Better by Design in China

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


In recent decades, China has been known more for its inexpensive manufactured goods than as a producer of high quality products. But this is changing as the country seeks to move up the economic chain.

China’s long-established design traditions were largely overlooked as the country made its breakneck push to become the world’s manufacturing powerhouse. But now Chinese manufacturers want to be known for high-quality designs and products rather than just for cheap-and-cheerful merchandise.

China is a critical lesson for the rest of the global South, and offers much inspiration to any country trying to develop, modernize and eradicate poverty.

The country is the main reason for the dramatic reductions in global extreme poverty rates, and it can be proud of using its average yearly economic growth rate of 10 per cent to lift 440 million Chinese out of poverty – the biggest reduction of poverty in history (The Economist). The strategy of exporting manufactured goods into Western markets at competitive prices has dominated the past 20 years.

But China faces a dilemma as other nations in the global South are moving into this niche. It needs to quickly become a high-value nation, with unique products and designs generated in the country.

Luckily, a renaissance in Chinese design in the last five years has been gradually grabbing the attention of the world’s creative community.

Innovative Chinese designers are creating home furnishings and interiors that are being snapped up by European companies.

The Italian kitchen utensil design company Alessi turned to eight Chinese architects – including Ma Yansong and Yung Ho Chang – to design a range of trays called (Un) Forbidden City. The architects’ designs were manufactured in Italy – a reversal of the pattern that has dominated for the past 20 years.

The architects drew on Chinese traditions and 21st century technologies to design the trays. One was made using a 3D scanner which captured images used to make a mould.

The drive to change and transform China’s global economic role was promoted in 2011’s Beijing International Design Week (, with its theme of transforming “Made in China to Designed in China.”

“When you have so much of a manufacturing base in one place, it’s natural that people start thinking about how to climb the value chain,” Philip Tinari, director of Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) ( – a champion of new artists and designers – told

“Chinese design has become something to rally around and, unlike art, enjoys great official support because it’s a way of improving China’s long-term economic position, as opposed to expressing thoughts about what’s been going on.”

Other Chinese designers grabbing attention include Chen Xuan, who makes tables; chair-maker Gui Yang; Li Bowen, a maker of wicker chairs; and Ge Wei, a maker of jewellery boxes.

Designer Huo Yijin makes contemporary tea trays, using heat-reactive lacquer coating to create dazzling effects.

“Users can see the wonderful effect of water and temperature reacting on the tea trays when they drink Kungfu tea in the traditional way,” Huo explained.

Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province – a city that has been making ceramics since the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) – is now attracting craftspeople from around the world looking to tap into its expertise and skill. One attraction is Mr Yu’s Big Ware Factory. Its unparalleled ability to create giant-size pottery is a design niche with much potential.

Many foreign creatives are being drawn to China for its can-do attitude and the ability to break with conventions stifling creativity in the West. The next five years could see the world’s design centre of gravity shift eastwards again.

Published: November 2012


1) Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA): The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is a comprehensive, not-for-profit art center serving a global Beijing public. Website:

2) ChinaShijitanContemporaryArtCenter: A mixed-use art venue with experimental theatre, exhibition space, art gallery and production spaces. Website:

3) Pearl Lam Galleries: Pearl Lam Galleries lead a stable of International and Chinese artists who are multidisciplinary, refuting the hierarchy of art forms. The galleries do not follow the model of Western galleries; rather, they have evolved from the philosophy of Chinese Literati, which does not segregate between the different art disciplines. Website:

4) School of Design of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA): The Central Academy of Fine Arts, located in Beijing, the capital of China, is an academy where culture, history and art are flourishing, which enjoys the best art resources of the world. Website:

5) Beijing’s legendary 798 art district: “798” is located in the Dashanzi area, to the northeast of central Beijing. It is the site of state-owned factories including Factory 798, which originally produced electronics. Beginning in 2002, artists and cultural organizations began to divide, rent out, and re-make the factory spaces, gradually developing them into galleries, art centers, artists’ studios, design companies, restaurants, and bars. Website:

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© David South Consulting 2023

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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