- Shi Jianmin
- Red Flag
- incised with the artist's signature in Chinese and numbered 6/8
- stainless steel
- 150 (H) by 78 by 134 cm, 59 (H) by 30 3/4 by 52 3/4 in.
by Morgan Morris
China today is a very exciting and fertile terrain for cultural exchanges that incite fervent dialogue and creativity within a blossoming context where contemporary design flows among the private, commercial and institutional arenas. Sotheby’s, at the forefront of this trend, presents a visionary exhibition, Asian Design: China, Japan, Korea marking the re-birth of collectible design over the past two decades in the region. Sotheby’s has invited me to be the guest curator for this special focus on Chinese collectible design.
As we witness the blurring of boundaries between art, design, and architecture, a very talented group of Chinese designers has emerged that has played a critical role in forging the territory between these practices to form a specific style of Chinese ‘design art’. Whether hand-crafted, created with innovative technology or other creative processes, their one-off or very limited edition design works are functional sculptures that engage both with the emotion and the intellect, demonstrating a power and poetry that go way beyond function, yet at the same time serving a daily utilitarian purpose.
The most interesting element to note is that these designers are in the process of inventing a new vocabulary to evoke the palpable contrast between historical and contemporary China. Their work is re-contextualising aesthetic codes and traditions from the past in order to rejuvenate them into new hybrid style for the present.
This selection of Chinese design works is particularly demonstrative of this evolution as it spans the work of three generations of designers starting with pioneering visionaries such as Shao Fan and Shi Jianmin who began their design career in the early 1990s with a focus on building a new language for contemporary design within the constraints of traditional practice, while maintaining a reverence for the balance and harmony inherent to Asian aesthetics.
Shao Fan’s Untitled chair set from 1996, a beautiful abstraction of Qing dynasty forms encapsulated in Bauhaus structure, is a process of reflection using design as a means of exploring the manifestations of cultural evolution and social transformation happening during the arrival of Western aesthetics in China.
Designer, artist and calligrapher, Shi Jianmin brings his mastery of traditional ink painting into a third dimension with his Glacier and Stool or Red Flag pieces, where elements of nature are transformed into polished sculptural steel furniture as iconic pieces for today’s design life.
The middle generation, including Song Tao, shows a subtle evolution marked by experimentation with new materials and forms of nascent contemporary taste combined with references to traditional aesthetics of function and form. Song Tao, with both his tea and dining tables, conveys an extremely refined vocabulary of contrasts that is often characterized as the pure essence of ‘understated elegance’ in its perpetual balance between ancient feng shui principles and cutting-edge contemporary Western sensibilities.
The generation of Li Naihan and Zhang Zhoujie gracefully bring technology and the digitally driven generative process into the creative realm of Chinese design. First with Li Naihan, one of the few female designers present on the scene, has designed a bar and folded set of ‘manga’ stools to meet the demands of the small spaces and perpetual motion of the younger generation and has entitled the works as part of the Crate Series, which are all produced through high-tech digitally driven machinery and minimum man power. Second with the work of Zhang Zhoujie whose innovation and technology permit a specific ‘generative’ design whereby objects can be 3-D printed on command according to the desire for design of the moment.
It is very exciting to see the response and note that the interest in the dialogue between art and function has been sparked in China through the efforts of the creative design scene. This talented group of contemporary Chinese designers has courageously supported and embodied the ‘created in china’ rather than the ‘made in China’ over the past two decades and brought China’s notion of design into the 21st century all the while honoring its 5000 years of majestic cultural heritage.
Morgan Morris is the co-founder of Perfect Crossovers, a unique consultancy group specializing in cultural and creative industries in Asia and the rest of the world. As an independent curator she has promoted and developed the Chinese design scene in Asia and in Europe through special projects such as the exhibitions Chinese Design in Berlin (Chinese Cultural Institute, 2016), Modern Fossils at the Chinese Cultural Institute in Paris (2015), the organization of a curated presentation of Chinese design in the Asia Now art fair (Espace Pierre Cardin, Paris, 2015), and through her role as Director Curator of the Collectible Design Hall in the Design Shanghai Fair (2014-2016).
Shi Jianmin, born in 1962 in Xi’an, is one of the most respected artists in China who works across different creative spheres including fine art, design, architecture, and landscape design. Educated at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts and the Central Academy of Applied Arts, he now lives and works in Beijing.
Works in cast, hand-cut metals such as stainless steel and polished aluminium that appear to defy gravity are representative of Shi Jianmin’s style. His monumental, often biomorphic forms showcase molten surfaces and multiple planes revealing cavities and cave-like chambers. Shi Jianmin’s pieces are a fusion of highly sculptural forms, sentiment, and poetry where the artistic concept often dominates the functionality of the design objects. Jianmin combines working with metals with a strong attention to detail, making his works exceptionally expressive and unique. Mixing tradition with a desire for modernity are two elements of the artist’s visual language that come through in his designs. Some of Jianmin’s most recognisable pieces are the stainless steel design sculptures imitating the Chinese scholar’s rocks.
Starting from 1996, Shi Jianmin has exhibited his works in China, Europe, and the US. He received the Award for Excellence (in design) at the Tenth National Art Exhibition in 2004. Jianmin’s artworks have been collected by major institutions, including the Peabody Essex Museum in the US.