As Onion Yang, creative director of Taiwanese interior design studio Ahead Concept, notes, huaren design–design created for and within Chinese-speaking communities–represents a hodgepodge of influences. Compared to the relatively mature design aesthetics of places like Scandinavia and Japan, it lacks a clear, unique perspective. Until designers working in and for Chinese-speaking regions have more respect for the user, as well as a better understanding of local cultures and lifestyles, it will be difficult for a distinct huaren style and aesthetic to emerge.
Ahead Concept has designed commercial spaces in both Taiwan and China, but their design strategy and direction differ greatly in each place due to differences in local customs, lifestyles, and cultural characteristics. For example, Yang and his team were responsible for the re-design of the fifty-year-old Lin Mao Sen Tea Co. flagship store in Taipei–a design that earned the studio a Golden Pin Design Award “Design Mark” and a Platinum A’ Design Award for its conveyance of the friendly, hospitable nature of Taiwanese people.
When creating the design concept for the Lin Mao Sen store, Yang drew on childhood memories of local store owners giving away candy to children and friendly neighbors that all knew and looked out for one another. “Online shopping might be what current trends are pointing to, but as people become used to shopping over the internet, they’ve forgotten what it feels like to be in this friendly shopping atmosphere,” he explains. “Our design for Lin Mao Sen Tea Co. aims to rediscover this kind of traditional atmosphere and hawking culture.”
Inside the store, enormous barrels of dry tea sit on a central platform, allowing customers to easily experience the scent and color of the different types of tea up close–reminiscent of the display of herbs in a traditional Chinese medicine shop. Due to the layout, customers are also in close proximity to the staff, which encourages a sense of intimacy common to the mom-and-pop retail culture of yesteryear.
Not content to design a space with only function in mind, Onion Yang also embellished the space with aesthetic flourishes inspired by huaren culture: the ceiling is decorated with woven bamboo, a visual nod to the bamboo racks still used today to sift tea leaves; and the interplay of the green of the tea leaves and the peacock blue of the platform on which the barrels of tea are placed evokes an Eastern sense of aesthetic, while also allowing customers to easily identify the different types of tea.
The Lin Mao Sen store was designed with the goal of staying in business for another fifty years firmly in mind, but Yang says that you cannot apply this kind of thinking to the design of commercial spaces in China. When Ahead Concept was planning the fit-out of Sozo Cuisine, a high-end Japanese restaurant in Chengdu, the brief from the client was that the design must be utterly contemporary–he was expecting to have to do a re-design of the eatery in just three to five years.
As Yang notes, politics, business models, and the economy shift rapidly in China. While people in China may covet Japanese-style food today, due to long-standing anti-Japanese sentiment in the country, a single political event could force the restaurant to re-launch. “If Lin Mao Sen is about rediscovering a nostalgia for the past, then Sozo is about bandaging old wounds,” he says. Yang and his team therefore faced the significant challenge of designing a Japanese restaurant that was not overtly Japanese.
To tackle this problem, Yang encouraged a feeling of connection by incorporating aspects of culture shared by both countries into the design. “Japan’s karesansui (rock gardens) are rigorous and ordered, while China’s ink-wash landscape paintings are free and unrestrained. On the surface, they seem so different, but at the core of each lies a shared yijing (artistic sensibility). So I brought the two kinds of art together, overlaying see-through screens of Chinese ink-wash paintings onto the sand and rocks of Japanese landscapes. The two combine to form rich, multi-layered spatial relationships,” he explains.
The doors to the restaurant’s private dining rooms are reminiscent of traditional Japanese sliding doors, or shōji, but Yang replaced the wood frames and paper with metal. He also lit the rooms with the gold-yellow colored lighting currently favored in Chinese interiors. In the end, the client was satisfied with the space: it was contemporary, with touches traditional Japanese characteristics.
Yang says that the differences between Taiwan and China are also significant. As a result of the Cultural Revolution, people in China are less likely to trust one another. Unlike Taiwanese people, who generally view shopping as a relaxing activity and may enter stores simply to browse what is on offer, consumers in China typically have a clear target in mind when they go shopping. Online shopping takes less time, is more convenient, and can be done in private–all of these factors contribute to the explosive growth of the service in the Chinese market. In Chinese retail design, finding ways to encourage people into a store is key.
When designing Milo Star KTV in Wuhan, China, Yang had to ensure the new venue could compete in a highly competitive market in which creative ideas are often copied. In an unusual move, he recommended that the client focus on female customers. “If you can attract women into your KTV, you have two advantages,” he says. “Firstly, your online visibility will greatly increase because women like to take selfies and upload them to Weibo, to WeChat, to Instagram. Secondly, in China, most dates are still paid for by men, so where women go, men will follow.”
Inside, Milo Star KTV resembles a “fantastical and avant-garde paradise.” Yang and his team dotted the venue with sculptures of clowns, unicorns, rabbits, and other animals, and used fairy-tale elements to create an out-of-this-world experience. Customers often comment on the visually stunning aspects of the space, and some even say that they feel like Alice as she stepped into Wonderland. “Clients want their establishment to make money,” Yang says. “Through the design process, we analyze how the locals see things, how they live their lives. It’s only when we understand the consumer that we can create something that will attract them.”
The rapid rise of the huaren market in the past decade has also brought attention to huaren design. However, Yang believes huaren design is still in its infancy. “When it comes to residential design, many designers are still mindlessly copying what’s coming out of Scandinavia or Japan, but a residence should be a vessel for life. A good residential designer should help their client to create the right vessel for their lives and memories, rather than focusing on trying to create a signature style,” he says. “A huaren aesthetic and style will only emerge once we start respecting the user and trying to understand how people in this culture really live. That’s something we really need to work on.”
About Onion Yang
Onion Yang founded Ahead Concept in 2007, where he is now creative director. His strength lies in creating unique designs that incorporate a wide variety of elements. He and his team specialize in designing creative and profitable commercial spaces that are customized to the client’s business model; and residential spaces that are refined, inspired, and tailored to the lifestyles of the owners. His work has won many accolades, including honors in the Golden Pin Design Award, iF Design Award, Red Dot Design Award, A’Design Award, Taiwan Interior Design Award, Asia Pacific Interior Design Awards, and the JCD Best 100. In 2013, he was named a New Designer in the Taiwan Interior Design Award. The projects he and his team are most proud of include the Lin Mao Sen Tea Co. flagship store, Hi Sushi, the PPAPER corporate headquarters, and the Chiang family residence in Taoyuan, Taiwan.