“New Chinese” design might be just another interpretation of Western design theory – Chen Yanfei

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In Chinese, the word Pusu evokes the concepts of dressing plainly or living a simple lifestyle. In truth, however, Pusu is a furniture design brand nestled in a renovated 80-year-old industrial space in Shanghai and brimming with a very Chinese aesthetic. Pusu was founded in 2011, and its name was inspired by a quotation from Chuang Tzu: “When something is simple and plain (pusu), none under the heavens can rival it in beauty.”

When founder Chen Yanfei was asked why he chose to name his brand Pusu, he answered like a poet would. To him, the name represents a return to a more simple and unvarnished state, a wish to bring together the lifestyle of intellectuals in ancient China with modern living habits to create a new solution for everyday living among cultured society. He is a calligraphy lover; a collector of furniture; a man pursuing his dreams of huaren design (design created for and within Chinese-speaking communities) in the international metropolis that is Shanghai.

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Chen says that China has lacked a sense of confidence in its own culture for decades, but now the market has finally begun focusing on Chinese culture again after having spent so much time looking outward. Just a few years ago, few would have any idea what the term “New Chinese” referred to; now, however, more and more people are talking about “New Chinese” and “huaren design,” and the discussions are gaining in prominence. The Chinese are now confident in their culture, a confidence that until recently, few realized was missing.

Only a few truly distinctive styles of furniture exist around the world; China has inherited a highly distinctive style in furniture from the Song and Ming dynasties. The current Chinese market is very open-minded and accepting of new and creative designs, and no single style will remain on top forever. The New Chinese style can now be seen in many brands, surprising many with the momentum of its rise. Chen says he believes that one day the New Chinese style will find itself on an equal level with other leading furniture styles.

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Chen says that furniture brands try to promote a certain lifestyle, and that this is where Chinese and Western brands differ. For example, socializing is different in Chinese and Western culture: a Western tea party requires different furniture and tableware to that used in a Chinese tea ceremony. The way colors are used in a space also differs between Western and Chinese culture: a sense of power and dynamism is favored in Western aesthetics, while Chinese people prefer a quieter, more harmonious effect. Finally, Chinese culture has always valued good craftsmanship and materials, demanding a continual striving for perfection. Other cultures may have different priorities.

When asked what is “new” about New Chinese furniture, and what kind of design is representative of contemporary huaren style, Chen replies that New Chinese furniture takes into account the needs of today’s market. Take the New Ming chair as an example–the traditional Ming chair is too low for modern consumers to be comfortable in, so should designers cling to a narrow interpretation of the what the preservation of tradition should look like? Chen says that modern huaren design should take a wider view on style, break free of traditional lines and frames, and innovate.

Furniture needs to match the target consumers’ usage habits on a functional level. People have the same basic needs in every market, because the essential requirements of life are the same, but when it comes to design and expression, different cultures and lifestyles come in to play. Contemporary mainstream design arose from Western design principles, but the ultimate goal of these principles is to meet human needs. New Chinese design should not be in opposition with Western design, nor is it a completely separate from it. The important thing is to use the lessons found in both traditional and Western designs to create a new and improved Chinese design style.

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Design should serve the client or the customer, not the constraints of a certain style or tradition. Huaren designers need to creatively explore the tastes and aesthetics of the various contemporary markets, while at the same time rooting themselves in their traditions. For Chen, this way of thinking could provide an antidote to the mindless emulation of Western industrial design that is so common in China today.

About Chen Yanfei

Chen Yanfei is a designer and calligrapher who founded the Pusu in Shanghai, China. He graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts with a degree in graphic design. He has been the artistic director of various media outlets including the Nanfang Baoye Media Group in Guangzhou, The Bund Magazine in Shanghai, and Elle Decoration China. In 2011, he founded the Pusu design brand and began focusing on furniture and interior design. In 2012, he took home an Elle Decoration China Design Awards trophy (Best Chair Design) for his CLOUD rocking chair, and in 2013, his workspace was selected as one of the Top 100 Chinese Designs by Adstyle.

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