Originally from Liaoning Province, Xiao Tianyu is a Beijing-based designer who graduated from CAFA in 2010. His graduation furniture series, Harmony, demonstrates his signature style: combining local Chinese culture with a more contemporary design aesthetic. Design China spoke with him recently to find out more.
Why did you decide to study at CAFA?
I didn’t pick CAFA, CAFA picked me. I originally wanted to venture into game design but, following my tutor’s advice, I took up a course in furniture design instead.
How did you feel once you were immersed in the furniture design course?
I was actually disappointed at first because there seemed to be a lack of both standard and systems in the course. Professors mostly taught what they were personally interested in and I didn’t really take my studies seriously. This was until I travelled to the countryside and witnessed craft processes first-hand, which had a great impact on me; I almost switched to a different course altogether! However, I also happened to meet Song Tao at this time who revealed to me the potential of furniture design.
Can you tell us about some of your working processes?
I work a lot in collaboration with others; for example, I recently collaborated with UCCA and ELLE. I also believe that collaborating with craftsmen is crucial for the development of Chinese design because traditional culture is extremely important. Failing to consult our craft heritage comprises the quality of a final product and how it is made. Designers who do not think in this way will be forever dependent on Western design aesthetics; they will not be able to surpass a superficial understanding of design.
We as young designers also have a lot to learn from Chinese craftsmen; they themselves are masters since they possess great cultural knowledge. This is the direction that I am interested in. In some respects, we have a lot to learn from Japan where design education is basically a continuation of crafts.
What was the inspiration behind your Harmony series?
This was my graduate project, so I did a lot of theoretical research behind the idea. To put it simply, I observed different ways of sitting. Furniture from the Ming Dynasty era, for example, encourages one to sit upright in quite a regal manner, whilst slouching on a sofa is considered a more comfortable way of sitting. Harmony is a marriage between the two.
What are you working on right now?
I’m developing my own porcelain series and working on some commercial projects such as furniture for resorts and hotels. I am also focusing on settling down in my 798 studio-store. I found the space earlier this year (in February 2012), so there is still some renovating to be done.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
One huge problem is manufacturing. The big factories here are not supportive of independent designers and they only agree to making prototypes. Sometimes, the quality of these prototypes is not very good. When working on a new idea, one often has to stop halfway through the design process to question whether the final outcome can even be manufactured. One often has to collaborate with big money – those who may not necessarily have good taste – in order to survive. We cannot depend on creativity alone. Even though a lot is being done to promote the local design industry here, the discipline is still not widely respected.
What advice would you give to others?
Well, the situation right now (at least in Beijing) is that designers are quite segregated; they usually focus on their own work. We need to start opening up – to collaborate more, share resources and help the community to develop collectively. Shanghai does a lot better than us in this respect because different creative groups are always working together.
What is your focus for the next couple of years?
I want to continue with and elaborate on my furniture series; continue working with Song Tao and Wuhao Curated Shop. I am also planning on a workshop in Jingdezhen for next year. Hopefully, this will help me to focus on my own porcelain series.
Thanks to Lynn Zhang for translating.