While Christoph John trained in design in Germany, soon after graduation he moved to China, where he has lived and worked for the past four years. He met designers Zhang Lei and Jovana Bogdanovic at a fair in Milan, Italy and together they set up their own studio, which was originally called INNOVO and later, in 2010, renamed Pinwu. The brand works with traditional Chinese craftspeople to produce limited-run contemporary homeware products. For John, while there are clear regional preferences that influence design and consumer purchases in China, the bigger aim for designers is to create new products and projects with sustainability firmly at the forefront.
“The Chinese market is hooked on international brands; brands are a big parameter,” says John. In the car industry, he continues, European, American, or Japanese brands sell much better than local brands. “To put it very simply–and of course, there are always exceptions–when it comes to purchasing habits, the Chinese consumer is status-oriented whereas the European or Western consumer is more function-oriented.” However, John notes, these market distinctions are starting to shift. In his own practice, he focuses on translating local, traditional Chinese crafts and materials into modern products. “Chinese design is trying to find its own identity right now, and we take this into consideration in the work we’ve been doing for the past four years. This has always been our point of inspiration,” he says.
When, for example, John’s studio contributed to the interior design of a concept car for European car manufacturer, Peugeot, the designers chose to feature, among other elements, carved wooden panelling. “We were trying to remind the Chinese market about their traditional sources, not in a very superficial way, but in a delicate, understated way in order to ensure the design didn’t become too regional,” he explains. “I think our products and projects appeal to Chinese-speaking consumers because we use Chinese traditional craft and materials, which remind the consumer of their heritage. People like to see this kind of forward-thinking design coming from China.”
In terms of the global market, John and his fellow designers at Pinwu are working to shift the perception that the ‘Made in China’ label is synonymous with products low in quality, price, and creativity. “People are beginning to see that China is actually able to create products that sit apart from what they’re most well known for right now. Every one of our chairs is unique; they’re not mass-produced chairs,” he says. This kind of low-scale (in terms of production volume) success may not have been possible for such a young studio in countries outside of China. “In terms of being able to realize your designs, China is still quite an interesting place. Germany, for example, is already stuck in their production processes. In China, it’s more liberal, more open,” John explains. However, he cautions, with great opportunity comes great responsibility. “Designers have a responsibility to ensure the industry here goes in the right direction in terms of sustainability and the environment.”
Pinwu’s work with traditional craftspeople, for example, is helping to ensure a sustainable future for a valuable yet all-but-forgotten local skill base. “Craftspeople are losing their jobs and struggling to survive because consumers don’t appreciate their craft anymore. We need to help them find ways to develop their craft so that it fits the demands of the market once again. We try to communicate this idea through our products and projects, and I think the market understands this.” John is also passionate about reducing what he sees as society’s incessant consumption of products, a problem that he considers particularly apparent in manufacturing hubs like China. “People are used to consuming; for many, shopping isn’t just about buying the products you need, it’s a hobby. If you buy fewer things that are of a higher quality, you’ll really appreciate the things you have,” he explains. “In a way, society has to shift in this direction because this model of cheaper and cheaper production will collapse at some point. As more information about the consequences of a purchase gets out there, the will of the consumer will change.”
About Christoph John
Christoph John was born in Germany in 1980. He has trained in both low and high-tech design, including earning a master’s degree in car design from the Domus Academy in Milan, working as a product designer at Changed Design and Bonetto Design (also in Milan), and undertaking a three-year apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. Prior to 2010, John worked in a design studio called INNOVO that he co-founded with Zhang Lei and Jovana Bogdanovic in Hangzhou, China. In 2010, the founders changed the name of this studio to Pinwu to reflect their focus on traditional craft practice and materials.
The studio has won numerous awards including a ‘Design Talent of the Year’ Elle Decor China Award in 2011, and a ‘Best of the Best’ Red Dot Design Award and a Design Report Award from Salone Satellite in 2012. In 2013, their Tíe Paper Chair was nominated for ‘Design of the Year’ by the London’s Design Museum.