Taiwan’s local cultural heritage is rich and valuable, yet it is slowly disappearing as time passes and lifestyles change. HEE Porcelain founders Vivienne Li and Lili Chen are responding by using design and craftsmanship to ingeniously turn cultural symbols into beautiful tableware. Their work can be seen not only as a way to preserve valuable cultural memories, but also as a reminder to never forget where you come from.
Founded in 2014, HEE Porcelain has a clear identity for its brand; all HEE products feature elements of traditional Taiwanese culture transformed into modern and minimalistic ceramic tableware. The textured patterns of their Eternity dipping and serving dish range are the same as those found on the carved wooden molds used to shape pastries, while the Blooming plate series finds inspiration in the shapes of mung bean cakes. The Alleys Landscape cup and saucer series is inspired by the intricate patterns of traditional window grilles.
Considering the richness and diversity of Taiwan’s culinary culture, why were Li and Chen inspired by traditional pastries in particular? “We chose Taiwanese-style pastry molds as the central inspiration for HEE Porcelain’s designs in 2015. Red turtle pastries are among the most representative of Taiwan’s sweet treats. The word ‘turtle’ is pronounced similar to the word “long” in Taiwanese Hokkien, so the pastry symbolizes long life.
“We are also advocates for the slow food movement, so we want people to spend longer on their meals. Mung bean cakes are cut into floral shapes, and the intricately patterned edges symbolize togetherness. These two pastries are symbols of wishing someone well, and they quintessential features of Taiwanese folk culture.”
These pastries were once a common snack food–Li and Chen both remember eating red turtle pastries during holidays and celebrations. They have gradually faded from popularity, and today, they almost always have to be ordered in advance.
“When Eternity was shown in the 2015 Creative Expo, an older visitor came up to us and said that this design reminded him of the red turtle pastries he had when he was young. We want this design to help more young people become aware of this popular snack that came from southern Fujian here to Taiwan,” says Chen.
The turtle pattern on Eternity also has a story behind it. Chen says that there are a wide variety of patterned molds that feature turtles, each with subtle differences depending on which region they are used in. Even the number of scales on the turtle shell has meaning. When researching for the series, Li and Chen visited a master craftsmen of turtle-shell molds in Taichung, a large city in central Taiwan. They settled on a commonly seen pattern from the Minnan culture.
Alleys Landscape–introduced to the market in 2016–was inspired by the metal window grilles found on old Taiwanese houses. The various shapes and patterns are not only a mark of history, they also reflect past lifestyles. Patterned window grilles were introduced in Taiwan along with modern Western architecture in the 1920s. These decorations were crafted from welded, forged, and bent black iron, and reached the peak of their popularity in the 1970s.
Li and Chen say that the patterns on the window grilles were used as a way to denote social status: the grills on the homes of wealthier families sported highly intricate patterns. “These window grilles were all made by hand in the early days, so all of the dishes and cups in the Alleys Landscape series are also handmade,” Chen explains. “Every stroke of a knife creates a slightly different line. In this way, we want to convey the spirit of master craftsmanship and the value of handiwork.”
Like traditional pastry making, the craft of making window grille patterns is on the decline in Taiwan. As residential aesthetics change, apartment buildings become taller, and urban renewal marches forward, these beautiful patterns are vanishing from our environment. “These things that you tend to ignore have actually been around us for such a long time, and now they are about to disappear,” says Li. “We want to keep these things in our lives through our tableware designs. These old houses may all be gone one day, but you’ll still be able to see those window grille patterns on the dining table.”
Speaking on the concept of huaren design (design created for and within Chinese-speaking communities), Li said that huaren (ethnic Chinese people) must study look to their heritage if they want to achieve a distinctive style. In 2016, HEE Porcelain attended Maison & Objet in Paris as part of a government-organized group selling exhibition series called Fresh Taiwan. They adorned their booth with traditional pastry molds and played videos that introduced Taiwanese window grills and their distinctive patterns.
Li notes that while a lot of the visitors to their booth stopped to view the “pretty designs”, but they went away inspired by the rare glimpse into the craftsmanship of another culture. “Why do we base our designs on Taiwanese culture? Because we feel responsible for raising the visibility of Taiwanese culture internationally,” she says.
Huaren are becoming more aware of their talent in the design field, and an exciting era of explosive metamorphosis is underway, Chen enthuses. If huaren designers can combine Western design methods with elements from their own culture, their creations will have universal appeal, she continues.
For Li, it is important that Taiwan places more emphasis on educating children on aesthetics. Japan, for example, is a good model for Taiwan to follow. It is only when beauty, aesthetics, and cultural awareness become part of everyday life that a society can create its own unique style through its designs.
About Vivienne Li and Lili Chen
Vivienne Li earned her BA in interior architecture at the Académie Charpentier in Paris, then her MA in industrial design at the Pratt Institute in New York City. She worked as an interior designer at VDK Architects San Francisco. Lili Chen earned her BA in industrial product design at Shih Chien University and her MA in industrial and commercial design at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology. She has worked as a product designer for many years.
Sharing an interest in tableware design, they co-founded HEE Porcelain in 2014. The company designs modern and minimalistic porcelain tableware with a commitment to local production and the spirit of handmade crafting. The designers share a mission to improve dining and lifestyle aesthetics in Taiwan. HEE Porcelain objects have been exhibited at fairs all over the world, including Creative Expo Taiwan, Interior Lifestyle Tokyo, and Maison & Objet Paris, and recognized in numerous local awards, including the Golden Pin Awards, the Creative Expo Cultural and Creative Awards, and the OTOP Product Design Awards.