Alan Yi, Design Director of Afterain Design Studio, stated that huaren design is often characterized by the stories and cultural symbols it contains. Huaren design greatly differs from most Western designs that seem to only value functionality, streamlining, and ergonomics. He also points out that the definition of huaren design is very broad. Designs that carry cultural symbols or designs that appear to be Eastern only make up a fraction of huaren design and cannot represent its entire spectrum. Therefore, when discussing related topics, we should avoid falling into the trap of limiting stereotypes.
Inspired by a wish to preserve precious yet rapidly diminishing culture and traditions, Afterain Design Studio launched their CiCHi lifestyle brand in 2009. The core idea of the brand is ‘culture.’ They strive to design with a contemporary language while still preserving their culture, not only in order to inherit, but also to propagate that culture. Each product’s design originates from huaren culture and traditions, which is also manifested in the appearance and use of colors. The messages of blessings and goodwill behind the huaren tradition of gift giving are also essential to the CiCHi brand. “Such designs have a huaren story to tell and a huaren spirit to embody. Most Western designs rarely have a story to tell, and I think this is a great distinguishing quality of huaren design,” Yi says.
Yi cites a few CiCHi products as examples, such as the Twins Dish, which symbolizes reunion and double-fulfillment. The appearance of the two overlapping plates bears resemblance to the ancient pattern of interlocking coins, which in Chinese culture symbolizes wealth. “Huaren have always valued reunion and wealth. That’s why no matter the occasion, be it Chinese New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival, families must reunite and eat together. During Chinese New Year, it’s also customary to hand out red envelopes containing money in celebration and to wish others prosperity. The Twins Dish tells a story that belongs to the everyday culture of huaren and not to that of the nobility.”
The inspiration for CiCHi’s Feng Cha (Tea) Set originated from the tea serving, or feng cha, culture in Taiwan. In Taiwan, it is customary for the host to serve a freshly brewed pot of hot tea to their guests. People are particularly hospitable in the countryside, where tea drinking often takes place under a big tree by a rice field. They will even offer tea, served straight from aluminum pots, to farmers passing by on their way home after a hard day’s labor. Yi believes that the Feng Cha Set perfectly captures the spirit of this local cultural phenomenon.
Another example is that the Brush Pen Series, which Yi says highlights the important position of brush pens in huarenculture. Brush pens are a writing implement that embodies the spirit of Chinese characters and the concept of qi (vital energy). “But how can a simple tool contain qi?” he poses. In ancient China, people wrote calligraphy in the same way that they practiced Taichichuan (more commonly known in English as tai chi). Both disciplines, calligraphy and tai chi, greatly value qi, strength, and the cultivation of one’s mental and physical well-being. CiCHi’s Brush Pens Series has the appearance of an ancient calligraphy brush, but the functionality of a modern pen. The design, Yi says, embodies the distinctive natural, flowing writing style of the Chinese literati of past eras, and also symbolizes great academic achievements and career advancement.
Several of CiCHi’s products feature seal carving, an increasingly neglected and underestimated form of huaren art. Yi was so inspired by unique characteristics of seal carving that he began to use it in his designs. Although calligraphy is the most direct way to express Chinese characters, he explains, it has been used so extensively that it is difficult to apply to design in a unique way. “Calligraphy is outwardly expressive while seal carving is more reserved. Both forms of art are concerned with a way of writing, but seal carving has the added value of craftsmanship–the art of carving.
“It takes some 20 to 30 seconds to write one character in calligraphy, whereas carving one character on a seal might take several hours. Calligraphy is clear and expressive, while a seal is unobtrusively stamped onto a quiet corner of a page or piece of paper. The two are completely different forms of art,” he explains. Calligraphy is also easily duplicated, Yi continues. Seal carvings are not easy to copy, and are also more difficult to create in the first place. Practically, choosing to use seal carving in design is also a method of preventing counterfeit products.
Yi believes that designs that start from huaren culture can always reflect the huaren lifestyle and core spirit, an ideal which is rarely seen in Western design. The exterior aesthetics of huaren design are often quite grand, he says, while the meaning behind the object is understated yet implicit. “It’s just like practicing Taichichuan: every movement must be delivered with force, but the practitioner’s mind must remain serene and humble. It’s in these qualities that the philosophy of traditional huaren thinking lies,” he says.
However, as Yi also points out, huaren design spans a very broad spectrum. Huaren design does not necessarily have to start from culture, nor must it have an Eastern appearance. Huaren design can be modern, and it can also be solely functional. “When we discuss huaren design we are, on some level, judging it from a Western perspective. We already have a stereotypical idea of huaren design in our minds, and we must be wary of falling into such a limiting mold.”
About Alan Yi
Born in 1976, Alan Yi graduated from the Industrial Design Department of Huafan University in Taipei, Taiwan, and later obtained his graduate degree in Industrial Design from National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST). Before founding Afterain Design Studio with designer Li Wei Lang in 2008, Yi worked as director in chief of AESIGN Design Studio, director of brand integration at KEYSTONE Design, and was a product designer at BenQ. In 2009, Yi and Li launched their lifestyle brand, CiCHi, and began to develop their now beloved products. Yi has worked in both visual communication and product design, and has won Red Dot and iF awards for his design work. He has exhibited in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and at Taiwan Designers’ Week, the Taiwan Design Expo, and 100% Design Shanghai. Yi is also a curator–he has worked with Taiwan Designers’ Week, Taiwan Design Expo, the International Craft Design Exhibition, and Creative EXPO Taiwan–and has lectured in the Industrial Design Department of both Huafan University and NTUST.