We must reflect on the living memories of the huaren community — Chu Chih-Kang

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The rapid rise of the Chinese market has turned the world’s attention to huaren design. Renowned interior designer, Chu Chih-kang says that huaren design does not need to emphasize its Eastern elements, nor deliberately inject Chinese cultural elements. On the contrary, huaren designers must reflect their true self, and authentic memories, in order to win praise and success internationally.

In 2015 and 2016, Chu’s design for Fangsuo bookstore in Chengdu was recognized by more than ten awards around the world, including the Golden Pin Design Award, Japan’s Good Design Award, Germany’s iF Design Award, and Germany’s Iconic Awards—Best of Best. It was also named as one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores by Architectural Digest in 2015. Chu exploded onto the international design scene, an overnight sensation, and Fangsuo bookstore became a highly popular destination for locals and tourists alike.

Chu’s design for Fangsuo bookstore centers on a metaphor of the ‘sutra depository’, an archival space found in many Buddhist temples. The design is based on three concepts — the Legend, Sacred Temple, and Nesting. It features nine-meter high ceilings, broad concrete columns, bookcases on lofts, bridges, and catwalks connecting the bookcases.

Chu created a gate to an unknown world, a temple in which to rejuvenate the mind. His unique design concept was not only recognized by major awards, it was also identified as an archetype of contemporary design trends by researchers in the UK and Germany. Chu disagree with the idea that Fangsuo bookstore won recognition because of its strongly Eastern design concept.

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“The Chengdu Fangsuo bookstore is not particularly Eastern or Western,” says Chu. “It was simply located underneath the Daci Temple, where the Tang-dynasty monk Xuanzang studied before traveling to India to obtain Buddhist sutras. It was therefore a natural choice to use the ‘sutra depository’ metaphor in my design. If I were to apply this concept at a shopping center in Beijing, it would come across as forced and unnatural. We simply create real things based on local needs, local stories, and local environments. It’s like African art. The trend is to take in its most authentic, natural form.”

Chu does not need to deliberately foreground Eastern, or huaren design elements; it has always been part of him since he was born. He majored in Chinese Art at university, which he says remains a major influence on him.

“Chinese painting is all about proportions in space,” says Chu. “When you keep part of the composition blank, as you often do in Chinese Art, you are creating a space in itself. In my own designs, I like to preserve the cleanliness and purity of the space. This is in the spirit of Chinese painting.”

In 2016, Chu was invited to show his work ‘Mountains-Waters’ at the Venice Biennale of Architecture’s official collateral event, Time Space Existence. Created from bronze, the work represents urban form as an extension of natural landscapes. He was also commissioned to design the public space for Tao Zhu Yin Yuan, a luxury residential development in Taipei. This design also takes concepts from Chinese landscape painting.

Chu’s fascination with natural landscapes is also part of his DNA. As he tells it, Chinese people have always lived within nature. Traditional Chinese homes are centered on a court yard, the living spaces are open, and at one with the natural world. Growing up under the influence of Chinese culture, it was natural for him to integrate nature into his works.

“The ‘Mountains-Waters’ is not about mountains or water, but rather about the life within all things,” says Chu. “I used bronze as the medium, because even though bronze is made out of minerals, it is still an expression of life and part of nature.”

As for his design project  in the public spaces of Tao Zhu Yin Yuan, Chu declined to go in-depth, but said that the biggest challenge for him and his team was how to make natural things into something eternal and timeless.

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In response to the rapid rise of the Chinese market, Chu opened a studio in Shenzhen in 2011. Over the past six years, he has completed many projects in cities all across China, including Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Shanghai, Huizhou, Macau, and Shenzhen. Reflecting on his work in China, Chu shares his ideas on how different cultures and habits affect design.

“People in Chengdu know how to live the good life,” says Chu. “Everywhere they are, they need to get together, chat, drink tea, and play mahjong. People in Beijing like to have long discussions, and their meetings can easily last an entire day. People in Shenzhen take efficiency seriously, and as a designer there you must be pragmatic. People in Mongolia love their grasslands and nature, and as designers we have to meet their demands regarding environmental needs and natural elements.”

With this in mind, Chu integrated Chengdu’s instinct for togetherness in the design of Fangsuo bookstore, under the concept ‘Nesting’, designing many little nooks and crannies where people can sit down. His ‘Ice and Snow Test Drive Center’ in Inner Mongolia makes heavy use of wood from local white birches and pines, as well as curved lines that blend into the steppes. Chu says that it is essential to meet the needs of local residents when designing commercial spaces.

“Even Starbucks had to change their style when they arrived in Chengdu,” says Chu. “You can keep the same brand spirit, but you always need to adjust the appearance and form.”

The success of the Fangsuo bookstore in Chengdu raised the profile of huaren design across the world; not only was it recognized by awards in Europe and the US, it was also reported on by magazines in Israel and Africa. Chu says, now is the time for huaren design to set its sights on the world. In this time of great opportunity, it is crucial for the huaren community to build up confidence in its identity.

“The whole world is watching us. We should not be showing them our pretensions, but rather our authentic, confident, graceful qualities. That is why self-confidence is so important. If we do not have faith in our own identity, we become less confident, so our designs become less authentic and honest.”

Chu believes that huaren design must reflect the huaren community’s true self, memories, lives, and worlds, in order to win global accolades. “If you clean up your house, then you don’t need expensive renovations,” says Chu. “If you’re Chinese, focus on making the most of it.”

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About Chu Chih-kang

Chu Chih-kang was born in 1976. He received a BA from the Department of Fine Arts at the National Taiwan College of Art, and a MA from the Graduate Institute of Product Design and Architecture at Shih Chien University. He founded Chu Chih-kang Space Design in 2007, establishing offices in Taipei and Shenzhen. He moved back to Kaohsiung in 2015, and remains based there as the studio’s Creative Director. His product and interior designs have won recognition from many design awards in Taiwan and abroad, including the iF Design Awards, the Red Dot Design Awards, the Golden Pin Design Award, the Good Design Award in Japan, the Iconic Awards—Best of Best in Germany, and the A’Design Award in Italy. His design for Fangsuo bookstore in Chengdu was named as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world by Architectural Digest in 2015. The magazine also named him amongst the one-hundred most influential architects in China. His representative works include ‘Dong-Dong-Chiang’, Fangsuo bookstore in Chengdu, ‘Ice and Snow Test Drive Center’ in Inner Mongolia, and ‘Mountains-Waters’.

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