Made in Taiwan: From mass manufacturing to high design

Updated 7th September 2017
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Made in Taiwan: From mass manufacturing to high design
Written by Annie Ivanova
Annie Ivanova is a curator, entrepreneur and author. The following is an edited excerpt from her new book "Taiwan by Design: 88 products for better living."
The tag "Made in Taiwan" has come a long way since the island first emerged as a post-war manufacturing powerhouse. Once the source of many of the world's cheap goods, Taiwan had become a global force in electronics industry by 1990s. In the process, industrial design has moved away from traditional low-cost production to the creation of original, high-value products.
Now, the island's creative industries are striving to replace the once-ubiquitous "made in Taiwan" with a label befitting of the present day: "Designed in Taiwan"

The seeds of industry

Taiwan's mass manufacturing history dates back to the 1950s, when the government signed a mutual defense treaty with the United States (that agreement expired in 1979 and was partly replaced by the Taiwan Relations Act). Needing a powerful regional ally, America poured foreign aid and investment into the island's economy.
This suited Taiwan's technocratic government planners as they sought to spearhead industrialization based on the US model. By adopting American know-how, manufacturing businesses expanded rapidly and profitably.
By implementing Western industrial processes and using cheap domestic labor, businesses -- making new electrical appliances such as refrigerators, air conditioners, television sets and radios -- became highly self-sufficient and capable of producing almost anything demanded by overseas clients. Taiwan became a manufacturing hub for some of the world's most powerful brands.

An IT powerhouse

Then in the 1990s, state initiatives and home-grown ingenuity had brought about a second wave of industrial boom. No longer just the world's factory, the growing electronics sector made Taiwan one of the "Four Asian Tigers."
Some of most robust technology companies in the world were established in Taiwan during this era, including ASUS, Acer and Quanta Computer. These domestic IT powerhouses produced a vast range of items, from desktop computers, tablets, flat screens and phones, to motherboards, graphic cards and servers.
But the market liberalization of the 1990s enabled companies to trade globally, challenging the very factories that had created Taiwan's prosperity. As they were no longer able to offer competitive advantage, foreign investors started relocating. Many previously thriving industries slowed down; places once vibrant with activity sunk into ghost towns.

Design destination

Cultural reinvention and economic renewal would only arise through a new wave of design thinking. In addition to making goods for overseas buyers, Taiwanese companies would need to focus on investing in their own intellectual property if they were to emerge from the depths of the downturn unscathed.
They did. Designers have learned from previous generations that adaptability, matched with efficiency and high quality, is essential to remaining relevant. Today, Taiwan's patents registration per capita is exceeded only by the US and Japan, ranking it amongst Asia's most knowledge-driven economies.
The island remains a major figure in the electronics industry, and is still one of the world's biggest producers of computer chips and LCD panels, among much else. But premium household goods and covetable furniture are among the many design innovations now coming out of Taiwan.
Scroll through the gallery above for examples of products designed in Taiwan.