Zhoujie Zhang's fantastical furniture brings to mind digitization and galactic travels. It's near impossible to imagine that these futuristic designs came from a boy trained in classical arts in rural village of Ningbo, China.
Growing Up Without Design
When Zhang Zhoujie grew up, he had never heard of design. His father was a calligrapher and taught Zhoujie to paint the day-to-day scenery of rural China.
But Zhoujie always thought he was missing something. "I had this feeling that there were unknown forms of artistic expression beyond my village," he explains. He pursued a degree in product design in China, "but everything was too commercial, without feelings, and without the human users in mind," Zhoujie comments. He started looking for inspiration internationally and discovered products, design and art from of London. "I couldn't get my head around the designs I was seeing, and I needed to explore what these were all about, says Zhoujie, and so he moved to London.
He returned to China inspired, and set up his own studio. Zhoujie then began producing highly polished metal furniture, using innovative digital modeling methods.
Zhoujie's furniture is a result of his deep-rooted Chinese culture, fused with a methodology he learned during his time in London. "I grew up in a very traditional rural family," says Zhoujie "I realized the important value of our culture. But I didn’t know how to express my ideas with objects – London gave me the techniques behind my designs." Having only graduated in 2010 from St. Martin's College of Art and Design in Industrial Design, Zhoujie has already been featured in magazines all across China with his furniture range.
He says this would not have been possible without his experience abroad. "When I was in China I still thought designers should just be making cheap low cost mindless things which are easy to manufacture – London made me think outside the box. I was designing to survive before, designing to make money for corporations, I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life." Growing up during the opening of China to the world, Zhoujie began to discover design, but still did not entirely understand it. "I asked myself ‘Why are they doing it like this?' For me I wanted to understand why, the reason behind it." He believes London has defined him, but it is Chinese culture which really drives him forward.
Major Production Challenges
Since displaying his work at his 2010 graduation show, Zhoujie has come a long way. His graduate show simply displayed renderings and models, "Nothing you could sit on, and nothing tactile," he describes, "But the interest was huge for my concepts – I could not wait to get back to China to manufacture them." This is where Zhoujie encountered his first major stumbling block.
Thinking it was easy to manufacture in the world's factory, he visited numerous facilities, only to find that is was impossible for factories to produce the complex objects he dreamed of bringing to reality. "My pieces just had too many angles. I finally found a very small scale family run factory and just said ‘help me fold one edge and I will give you some money – however much do you want’. It took 5 days to fold hundreds of angles – but I had finished one chair."
This gave Zhoujie the encouragement he needed, and proof that he could do it. However, due to the poor quality angles produced, he decided to bring production in-house. He spent 18 months learning welding, cutting, polishing and manufacturing. With this step-by-step knowledge of the production process, he gained an intimate understanding of the manufacturing process.
"It was really useful to do production myself and has seriously influenced my design process – the two have for too long been seen as separate in China," Zhoujie explains. This experience drives his quick rise to fame in China: "In China not many people design like this. This is why so many Chinese magazines and designers are interested in my work, because its unconventional for China."
Sharing a New Design Philosophy with Young Chinese Designers
For Zhoujie, this is just the start. After developing and honing his design philosophy at university, he is only at the beginning of a long journey to creating a whole range of pieces. Next on the agenda is developing furniture with different surface treatments. As part of the ‘digital generation’, he sees a bright future for design in China, but believes designers need to be more confident to start out on their own and do what they feel passionate about. "The manufacturing base is there to support young designers, they just need to experiment," he says enthusiastically. With this in mind, Zhoujie supports young designers from universities in Shanghai by involving them in the manufacturing process, sharing valuable practical skills along with the creative ideas that young product designers in China crave most.
2008 – 2010 Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design
MA Industrial Design
2009 – 2010 Architectural Association School of Architecture
2003 – 2007 China Academy of Art
BA Industrial Design
2010 – Present Creative Director of Zhang Zhoujie Digital Lab, Shanghai, China.
2010 – Present Visiting Lecturer of Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts, Fudan University, China.
2006 – 2008 Product Designer of Lenovo Research and Development center, China.
EXHIBITIONS & AWARDS
2012.12 ELLEDECO, EDIDA Young Designer of the year, China
2012.11 SHDC 50/100 Young Talent of the Year.
2012.11 3rd Art & Science International Exhibition,Beijing,China.
2012.10 Designer's Show Galaxy Soho,Beijing,China
2012.9 Design of designers,Shanghai,China
2012.04 SaloneSatellite, Milan,Intaly.
2012.01 imm D3 Design Talents Show,Professionals,Cologne.
2011.09 100% Design, Futures, London, UK.
2011.09 Shanghai Design Exhibition, Shanghai EXPO Center Hall.
2011.08 DigitalFUTURE Exhibition, Tongji University, Shanghai, China.
2010.06 MAID Degree Show, Central Saint Martins, London, UK.
2009.11 Cheer:) Exhibition, Oxo Tower Wharf,London, UK
2009.04 Project Milano Mi Fa Male, Milan Design Week, Italy.
2007.06 IF Design Award China.
2006.12 Major Award, China Academy of Art.
2006.06 Shanghai International Science & Art Exhibiton, Shanghai, China.
2006.06 First Place, Lenovo Design Competition.
2005.12 First Place, ‘SVA’ Monitor Design Competition