Shenzhen’s design revolution

The opening of the Shekou Design Museum in Shenzhen, scheduled in early 2017, in partnership with the V&A could ratify the city’s transition from a Dickensian and bleak zone to a creative pole.

Sergey Ivanov, Shenzen, 2011
In its three decades of existence as a metropolis, Shenzhen has not had much time to develop a cultural infrastructure.
This southern Chinese city of 18-million people, nothing more than a fishing village prior to Deng Xiaoping’s launch of free-market reforms there in 1979, owes its recognition for being the iconic site of manufacturing of a country which produces and assembles as many as 90% of the planet’s electronics. At the same time, the city’s contribution to the international cultural debate is much more limited – at least at first sight.
To a large extent, Shenzhen is the kind of place that foreign skeptics of China’s rise, including those across the water in Hong Kong, love to hate. A tabula rasa urban character, hordes of uneducated labourers, generic architecture, and a polluted landscape: all of these factors readily lend themselves to depictions of the city as a Dickensian and bleak zone. The harsh working conditions of industries such as Foxconn, the electronic manufacturer serving companies including Apple and HP, only confirmed this view for many.
Within the mainland, things can look very different. Removed from the political, economical and cultural elites of Beijing and Shanghai, Shenzhen can feel like a site of populist freedom for rural masses, with much more openness to entrepreneurs – including ones who work in culture. A Chinese “innovation” is possible, and the lack of predetermined norms in Shenzhen have made it a great place for many. As the Pearl River Delta region gradually shifts from mass manufacturing to white collar industries and craft, Shenzhen has begun to emerge as a creative pole.
Xiquinho Silva, 2009
Top: Sergey Ivanov, Shenzen 2011. Above: Xiquinho Silva, Shenzen, 2009. Both images from flickr under creative commons license
Countless cities in the world can boost an emerging scene of small businesses and design studios – in fact, this is one of the prevailing rules in today’s Richard-Florida-inspired urban marketing. However, very few of the same metropolis can match that creative presence with a manufacturing base as colossal as Shenzhen’s – particularly remarkable as one of the near future’s most profitable territories of research called Internet of Things. Already today, Shenzhen features one of China’s highest GDP per capita: one comparable to Lisbon and Budapest, according to Brookings data. This is where China’s Design Revolution, as described by Lorraine Justice in a famous 2012 book, is actually happening.

Until today, however, Shenzhen hasn’t made many cultural waves globally, or if so, only when in connection with Hong Kong. Leaving aside a rash of experimental biennials and triennials, some architecture firms such as Urbanus, and the local branch of the national OCAT network, the city is more likely to be identified as an unattractive manufacturing zone, as in portraits by Edward Burtysnky types, than as a destination for cultural research.

The opening of the Shekou Design Museum, scheduled in early 2017, represents a tide starting to change. The news shakes the scene substantially, for the new venue which aims to give Shenzhen a world-class cultural pole will be directly associated, at least in the first years of its existence, with one of Europe’s most authoritative institutions: the UK’s Victoria & Albert museum.

Connie, Shenzen
Connie, Shenzen, 2008. Image from flickr under creative commons license
The Shekou Design Museum is part of a larger initiative of one of China’s leading finance and construction operators, the China Merchants Group (CMG). Shekou is the name of a district which is undergoing a massive redevelopment project, and whose position adjacent to the ferry link between the mainland and Hong Kong makes it a convenient commercial choice as much as a subtle geopolitical statement. The final result of the CMG investment will be a gigantic free-trade complex featuring retail facilities and several exhibition spaces (forming the “Seaworld Arts and Culture Centre”), among which the V&A-curated one will have a spearheading position. The museum will be hosted in a building designed by the Japanese architecture studio Maki & Associates, now under construction.
Maki and Associates, Shekou Design Museum
Maki and Associates, Shekou Design Museum
Despite its resemblance with other projects already inaugurated or currently under (delayed) development somewhere else – the Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim and Louvre being the most obvious examples – the Shekou Design Museum is hardly analogous. The V&A has been invited to participate in the constitution of the new venue, but it does not intend to open a branch in southern China. Rather, this partnership between the state-owned CMG and the V&A, a public body receiving about 60% of its funds from the British government, could be loosely classifiable as a form of “government-to-government trade” applied to the cultural sector. The London partner’s commitment will be temporary, lasting until 2019, and officially consists of three pillars. The first two regard the provision of consultancy services on the issues of museum management, and the setup of a couple of temporary touring exhibitions. The third one, possibly the most ambitious one, deals with the realisation of the V&A Gallery, a contemporary design museum featuring international pieces from the mother company’s enormous permanent collection. What the three pillars are supposed to sustain is an expansion of the British brand’s reach in the Asian market – with more Chinese visitors expected to make a stop in Cromwell road during their next journey in the English capital.
Maki and Associates, Shekou Design Museum
Maki and Associates, Shekou Design Museum
In a series of exclusive conversations with Domus, the Shekou Design Museum’s Founding Director Ole Bouman and two of the leading figures of the V&A gallery, Luisa Mengoni and Brendan Cormier, have revealed the major challenges and objectives of this venture, whose details have not be officially announced yet. This project represents not only the V&A’s first international collaboration at this level, but also one of today’s most important cultural projects connecting China and Europe. No wonder that Xi Jingping and Britain’s Prince William were together to observe the very first pieces selected for the Shenzhen’s gallery, as Maarten Baas’ “Plastic Chair in Wood”, during the Chinese president’s mid-October pompous diplomatic reception in London.

“Our angle will be different from most museums, not so much focussed on objects, authors, acquisitions and other categories of museological practice”, says Bouman, a Dutch architect, former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, who in 2013 curated the 5th Shenzhen/Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale: “We will try to focus on values, issues, urgencies and hence start with reality. Shenzhen is a perfect place for that as it surpassed all existing urban categories since it started to grow 35 years ago.”

“Our objective is to create in Shenzhen something similar to what we have in London: a venue of events, not just an exhibition space”, adds Mengoni, an Italian-born curator and scholar of Chinese art. “At the same time, our museum must tackle the exceptional complexity of the contemporary design discourse in China, which is encompassing at once all the phases of what has been the European history from the 20th century until now: the industrial, the postindustrial and the digital, the focus on tradition and the desire to attain a supranational identity”.

Maki and Associates, Shekou Design Museum
Maki and Associates, Shekou Design Museum

Mengoni acts as head of the V&A gallery, whose exhibits are being selected from the V&A’s archives in the departments of furniture and product design, fashion, photography, theatre and performance, among the others. “I see our work with this gallery as an exploration on how we measure the value of things, which is a crucial point for today’s design culture in China”, says Cormier, the Canadian-born lead curator of the contemporary design collection. “The rising middle class are defining new social lifestyles. And around that phenomenon, much is happening which is involving design. In business, in the government’s perception of this industry, and in the education world too”.

“What often prevails in the country is a consumer-driven sense of design, in the sense that design is seen as a vehicle to show social status”, adds Cormier. “With our work, we hope to put forward a multidimensional perception. Designers can find different levels of legitimation, thus we are working on an exhibition path that will pass through all of them, dealing with variables such as identity, material innovations, problem solving, communication strategies, and beauty”.

China today has two millions of designers, but not a design culture equally developed

The establishment of the Shekou Design Museum aims at affecting the national debate on design education too. “On one hand, the Communist party has invested massive resources in fuelling design schools. On the other hand, the business model at an industrial level has remained unchanged. The result is that China today has two millions of designers, but not a design culture equally developed”, says Mengoni. As the latest Dubai’s Global Grad Show attested, among many other examples, successful Chinese design students are getting more and more numerous. Yet, when they want to operate in their own country, they are likely to confront a very conservative market.

“Many Chinese factories still find more convenient to copy western design and re-make it cheaper”, says Cormier: “If only a small fraction of those two million designers want to establish new companies, they will need to convince manufacturers to finally invest in design. And this is where our presence want to be of some help. Interestingly, something similar occurred in early 20th century America. Back then, all of a sudden designers needed to turn into storytellers to make good selling pitches.”

What design story will the V&A gallery tell? The first overview of the 250 objects selected, glimpsed through one of Cormier’s frequent posts on Instagram, shows there is no intention of diminishing Europe and America’s critical role in the constitution of the 20th century as a “design century”. At the same time, the curators are investing great energy in building a collection which defies a Western-oriented perspective. While navigating through a London-kept archive of Asian art and design whose origins go back to the Victorian colonial time, they are also working closely with Chinese designers, intellectuals, and artists. In the past months, Cormier and Mengoni have been traveling across China, meeting people in design, technology, and startups. Their time in the Pearl River Delta region, documented on the V&A public blog, identified the volatile and shifting scene in a Shenzhen less driven by institutional players than cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou or even Hong Kong.
Maki and Associates, Shekou Design Museum
Maki and Associates, Shekou Design Museum
Shenzhen’s diffuse, popular manufacturing activism, embodied by figures such as Li Ta-wei, founder of the seminal Xinchejian makerspace, or Hao (Eric) Pan, one the fathers of the Shenzhen Maker Faire, makes the city looking like an appropriate site where to envision the future of creative processes. The high art of China’s 21st century may come from Beijing; the luxury fashion brands of tomorrow, from Shanghai. But if China can cultivate an influential design culture, oriented towards a close relationship between objects and services with technology, Shenzhen is a more fertile location. The fact that leading hardware accelerators as HAX or Highway1 run offices and courses both in San Francisco and Shenzhen is a signal of the increasing ties between big businesses and young ‘makers’ in the two distant places.
For the Western observer who still struggles to grasp Shenzhen’s spirit, a suggestion could be to shun the contrasting references of today’s London and 19th century’s Manchester, and rather to evoke the unrestrained character of a metropolis like Los Angeles in the early 1960. “Surely making a design museum here is a liberating act”, says Cormier. “Design in China is seen more and more as a tool to fix larger issues, from urbanisation, to environmental defence, to social issues. And Shenzhen is a very stimulating base to reflect on this”, says Mengoni.

The success of the Shekou Design Museum can be measured only in the long run; not just as a curatorial project, but also as a platform for the transformation of the urban and economic space of the Pearl River Delta region. The presence of the V&A will be critical to even out the cultural imbalances between Shenzhen and other first-tier cities. “In Beijing and Shanghai you can count on a loyal body of people who will constitute a museum-going public”, says Cormier: “in Shenzhen the task is really to build that body from scratch. This is also part of our challenge to encourage the growth of a design culture.”

“From a certain angle, people speak about Shenzhen as ‘a cultural desert’ because it lacks the typical cultural infrastructure”, says Bouman: “However, if we first take a look into the emancipatory drive of this city, and consequently to the countless ways this drive finds creative avenues way beyond the cultural sector, it becomes clear that the future belongs to Shenzhen.”

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