The notion of Chinese design typically conjures up images of Ming furniture, blue and white ceramics and Mao suits. But "China Design Now," the impressive new exhibit at London's Victoria and Albert Museum (through July 13), includes not a single dragon motif, let alone a dragon robe. Instead, toy panda sculptures about the size of small children are flanked by pairs of limited-edition Nike sneakers with bamboolike stitching and built-in acupuncture-type cushions. On the wall hangs a series of colorful skateboards decorated with ironic Maoist slogans and caricatures of revolutionary guards. The adjoining rooms feature elegant garments by Shanghai's top fashion designers, as well as models of Beijing's major Olympic architectural projects, including the National Stadium, a tangled pattern of steel, aptly nicknamed the "Birds' Nest."
The show makes one thing very clear: this is not your Ming dynasty's China. Home to a tech-savvy generation of talented young designers, the country has come a long way in the past decade. Four years in the making, "China Design Now" stylishly explores the country's rapidly evolving design culture and features the works of more than 100 of the most innovative Chinese designers, including animators and architects. "Young designers today are very creative in the ways that they blend traditional Chinese influences together with other global design trends, like Japanese Manga cartoons, Korean fashion and Brit pop," says Zhang Hongxing, an expert in Chinese painting who co-curated the exhibition with Lauren Parker, the V&A's Head of Contemporary Programmes. "Chinese design will take off in the next five to 10 years, in much the same way that Chinese contemporary art has." Bolstered by runaway economic growth, China, as the show demonstrates, is no longer content with producing knockoffs and cheap foreign goods. It wants to renew its tradition of innovation, which included the advent of the printing press, silk and gunpowder. "The higher-end of manufacturing in China, such as mobile-phone design, is going to become the next big thing," says Parker.
As the exhibit makes clear, the Chinese have rekindled their love for retail therapy. The country is the world's largest market for mobile phones and is soon set to overtake the United States as the second biggest consumer of luxury goods after Japan. Forty years ago, the "Four Great Things" (si dan jian) of consumer desire included a bicycle, a watch, a sewing machine and a radio. Now, as the 200-plus projects on display suggest, it's a Motorola flip phone, a Mercedes-Benz, an Apple MacBook and an apartment designed by architect Ma Qingyun. China's yuppie generation once lusted solely after foreign luxury labels as a symbol of status and wealth. But today's urban youth are becoming increasingly receptive to homegrown fashion designs, like the dumpling-inspired backpack by Wang Yiyang, on display in the middle hall, and geometric-cut evening dress by Han Feng. "Young people are now starting to wear clothes designed by their own designers rather than aspiring to buy top Western brands like Gucci, Dior and Prada," says Zhang.
The exhibition is structured around the three cities that have shaped China's emergence in the world: Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. The journey begins in the country's manufacturing and graphic design center, Shenzhen, where the average age is just 27. Highlights include a poster designed by Wang Xu that promoted the nation's first Graphic Design exhibition in 1992, depicting two legs intertwined—one clad in traditional Chinese dress, the other in a Western-style business suit. In the adjacent hall, opulent haute couture by leading designers, such as Lu Kun and Ma Ke, as well as glossy portraits of porcelain painted girls by Wing Shya and Chen Ma evoke the glamour of 1930s Shanghai. In the final room, Beijing's latest architectural projects, as well as hugely ambitious new urban planning schemes, are expertly visualized: the new Olympic communications center by architect Zhu Pei; Dongtan, the world's first eco-city, which is being constructed on Chongming Island, off Shanghai, and Thames Town, a residential project in Songjiang modeled on an old, English-style town.
The role of the designer is a new notion in post-reform China. The first generation of graphic artists were trained in traditional fine-arts academies in the early 1980s, where they had no historical or international context for their work and little opportunity to explore their ideas. "China Design Now" shows how the country's new generation of designers are far more worldly and versatile, spurred on by social networks and popular chat forums. They are also able to work across genres, as evidenced by the array of books, CD covers, T shirts, toys and animation by design alliances like MEWE (Guang Yu, He Jun and Liu Zhizhi) and Perk (Jin Ningning and Sei Wei). There are now more than 550 design schools across China, many of which have sprung up only in the last 10 years, and hundreds of design consulting firms in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
Still, there are hurdles to overcome. One obstacle is the substandard teaching in many of China's hastily founded design schools. Another is the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, which cut off the country's rich decorative-arts tradition and has left a mark on the current national curriculum, where creativity and design are often not high on the agenda. Yet there is plenty of scope for optimism. "Since 1992 we've seen a really rapid process in Chinese design culture," says Parker. "If that case carries on in the next three or four years, Chinese architects and fashion designers will be seen as part of the international design community and not just singled out because they are Chinese." Soon, gadgets like the iPhone, may not just be made in China, but designed there, too.