Handmade paper chairs? Here's what 'Made in China' really looks like

Story highlights

  • This year's Beijing Design Week (BJDW) runs from September 23 to October 7
  • BJDW Creative Director Beatrice Leanza shares 5 game changers in Chinese design

Beatrice Leanza is a critic and curator based in Beijing. She has been the creative director of Beijing Design Week since 2013. She is leaving her position after 2016's edition but will remain involved as director of its overseas program and international communication. You can read more about her work at www.baoatelier.com.

Beijing, China (CNN)Over the past decade, the development of Chinese design has been fast-paced, industrious and government-approved. Arguably the output has been of varying quality, given the huge quantity of practices the discipline subsumes.

But with the growing demand for higher living and environmental standards at home, in the workplace and public spaces, the need for design to play a critical role in China's urban economy is greater than ever.
    Generational and social transformations are also motivating the emergence of different value systems, habits and modes of everyday living.
    In this complex and fragmented context, a notable trait among many young design professionals is a deepening interest in helping to define what design in China means, and what it can do for the China of today and tomorrow. The practical and intellectual ramifications of their designs will be essential to reviving a spirit of cooperation and a social alliance that is vital for the nation today.
    Here's four design studios (and one brand) that offer a preview of the novel material and cultural practices that are helping to change the Chinese design scene as we know it.

    Atlas Studio

    Founded in 2013 by three graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design -- Ahti Westphal, Jenny Chou, and Catherine McMahon -- Beijing-based Atlas Studio explores the material and cultural stories behind contemporary and historic craftsmanship, turning each project into an exploration where design is both a product and process of cooperation.
    At Beijing Design Week 2016, Atlas Studio will unveil a year-long research project they undertook in the southern village of Dali, Guizhou, which is renowned for its hand-woven indigo-dye textiles. Working with The Global Heritage Fund and The Shepard's Family Textile Co-op, the program includes an exhibition, a workshop and a forum titled The Dye Room. This will be featured as part of the Baitasi Remade program in Beijing's hutong area of Baitasi.

    Ben Wu Studio

    The work of Beijing-based Ben Wu Studio -- formed by young graduates Wang Hongchao, Ge Wei and Peng You in 2011 -- considers contemporary questions about rites of usership and material history, in the context of traditional Chinese "craft-thinking".
    They've produced an array of projects ranging from interiors to product and set design, and their clients include Hermès, Vacheron Constantin and Baccarat. An example of the studio's versatility is The Fugu Bag, an inflatable, carbon-fiber bag that helps protect all the technology products we carry around every day.

    PINWU Studio

    Since 2009 Hangzhou-based PINWU design studio has been researching traditional materials (bamboo, silk, porcelain, handmade paper and ceramics) and making techniques in the Yuhang District.
    The studio's work -- led by founders Zhang Lei, Christoph John and Jovana Bogdanovic -- is focused on revitalizing this treasured artisanal heritage, and translating it into new products and designs. The Future Tradition series is a notable example of their innovative work: an ever-growing collection spanning lights, chairs, parasols and accessories.
    Their efforts culminated in the opening of the From Yuhang - Rong Design Library in 2015. Realized with the support of the city of Yuhang, The Library includes a Traditional Chinese Material Library, a Design Library, a concept shop, an exhibition/events space, and a residency program.


    With many calling it the Chinese IKEA, Zaozuo has been generating a lot of buzz in the public and in the media, locally and abroad, even though it's less than a year old. Making a bold entrance onto the market, the brand has promoted a desire to be different from anything "Made in China" so far.
    CEO Shu Wei -- a Stanford alum with a design and business background -- is adamant about the company's unique approach to providing good design to the affluent, growing market of China's urbanites.
    This startup operates mostly online, and they employ both local, in-house designers and a star-studded line-up of international names, including the Italian designer Luca Nichetto (the brand's art director) and the likes of Richard Hutten and Claesson Koivisto Rune.


    Fast and unabated, China's urbanization has generated incredulity and bewilderment. Often, the alarming quality of many new buildings and the poor living conditions of critical majorities has motivated a major outcry.
    In recent years, architecture and urban planning have increasingly become the subject of public debate, as an affluent middle class of cultured and more demanding citizens, grows aware of its environment. The future of Beijing's hutong areas -- with their historic value, complex infrastructure issues and social stratification -- offer a vocal and widely reported example.
    Several design and architecture practices have undertaken small-scale and socially-driven remedial initiatives, in cities and rural regions alike, offering clever housing and public space solutions.
    The case of architect Zhang Ke and his studio ZAO/standardarchitecture in the Beijing historic districts of Dashilar and Baitasi, both Beijing Design Week partner areas, is most notable. His projects Micro Yuan'er, Micro Hutong and the soon to be unveiled Co-Living Courtyard, are uplifting examples of architectural experimentalism that is punctual and precise. These common spaces are used for the local community, and used to service kids and families in the neighborhood.