Jun-Liang Chen, also known as the “Leader of Eastern Design,” sits at the top of the design scene in Taiwan. Chen believes that huaren design cannot linger in a mere investigation of superficial aesthetics and imagery. With a direct sincerity, he says, “We should look for the attitude huaren culture embodies and seek its latent qualities; this is the fundamental way to explore huaren design.”
In 2001, a poster created by Chen, which is titled ‘The Wind from the East Re-Crystallizes the World with a New Perspective,’ was named the most beautiful poster in the world after winning the Grand Prix Savignac at the 15th International Poster Salon in Paris. In 2005, his work titled ‘Square Earth and Round Sky’ received the Design for Asia Award. In recent years, Chen has been involved in curating exhibitions and has also founded his own clothing brand, Sil Zence.
This famed designer’s work always emanates a richly Eastern aesthetic; he was famously dubbed the ‘Leader of Eastern Design’ by the media. Could the word ‘Eastern,’ which is often used to described his work, symbolize some trend in the design industry? Chen thinks not. “I’m simply showing my affection for my mother and speaking for my mother culture,” he states. “This is natural, a matter of course. You don’t hear people constantly mentioning their love for their mother.”
Chen believes that huaren culture possesses a latent and deep charm that stems from a concentration of five thousand years of history. When designing for huaren, one ought to seek the attitudes of huaren culture, discover its implicit and meaningful qualities, and investigate its pervasive and profound substance. This is the fundamental way of exploring huaren design. He also points out that in huaren culture, there are uncountable treasures worthy of investigation and learning, such as Chinese characters, clothes, paintings, and sculptures. Unfortunately, modern society often neglects these treasures and, moreover, does not cherish them. Instead, they blindly embrace Western culture. For Chen, this is a tragedy.
Taking the example of Chinese characters, Chen points out that there are over 800 pictograms that are symmetrical in form, such as the characters for gold, wood, water, fire, earth, sky, human, east, west, south, and north. Similarly, many of the objects and phenomena seen in nature are symmetrical, such as the wings of butterflies, the branches and leaf veins of trees, and the extremities and features of humans. “There is a practice of imitating nature in huarenculture that subtly coincides with the highly ergonomic Scandinavian design,” he explains. “We need not blindly follow the lead of Westerners because what we seek has always existed in our culture.”
Since ancient times, huaren culture has always valued functionality and science. Taking the example of fans, Chen says, “When a fan is folded up, it’s small enough to fit into a pocket. When one wishes to use it, one can easily unfold it into a wide fan. It’s the same with room dividers. These designs, which are considerate of functionality as well as convenience, exemplify the wisdom of huaren.” Recently, Chen collaborated with the National Museum of History, Taiwan to produce the exhibition ‘Spectacular Fabrics from a Fashionable Time: Ladies’ Textiles from the Qing Dynasty.’ Taking the example of clothes worn by Qing Dynasty emperors and empresses, Chen notes that “many Qing Dynasty garments consist of two bolts of fabric sewn together down one line. The embroidery often spans both pieces of fabric, and the intricately sewn seam is invisible. Such garments are highly functional, environmentally friendly, and make efficient use of fabric.”
Chen also indicates that traditional Chinese paintings are characterized by the creation of white spaces in a composition. “To create a white space is not the same as leaving a blank one. The latter is passive, for it simply leaves parts of the paper untouched; the former is active, for it plans the white areas in a composition. Even the location chosen for the artist’s name is very logical. You will discover that the name is either on the upper right- or lower left-hand corner, its placement serving as a balancing force. It would be too superficial for us to go about discussing the aesthetics of lines and shapes without properly investigating these wisdoms.”
Chen states that when designing a product, a designer must first consider the product’s function and the demands of the user on the product. It is only after this part of the process that the designer can move on to considering creativity and aesthetics. “If a product does not serve a basic function, then what good does beauty do?” Referencing the 48-piece Chinese dining set– named ‘Square Earth and Round Sky’–that he designed, Chen says, “The fish plate in this set would not appear in Western cuisine because they do not commonly consume an entire fish. Nor do they enjoy hot soup from vessels such as large communal and small personal soup bowls.” He designed a spoon tray for the set after he observed that when the soup is not finished in one sitting, there is no ideal spot to place the spoon. “The spoon tray is as important as the chopstick stand, which is a very sophisticated, hygienic invention, yet most huaren families do not use chopstick stands. I think design should be intended for the masses, not just for five-star hotels.”
Chen stresses that he does not thoughtlessly deny Western culture and embrace huaren culture. There are certainly valuable aspects in Western design and thinking. What he denies is invariably leaning towards all that is Western. Instead, he believes that there should be a certain level of integration between the East and the West: “By joining the first letters of the words ‘west’ and ‘east,’ we get the word ‘we.’ I myself often express the Eastern spirit via Western techniques.”
To Chen, Japanese people are particularly skilled at preserving and propagating their own culture. “The Japanese care deeply about the culture their ancestors passed down to them,” he notes. “They’re always creating their Yamato culture by establishing their own standards, such as their own kind of paper, named kiku-ban. They don’t allow Westerners to stay ahead of everything. We should learn from them.”
Chen concludes that huaren design must return to huaren history, philosophy, and culture. We must discover the wisdom bequeathed to us and draw inspiration from it to create modern design. “As long as we can think critically, we’ll always be able to find the answer to any problem we encounter by examining at our history and culture.” While huaren design is not yet prominent on the international stage, Chen believes it will soon have the opportunity to become a world-leading school of design. “A resting tiger, even if it’s been sleeping for a century, will still be a tiger when it wakes up.”
About Jun-Liang Chen
Chen is presently the General Manager at FREEiMAGE and a doctoral candidate of Cultural and Creative Industry Design at National Taiwan University of Arts. He is also a lecturer at the National Taipei University of Education. In 2001, Chen’s poster, titled ‘The Wind from the East Re-Crystallizes the World with a New Perspective,’ was described as the most beautiful poster in the world and won the Grand Prix Savignac at the 15th International Poster Salon in Paris. In 2005, his work, titled ‘Square Earth and Round Sky,’ received the Design for Asia Award. In 2012, he was named the Most Influential Curator of the 10th Annual Design for Asia Awards.In 2013, Chen tendered Taipei’s application for the World Design Capital. In 2014, he was the only Taiwanese designer contending for the Tang Prize.
Chen is famed for his mastery of white space in design, and is regularly referred to as the “Leader of Eastern Design” in the media. In recent years, he has shifted his focus towards curating cultural exhibitions. He has helped curate more than fifty exhibitions in the past three years, including the “Lost Memories” and “Fruits of Taiwan” – Creative EXPO Taiwan; “Face of Changing Phase – A Hundred Centenarian Project” – 100th anniversary of Taiwan; “Ingenuity Follows Nature” – 2011 Taipei World Design Expo; “Original Taiwan” – National Museum of Prehistory, Taitung; “Pure Taiwan” – Hualien County Cultural Affairs Bureau; “Taiwan Artisan” – 10th anniversary of the Taiwan Design Center; 2014 Taiwan Design Expo; and “Spectacular Fabrics from a Fashionable Time: Ladies’ Textiles from the Qing Dynasty.”