
China Design Power

"China is fast becoming the world's creative superpower"

The design world flocked to Milan last week for its design week. But soon the action will shift to China, which is about to leapfrog the west when it comes to architecture and design, predicts Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs.


China is fast becoming the world's creative superpower. And it is doing it on its own terms. No longer an emerging nation that needs to learn from the west or copy its way to commercial success, China is in many ways already ahead of the rest of the world.

And it is moving fast. Bewildered visitors to the country talk about "China speed" – the incredible velocity at which buildings get built, products get launched, start-ups get started, technologies get adopted.

Dockless bike-sharing networks are a good example of China speed in action. The first provider, Ofo, launched in 2014 and within a couple of years millions of rental bikes, unlocked via a smartphone app, were visible on Chinese streets. The market subsequently contracted dramatically but the speed and scale of the rollout of an entirely new urban mobility service was astonishing.

Another example is WeChat, the app that combines social media, messaging, payment and web functionality that is streets ahead of anything we have in the west.

China is the leading global player in many other technologies of the future including solar power, battery technology, electric cars, facial-recognition tech and drones

Launched in 2011, it is now used by over one billion Chinese people, with new functionality being added all the time. Its seamless payments service has created a cashless economy where even credit cards are viewed as anachronisms and where restaurants are booked, friends invited, food chosen and the bill split and paid for with just a few taps of your phone screen.

The ubiquitous QR codes plastered over every surface in Chinese cities are the visible links between the physical world and the new virtual economy.

But China is also the leading global player in many other technologies of the future including solar power, battery technology, electric cars, facial-recognition tech and drones. The ambitious Made in China 2025 policy aims to make China a leader in yet more next-generation industries, leaving decisively behind its reputation as a cheap manufacturing base for foreign brands.

The battle to dominate sunrise sectors such as biotech and AI is in many ways a two-way fight between China and Silicon Valley. With e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba and Tencent, owner of WeChat, China has two of the biggest and most dynamic tech companies in the world.

And with moonshot projects like its plan to build a solar power station in space, China also has the potential to take global leadership on technologies to mitigate climate change, at a time when western drives to reduce emissions appear to be stalling (although a recent surge in construction of coal-fired power stations could undo China's good-cop reputation).

Chinese soft corporate power is on the rise and its brands have started to become household names in the west. These include consumer electronics and telecoms brand Huawei, PC maker Lenovo, drone-maker DJI and cycle-sharing networks Ofo and Mobike. Video-sharing social network TikTok is the first app from China to find major global success.

China has the potential to take global leadership on technologies to mitigate climate change, at a time when western drives to reduce emissions appear to be stalling

The 2016 animated movie Kung Fu Panda 3 was the first international blockbuster to be co-produced by a Chinese studio, with one third of the film made in China. Didi Chuxing, the ride-hailing app that beat Uber at its own game in China, plans to launch overseas.

Many other iconic western brands are now owned by Chinese companies, including car brands Lotus and Volvo, which are owned by Geely, and MG, which is owned by SAIC Motor. Motorola, Weetabix, Hamleys and Inter Milan and AC Milan also have Chinese owners. Less well known is Qumei Home Furnishing Group's £480 million purchase last year of Norwegian furniture giant Ekornes, the biggest furniture manufacturer in the Nordic region and owner of the Stressless brand.

With technology driving the economy, serious architecture and design have often felt like an afterthought. When a showpiece building was required, the talent was imported. When a contemporary interior look was required, it was copied.

But that too is changing. A new generation of home-grown Chinese practitioners is gaining confidence, encouraged by the international success of the first wave of overseas-educated talents including architects MAD and Neri&Hu, and furniture and homeware brands Stellar Works and Zens.

With technology driving the economy, serious architecture and design have often felt like an afterthought

This year, Chinese designers are being feted at fairs around the world. Chinese architects and designers were notably present in the longlists for last year's Dezeen Awards, with 62 firms making the cut, making China the fourth-most successful country after the UK, USA and Australia.

Meanwhile western architects and designers are being drawn to China in droves. Walking round the vast halls of the Design Shanghai fair and attending social events in the city last month, I was struck by the number of people I know who have relocated to the country to take advantage of its dynamism and wealth.

Many have set up studios in Shanghai and Beijing. Many more were in town sniffing for opportunities that today seem hard to come by back home. Chinese returnees who have been educated or have lived abroad say the opportunities back home exceed those overseas.

Creative education is one area where China lags behind the west; qualifications from Ivy League architecture schools and establishments like the Royal College of Art are still considered essential for Chinese creatives from wealthy families.

Westerners tend to be complacent about China's ability to nurture home-grown creative talent, viewing the Chinese education system as one that does not encourage original thinking, since students learn by rote. Many observers have argued that this will hold back China's desire to create its own IP to rival that of the west. However China is catching up with the USA in the league table of annual patent applications.

Westerners tend to be complacent about China's ability to nurture home-grown creative talent

But there is a hunger for knowledge in China that extends beyond the classroom. Western business people who employ Chinese staff repeatedly express astonishment at how quickly they go from being bemused observers of creative decision-making to confident creative thinkers.

There is a hunger for architecture and design knowledge as well. The talks programme at Design Shanghai earlier this month, as well as the Festival of Design conference held in the city around the same time, were both packed to the rafters.

At a discussion panel I moderated at Design Shanghai, representatives of China's new generation of design talents spoke of how hard work and humility have always been part of their culture. They are prepared to put in the hours required to succeed, but they are not naturally boastful.

People from cultures where bragging is the norm can wrongly interpret this humility as inadequacy. They are in for a surprise. I heard of one American brand that flew its senior designers over to meet its new Chinese design team. They were planning to train them up but were astonished by the presentation they were given on arrival: the local team was coming up with better ideas than the team back at HQ.

Meanwhile China's ballooning middle class is developing a taste for high-quality design. Hotel chains and property developers are specifying certified products instead of knockoffs, and they are doing so in huge quantities. According to Stellar Works founder Yuichiro Hori, there were 762 openings of new high-quality hotels in China last year, and 54 in Shanghai alone. And they want their architects to specify original products, not copies.

This has led to a boom in sales for design brands. Most of these are from abroad, with European brands investing heavily in China, and looking beyond Shanghai and Beijing. Danish furniture and lighting brand Fritz Hansen recently opened its largest-ever standalone store in Xi'an. Fellow Danish brand Hay opened a store there the same week.

But Chinese brands are increasingly grabbing the action too. The Design Shanghai fair, the biggest in China, has grown exponentially since it was first launched in 2014, becoming the biggest of its kind in China. This year it covered a sprawling 35,000 square metres of the vast Shanghai Exhibition Centre.

Demand for design is now spreading from the major "first-tier" cites of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to second- and third-tier cities

In its early years the fair showcased just two local companies among the mostly western brands, but the percentage of home-grown exhibitors has grown dramatically, this year representing almost 25 per cent of the 400 exhibitors. This year, for the first time, Stellar Works used the fair to launch products in its home city, feeling the domestic market is now established enough to be a platform to rival Milan.

With a population of 1.4 billion, China is home to 18 per cent of the world's people. There are more Chinese than Americans and Europeans combined. Mandarin is the world's most widely spoken language.

Demand for design is now spreading from the major "first-tier" cites of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to second- and third-tier cities. These are huge by western standards: Xi'an, the second-tier-status capital of Shaanxi province and the city where Fritz Hansen and Hay have just set up shop, has over seven million inhabitants.

This makes for a huge market. Stellar Works' Yuichiro Hori told me he received an order from a dealer in a second-tier Chinese city that was as big as he would get from a European dealer in a year. A month later, the same dealer placed another, even bigger, order.

China's size, wealth and velocity of change are creating unprecedented conditions for creativity

This cascade of wealth and sophistication is the latest stage in a 40-year process that has seen China undergo the fastest and largest urbanisation the world has ever seen, with 640 million people moving from the countryside to cities. China has achieved in 40 years what other industrial societies took 200 years to achieve.

China's size, wealth and velocity of change are creating unprecedented conditions for creativity, but also there is a dawning awareness that the notion of creativity itself looks set to be transformed in the Chinese crucible.

In conversation with me in Stockholm earlier this year Rossana Hu of Neri&Hu said that China's speed had created a time lag between theory and reality that has so far prevented a distinctly Chinese design movement or sensibility from emerging.

However she believes the emerging generation will bridge that gap. "The creativity of China defies all notion of the past," she said. "There's a new generation of creatives that are doing amazing work, exploring issues, exploring materials and exploring technologies. They are going to change the face of China."

When asked whether the next genuinely new global design movement could emerge from China, her partner Lyndon Neri said: "Absolutely. It is bubbling. I don't know what it is but we feel the heat from that bubble."

Main illustration is by Another Design.