New frontier design: Shanghai is a city experimenting – Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu

Lyndon Neri & Rossana Hu_by Andrew Rowat s

Multi-award winning architectural designers Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu relocated from the USA to China more than a decade ago to embrace the contemporary chaos of Shanghai, a metropolis  they describe as being “a new global frontier” and “a city experimenting.”

Now they preside over Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, a multinational, interdisciplinary practice that aims to challenge the traditional boundaries of architecture to include other contemporary disciplines. Their work encompasses not just architecture, but everything from interior to product design, and has been recognized by a host of design awards in countries all over the world.

While their educational background and early careers were steeped in the rigorous discipline of architectural study and practice in the USA, with Michael Graves & Associates in Princeton, as well as various firms in New York, the duo always embraced a global world view.

“We think most of us who studied architecture or design in the West have been taught and have absorbed the Western philosophical system to help us think about design, in terms of form, shape, look, style, meaning, language, abstracting, etc.,” say Neri and Hu. “Many of us who come from a different background in terms of culture think about how our own culture might develop this system of thinking, whether it is East Asian, Arabic, African or otherwise.

“We are not sure if the Western way defines our work well enough and we try to look for things that relate to us more closely, and that’s why we want to explore different ways of looking at architecture and design, through our own thinking and environment, through our daily urban context and our memories and history.”

While this eagerness to explore and expand on their grounding in the West acts as a spur, it is very much framed in their Chinese roots. “We were born Chinese, and are Chinese by heritage, culture, history and ethnicity, and this will never change wherever you move to or receive your education. We think heritage is passed on from your ancestors, and this lineage is a natural one. We can pretend to be something else, but we are who we are.”

This intrinsic and inescapable truth informs Neri&Hu’s deign philosophy. Both Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu are eager to avoid being boxed into one particular cultural niche: if nuances arise naturally in the context of a particular project then so be it, but both are conscious of the danger of designing for any one specific market, or of pandering to the perceived desires of a public.

“These days, we are staying away from too much glorification of the cultural elements of our work, and [instead] trying to find an essence deep within ourselves personally for inspiration. In the end, aesthetic, philosophy, and pedagogy are all quite personal, especially when it comes to expression,” the duo explain.

Although they do not say it directly, the partners suggest that focusing too much on any notion or market, including huaren design, could serve as a distraction—the key is to focus on good design in proper context. It is perhaps by adhering to a less general and more personal sense of what makes for good design that the huaren field can progress. Both Neri and Hu currently view the huaren tableau as too indistinct, despite the very different influences and contexts apparent across China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Taiwan.

That is not to say that their work does not contain cultural resonances that speak to their Chinese heritage and location where appropriate. Their pioneering work on Spanish shoe brand Camper’s first China showroom and office in Shanghai’s French Concession is one such example. The building sources inspiration from the city’s interconnected lanes and communities, offering visitors tantalizing glimpses into rooms and happenings beyond. The design also incorporates other distinctive elements, such as a rotating “Lazy Susan” table that calls to mind the communal nature of Chinese dining, and the use of materials like timber and grey brick picked up from demolished lane houses.

Camper Showroom,Office 06_photographed by Shen Zhonghai s

“These elements are just things we thought of when we were confronted with a problem to resolve in designing something,” Neri and Hu say. “It’s a contextual platform that we are using to be relevant to society and culture, and they happen to apply to our identity as people, so it’s natural. The traditional Western architectural tradition forms the basis of our education, but culturally we are very much Chinese, and there are influences particularly in our work that’s located in China. We like to include aspects of local culture in our work wherever a project is located.”

Elsewhere, the duo’s collection of lights for Spanish manufacturer Parachilna draws on traditional Chinese lanterns, playing in a heartwarming way on the idea of the family, with the proportions of each fixture reflecting parents and children. “We were just interested in a well-made, refined, detailed articulation of a traditional lantern. They’re not supposed to be historic studies of any ancient model or period sampling, but just a light-hearted lantern with interesting modern details that evoke a sense of that object and its relationship to interior spaces,” they say.

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Chinese language provided the jump off point for their JIAN collection of outdoor furniture for Gandia Blasco. Inspired by the Chinese character 間, or jian, which translates roughly as “the in-between”, the pair traced the root of the character and discovered it used to have the form 閒,  or xian, prompting questions about the reason for the change of the enclosed character from the moon to the sun.

“The whole notion of the ‘in-between’ became the preoccupation during the design concept stage. We thought about relationships between interior and exterior, which is the difference between furniture that sits indoors and outdoors, and the relationship between earth and sky, and in-between is the space where we put our outdoor furniture. We focused on one detail of the metal leg, where it turns to create a space in between, to express this idea of jian.”

JIAN_PhotographedByDirkWeiblen s

Despite the unique complexity of their design thinking, both Neri and Hu retain palpable excitement in embracing the challenge and opportunity of working in China as the region becomes more competitive and huaren design develops as a movement. “Currently huaren design is a hybrid of many things: past and present, low culture and high culture, diversity and isolation, global and local. It’s full of energy because it’s just starting,” say Neri and Hu, adding that the movement’s visual language is just beginning to explode in multiple directions.

“We think it’s good to have intentions to connect to a people you’re selling things to, by way of relating to their culture through aesthetic means, but we’re not sure it’s necessary,” Neri and Hu conclude. “There’s also the question of modernity and how modern design is devoid of cultural language, and in today’s globalized world a large part of our community do not wish to see any differentiation. We hold the belief that we need to be deeply rooted in our culture to understand ourselves, then we need to step out in the world and look into the future, so a delicate balance needs to be achieved.”

About Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu

Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu are Founding Partners of Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, an interdisciplinary international architectural design practice based in Shanghai, China, with an additional office in London. Neri&Hu were named Maison&Objet Asia Designers of The Year in 2015 and Wallpaper* Designer of The Year in 2014. In 2013, Neri and Hu were inducted into the US Interior Design Hall of Fame. The practice was selected as the 2011 INSIDE Festival Overall Winner, won the AR Awards for Emerging Architecture 2010 as awarded by Architectural Review (UK), and was named one of the Design Vanguards in 2009 by Architectural Record (US).

Aside from numerous interior design and architecture projects, Neri and Hu are also actively working on a number of industrial design products for various brands in Europe including Moooi, LEMA, Parachilna, Classicon, Gandia Blasco, JIA, Stellar Works, Meritalia and BD Barcelona Design, the latter two were in collaboration with Swarovski’s “SWAROVSKI ELEMENTS at Work” project. At the same time, they are developing their own product line under the monicker brand ‘neri&hu’, which was honored to receive the Perspective Awards, the Red Dot Award and I.D. magazine’s Annual Design Review Awards.

Neri and Hu are also the founders of Design Republic, a retail concept store based in Shanghai that offers a unique collection of products created by the world’s best design talents, many of which have never before been made available to consumers in China. The flagship store design, created by Neri&Hu, earned the Perspective Awards Best Interior Retail and the DFA (Design For Asia) Best Design of Greater China. In 2015, Neri and Hu were appointed Creative Directors of Stellar Works.

Neri and Hu were invited to guest edited the October issue of DI magazine in 2009, which is one of the vanguard architectural publications in China, they also published and edited a book called ‘Persistence of Vision’. The book is a beginning of a series of exploration on architecture and urban issues in major cities in China.

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