Provenance brings value to design, whether it’s American oak or Murano glass. But to those in the west, the label “made in China” sometimes comes with preconceptions of mass production and piracy. Last week’s Design Shanghai show challenged those prejudices, showing how the affluence of modern Shanghai and a new approach to manufacturing looks set to change how we see the country in the future.
For the past year, Michele De Lucchi — the revered Italian designer who turns 70 this year, and who was a member of the postmodern Memphis movement in the 1980s — has been working with Shanghai-based Stellar Works on a series of three new designs. The first to be revealed is a modular sofa, called Float, which debuted at the show.
This collaboration is remarkable for two reasons. De Lucchi turns down offers from luxury Italian design companies on a regular basis, having essentially retired from product design to focus on “the reality of our extinction as a species”, as well as futuristic, experimental architecture in Georgia.
Second, Stellar Works is a Chinese manufacturer and De Lucchi has, to date, worked almost exclusively with European brands, such as Alessi, Olivetti and Siemens.
“I wanted to do this because I believe craftsmanship and industrial manufacturing for the mass market cannot exist independently,” he tells me via Zoom from his rural chalet north of Milan. “In Italy, craftsmanship is a way to experiment — everything at Salone del Mobile is a prototype, not a saleable product.
“In France, it is about creating industrial perfection by hand, but in a way that still allows you to recognise the human touch.” It comes at a price though: a lamp he designed for Hermès “costs the same as a small car”, he says. Stellar Works produces everything by hand, “but the cost means that the finished product isn’t just for a very few people”.
That means a sweeping Taylor sofa designed for Stellar Works by Yabu Pushelberg starts at £3,282, compared with the same designer’s Lombard Street couches, made to order in Germany, starting at about £14,000.
Stellar Works is a rising star in the design world. The company — founded by Japanese entrepreneur Yuichiro Hori in 2012 — has worked on collaborations with big names including designer BassamFellows and architect David Rockwell, and is aiming to do for the mid-range furniture market what Ikea did for budget home solutions across Europe in the 1980s.
“The final retail price of our products is 30 per cent less than it would be if we made it in France,” says Hori. “For the cost of an hour’s upholstery work in France, we can create a whole chair in Shanghai.” Prices for the Float sofa will start at £2,324.
Wages for factory workers might be lower in China than in France or Italy. But lacking a university education does not mean these workers are not highly skilled.
Hori and De Lucchi insist there is more to the manufacturing landscape than profit margins and low wages. “When I was looking for somewhere to set up my base, I went all over Asia,” says Hori. “I needed at least 100 workers, and couldn’t find them back in Japan unless I hired unskilled students. In China, I found people in their mid-twenties who had 15 years of experience already — they learnt their skills from their parents.”
The choice of Shanghai as a base, where the minimum hourly wage is Rmb22, or about $3.44, an hour, was made because of talent as much as economics.
“Someone could touch a piece of wood and tell me its precise moisture content, and they are experts at carving,” says Hori. “I asked one guy to make me a chair. Without making any drawings, he made a duplicate of something I showed him, and it was incredible quality.”
Stellar Works is shaping itself to become a global brand. Its key focus is on the US and Europe, but Hori says that the domestic market still accounts for 19 per cent of sales and is growing as Shanghai and Beijing flourish financially. The company also produces some of its materials in France, and Hori is happy to point out that the same factory produces work for Hermès and Dior.
While Stellar Works has no aspiration to become the Chinese equivalent of Chanel for furniture, it could well become the Shanghai Agnès b — widely distributed, stylish and well made.
Its overall creative direction is handled by architects Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu of Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, based in Shanghai and London. “More independent brands are rising within China,” says Hu. “Technologically, China is getting closer and closer to the west. In many cases, it’s surpassed many countries in the west.”
Neri believes the appeal of Stellar Works is in its Chinese identity and the creation of a bridge between past and present: “The company is rooted in Asia, so the aesthetic sensibilities and ethos are quite different from Europe. There is a preservation of the culture of craft, workers still use their hands to make things. This is becoming a lost art in some western countries in furniture production.”
It was a longstanding friendship between De Lucchi and Hori that gave rise to the collaboration. De Lucchi was working on a hotel project in Japan and finding communication with the owner problematic, so asked Hori to act as a go-between. Some time later, after years of being asked and making polite refusals, De Lucchi surprised Hori over dinner with sketches for Float. Personal relationships aside, it was the nature of Chinese handcraft that appealed to De Lucchi.
He had also wanted to make a sofa because he finds them inherently “strange” objects. “It is just a bed in the room but it is fundamental to furnish a room and gives a sense of hospitality and a sense of comfort,” De Lucchi says. “I wanted to create one without any structure, as a set of components you arrange as you like.” The design was developed through laborious video calls between Milan and Shanghai last year.
While the geometric Float design looks industrial in nature, it is nuanced. De Lucchi thinks the Japanese and Chinese approaches have similarities that contrast with European design. It is “perfection that isn’t perfection,” he says. “Each master craftsman makes it apparent their work is carried out by a human. It’s not immediately apparent with the sofa, but I can tell they do everything by hand.”
This is a long way, stylistically, from De Lucchi’s Memphis days, defined by postmodern, hyper-real pop shapes and colours.
He mentions In Praise of Shadows, the 1933 essay by Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki that is a touchstone for many designers, about how small imperfections bring humanity to an object and how modernity has detracted from that. He is currently working on a chair with Stellar Works that makes the handmade aspect more obvious.
Aesthetics are one thing, but no discussion of large-scale manufacturing can avoid the issues of sustainability, ecology and workers’ welfare. Hori assures me that Stellar Works excels on an international level on each count.
China has set goals to be carbon neutral, but not until 2060. It started its journey there by tightening up its Environmental Protection Law in 2016, closing more than 14,000 factories and fining 80,000 more.
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“[These are] criteria put in place after they had a major air pollution problem. We purify our air and water. We are installing Toyota’s production system to manage the workforce, so every element is scanned and tracked at each stage of production, and each does a single shift, with a day off on Sundays.”
Hori admits that many workers still work on their day off and are open to overtime — something unheard of in France, where even looking at emails after hours is interdit.
De Lucchi could have taken his designs anywhere. But with Stellar Works, it’s the end result that has intrigued him enough to move back into furniture design. While he’s busy creating buildings elsewhere for humans to survive a possibly dystopian future, he’s also making sure they can be furnished affordably. It’s a new kind of democracy for high-end aesthetics and craft.