Tao Chen–head of the Industrial Design Department of the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology and founder of chentao design–is an advocate for design that emphasizes cultural heritage and strong vision. He believes the convenience of information exchange has brought designers from around the world into one community and that the future of Chinese design lies in globalization.
When designing products with Chinese characteristics, Chen suggests, designers need to consider the preferences of the target societies and groups. In addition to Chinese aesthetic traditions, the functionality of the products must also be considered. Designers should continue to embrace a people-centered methodology and create designs with genuine cultural substance.
Despite the increasing globalization of design, cultural differences remain. “The discrepancy between Chinese and Western design originates from the different thought processes of the two cultures. Eastern culture is heavily influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, which formed the worldview of ancient China,” Chen explains. “It holds that the rules of the world follow the rhythm of nature; in the dialectic of the dichotomy of Ying and Yang, all things exist. Conversely, the distinctive qualities of Western culture result in the creation of colorful, eye-catching, and visually provocative designs. Design from the East is more interested in exploring lasting aesthetics and the beauty that lies in moderation.
“The aesthetics of moderation stresses a state of balance, thoughtful and careful design thinking, the overall artistry of a product, and the concerns for humanity conveyed through the design. The aesthetics and culture of moderation has been passed on for thousands of years. It shows naturally. It’s in our blood. A survey on modern Chinese design, especially in the category of home accessories and furniture design, would find endless examples that incorporate such aesthetics, and it will continue to be passed on.”
When teaching design, Chen emphasizes the combined training of shu (術) and dao (道). Shu refers to methodology, while dao is the vision behind a design. Chen believes that design includes both aesthetics and functionality. “Much like as a person, you can’t just focus on the appearance. You have to pay attention to the deeds and inner depth. The same applies to a design product,” he notes. “Can a product be considered a good design just because the look appeals to you? You also need to take into consideration the functionality, safety, and practicality of the product, as well as whether or not it’s environmentally friendly. A product is the materialization of a function in the service of people. Chinese design emphasizes cultural connotations and the beauty of reservation. Implicit concerns for humanity are embedded in the details of an object by Chinese designers and thus, conveyed to the user.”
On the application of shu, Chen provides some concrete examples: “The craft of design can be divided into the general categories of shape, color, material, and technique. On this front, Chinese designers also need to incorporate Western methods and experience.”
A series of tableware and utensils Chen designed for restaurant brand Wujie generated a lot of excitement. When creating a second edition of the series, Chen focused on the enhancement of forms and colors, designing a flatter, simpler version. In the first iteration, he was more concerned with the relationship between the objects and their users, as well as taking the food presentation style of the chef into consideration. He also wanted to ease the burden on the wait staff by creating tableware and utensils that are easy to store, lift, carry, and place on the table.
For the second edition, however, Chen’s main concern was the connection between the objects and the food. “Afterall, the purpose of the tableware is to showcase the food,” he notes. Wujie is a fusion cuisine restaurant that combines Western aesthetics and the art of Eastern cuisine. In this series, Chen has created tableware suitable for a variety of temperatures, as the subtle differences in the temperature of the food is very important in Eastern cuisine. Colors and materials will also be changed across the sets in relation to the four seasons, while still remaining consistent with the brand’s vision.
In 2015, Chen was a speaker in the Design Perspectives x Golden Pin Salon series run across Greater China by Taiwan’s Golden Pin Design Award, celebrates design created for and within huaren (Chinese-speaking) communities. In 2016, he also sat on the Secondary Selection jury of the award. Chen sees the award as an important platform for the upcoming generation of Chinese designers, as it emphasizes the fact that Chinese society is at an important juncture.
“Smart technology has gradually dominated our lives, and at the same time, design has begun to transition from a traditional manufacturing industry to one that responds to the era of smart technology. The result is the increasing integration of technology in our life by means of design products,” he explains. “Such integration will not be a forceful one. Technologies that become integral to our life will be those that meet our needs. Therefore, we need to try to create good designs that are sensitive to the needs of human life and strike a balance between the new and old realities.”
About Tao Chen
Tao Chen is a product designer and founder of chentao design, as well as Associate Professor and Director of the Department of Industrial Design at University of Shanghai for Science and Technology. Chen studied industrial design in South Korea where he obtained a Master’s degree in product design. While in Korea, he also worked as a designer at BK Kang Design. On coming home to China, he worked as a project manager for Asia Design Institute, a leading strategic design company in the region. He has been honored with several international design awards, among them a Red Dot Design Award in product design and an IDEA Award.