Over the past three years, Gridesign Studio director Ching-Ke Lin has made hundreds of trips to the town of Zhushan in central Taiwan, in the quixotic pursuit of his passion for bamboo craft design. Lin says, the characteristics of Taiwanese bamboo and local craftsmanship are key to distinguishing his designs from those of competing designers. He hopes that future Taiwanese designers will treasure bamboo craftsmanship as he does, so the industry can be revitalized and a valuable cultural heritage passed on.
Lin worked for a decade in major companies such as Tsann Kuen, Asus, and DEM Inc. In 2012, he began a Master’s program in product design at Shih Chien University, while continuing to work full-time. One of his professors took him and his classmates on a craftsmanship development program organized by the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute, where he fell in love with bamboo material. Eventually he decided to quit his job to pursue designing and creating bamboo crafts.
“Every bamboo plant is unique to the environment it grows in,” says Lin. “Bamboo plants are hollow and segmented, making them very distinctive. Compared with carpentry, bamboo craft is more demanding, and everything you make is unlike those that came before it. Plus, bamboo has a deep cultural and historical connection to Taiwan. It is a material that symbolizes Asia and the East, something very different from the West. This is what gives bamboo its special charm and makes it so fascinating.”
After quitting his job, Lin started Gridesign Studio, dedicated to research and design of the bamboo material. Over the past three years, he has worked with bamboo craft masters including Chiu Chin-tuan, Liu Hsing-tse, and Lin Chun-han, to create stunning works such as ‘Bow Tie Chair’, ‘Lou Lamp’, and ‘Joint Plate’. His talent has been recognized by awards in Taiwan and all around the world, including the Golden Pin Design Award, the Cultural & Creative Award, the Design for Asia Awards, and the A’Design Award.
‘Bow Tie Chair’ (2015) catapulted Lin to fame. Inspired by the classic bow tie shape, the design is a repeat pattern, crafted from laminated bamboo. The bamboo is heated so it can be bent into tight curves, a technically difficult process that makes it all the more special. Lin attempts to bring Western symbols together with Taiwanese materials, fusing a new, intercultural style of design.
“If I use an image that’s accessible to Western audiences, it will be easier for them to understand, and accept my work,” says Lin. “This design is like a bridge that connects Western audiences with Taiwan’s local materials.”
The design work for ‘Bow Tie Chair’ spanned eight months of experimentation and adjustment. Lin jokes, it was design that took away his youth. Lin Chun-han, the artisan who crafted the final product, developed chronic pain in his arms from the strenuous job of bending the bamboo into its precise form. He would say, “Next time, please don’t come up with such a difficult idea.”
‘Lou Lamp’ (2016) was inspired by traditional woven bamboo baskets, which were an everyday product in the olden days of Taiwan. Thinking back to his childhood, Lin says his grandmother would often bring him along to traditional markets where vendors would display vegetables and fish in the baskets.
“Bamboo baskets were such an integral part of everyday life that they were easy to overlook,” says Lin. “I wanted to transform them into a well-designed piece of home decor.”
The lampshade of ‘Lou Lamp’ is made from thin timber bamboo, while the base is crafted from stronger moso bamboo. The difficulty was fitting the lampshade in place; bamboo does not form a perfect circle, so everything depends on the ability of the craftsman to carve a groove for the lampshade to fit into. The lacquering of the lampshade is also a difficult process. The natural sap of the lacquer tree is mildly toxic, which causes irritations and swellings. Lin says it even affected his vision.
Lin’s design is noted for pushing skillful craftsmen to their limit, and ‘Joint Plate’ (2017) is no exception. The plates are made from pieces of bamboo, created by cutting a bamboo tube lengthwise, then weaving the pieces into a round plate, using a “pine leaf” pattern. The biggest challenge is ensuring that each bamboo piece fits into a uniform shape, due to the requirement for the whole plate to be made from just one piece with no seams. Even bamboo weave master Chiu Chin-tuan was frustrated by these demands.
“Bamboo crafts in Japan and Southeast Asia mostly use very simple weaves,” says Lin. “If we don’t highlight the strengths of bamboo, then there will be nothing unique about Taiwan’s bamboo craft, not to mention it would be a waste of a good material.”
Sure enough, ‘Joint Plate’ impressed Japan’s Good Design Award judges when it was shown at Shanghai’s Paperworld China Expo this year. Few designers in Japan would use such high quality craftsmanship to manufacture bamboo products.
Lin has worked in the field of design for thirteen years, and he has been to exhibitions across Taiwan and the world. He says that most products on the market are made out of ceramics, plastics, and glass, and it can be difficult to tell if a product is from the West, Japan, or Southeast Asia.
“Taiwan is an island,” says Lin. “We need to be more adventurous, and we need to make our creations more distinctive. We need to think about what we will have left once other countries have caught up to us technology-wise.”
He says that bamboo has very high potential, not only because it is a unique Taiwanese material, but also because it has so many unexplored possibilities. It can be used to craft much larger products and bamboo charcoal products.
“The job of designers and craftsmen is to work against the stereotypical view of bamboo as a cheap and unsophisticated material,” says Lin. “If we can really understand what makes Taiwan’s bamboo unique, and highlight the value of craftsmanship, we can make high-quality, well-designed goods, then we can really differentiate Taiwanese design from that of other countries.”
About Ching-Ke Lin
Ching-Ke Lin worked in product design for ten years, at companies such as Tsann Kuen, Asus, and DEM Inc. His background is interdisciplinary, including craftmanship, product design, graphic design, and interior design. He founded Gridesign Studio in 2014, dedicating to unique design rooted in Taiwanese culture, particularly the design of bamboo crafts. His work has been seen in Taiwan Design Week, Creative Expo Taiwan, Design Pier, Tokyo Designers Week, Fuorisalone in Milan, and Business of Design Week in Hong Kong. His representative works include ‘Bow Tie Chair’, ‘Lou Lamp’, and ‘Joint Plate’. His work has been recognized by awards including the Golden Pin Design Award, Cultural & Creative Award, Design for Asia Awards, and A’Design Award. Lin hopes he can help transform Taiwan into a cultural landmark of the Chinese-speaking world.