Artist transforms everyday objects to give tradition a modern relevance, Yang Feiyue reports.
Chinese designer Chen Min has been in the media spotlight for his works that are on display in Sotheby's auction house in New York. The display features a clay chestnut roaster with braided bamboo "flowers" protruding from the vents on its surface.
Chen was one of just three artists from around the world that were invited by Jonathan Anderson, the creative director of Spanish luxury brand Loewe, to apply local and traditional elements to a Spanish chestnut roaster.
Chen readily took up the offer since he has sought to forge a bond between the East and the West.
He transformed bamboo, a distinctive and easily recognizable Chinese element, into flowers to go with the baked pottery texture of the roaster.
"This inspiration comes from the feeling of bamboo growth," says the 41-year-old.
"The energy of the fibers that make the shoots become bamboo overnight reminds me of an eruption, so I tried to imitate this dynamic feeling in several styles."
Chen was born in 1980 and grew up in an artistic family in Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang province. His grandfather was an engraving painter, whose trade involved wood, copper, stone and other elements. He showed Chen a combination of Western technique and Chinese painting.
"One of the most important things that my grandfather taught me is observation," Chen says.
From combining Western technology and Chinese painting, his grandfather made Chen realize that printmaking is among the art forms that are closest to the concept of design.
Chen also has two uncles, one an architect and the other an industrial designer. "They showed me that industrial design could cover every aspect of life," Chen says.
Under their influence, Chen also started his journey into art. He underwent calligraphy training at a young age and developed a strong interest in traditional arts and crafts.
Those early experiences had Chen setting his sights on becoming an industrial designer.
In 2001, he went to study for two years at the Koln International School of Design in Germany. He then successfully completed his Bachelor of Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, where Chen discovered a conceptual design philosophy.
It surprised him that even a graphic designer like his roommate could take a motorcycle apart and put its 1,000 components on the floor, just to take a picture before putting them all back together. "I thought to myself 'how could a graphic designer do such things that were supposed to be the work of a mechanic?'"
The incident inspired him to treat each project individually.
"Only when I understand the process can I carry out innovation and design," he says.
The three-and-a-half years Chen spent in the Netherlands helped him to establish a solid academic foundation and, in 2008, he was accepted by the Domus Academy in Milan for his MA in design.
Chen later worked as a teaching assistant at the academy for a year.
In 2012, Chen returned to China and set up his own studio in Hangzhou, focusing on advanced industrial design. Life in Hangzhou, he says, is "quite flexible and has a slow rhythm". He considers flexibility a good attribute for a city.
The following year, he created his Hangzhou Stool that focused world's attention on China's modern design techniques. A simple compact piece of furniture made from bamboo, the stool takes advantage of the special quality of the material, offering flexibility for comfort, while expressing the relaxing and free atmosphere of the city.
The stool was an inspiration from his visit to a plant in Lin'an district, where he found almost all things that local workers used were made of bamboo, even their name cards and suitcases.
"Bamboo culture is so powerful that it runs through our life," Chen says. "For example, there's a good chance that you would find a pair of bamboo chopsticks in every Chinese kitchen."
When he saw a thin bamboo skin rolling out of a machine, he thought of a model he had made during an internship in Italy in 2008 and decided to replicate it with bamboo.
The Hangzhou Stool consists of 16 bamboo veneers, each 0.9 millimeters thick. The layers differ in length. They are bent in an arc shape and glued together over a length of 25 centimeters at each end.
One piece of raw bamboo penetrates the veneers and combines the two ends of the stool. Sixteen layers of bamboo veneer give a very special "arc" to the stool, resembling ripples on water.
"When sitting, the more weight the stool receives, the deeper the arc will become in the center, and therefore the more elasticity the user will feel," Chen explains.
One of his stools has been added to the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
As the only finalist of the 2018 Loewe international craft awards in China, Chen and his Hangzhou Stool sparked a new wave of Chinese craft in London.
His feat had the design magazine Icon name him one of the "most gifted local designers".
He has been invited to teach at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, and Tongji University in Shanghai. And he has offered his services to many international brands, including Swarovski, Nike and Ikea.
Chen has also strived to bring his passion for languages into his design.
He says that he considers design to be a language, which has origins, depth and history.
"It stays open and evolves over the time. It expresses life in all aspects, and becomes the essence of it," he says.
His goal is to find the Chinese language in the world of design.
"Our Chinese characters are symbolic with profound meaning, and they have historical origin, but for many Westerners, they are just a pattern," he says.
"I want to show the interesting things that Westerners can't see in the strokes of a Chinese character through three-dimensional form."
In order to make Westerners understand Chinese characters, he has applied their form to pieces of furniture with great practical value.
The Chinese language is composed of characters, and characters are composed of strokes. This is how Chen uses materials, as strokes, to create his gong-shaped furniture series, from tables to shelf systems. The Chinese character gong means "tool" in this context, Chen says.
He also made clothes stands that resemble the Chinese character mu, which means "wood".
"The form expresses the essence of the shape of a tree. When you put two mu together, they become the character lin, which means 'woods'," Chen explains.
Last year, Chen launched a new project, where he invited and organized senior and young designers from home and abroad to re-create Chinese handicrafts that are on the verge of disappearing.
Chen took them to traditional art workshops to see the most primitive materials and get a feel for the local environment.
Wang Juju from Shanghai got to present a distinctive paper made by the Dai people in Yunnan province to the public through the program.
"The paper carries a history of 800 years and can be very large, to the point of 10 meters long and 3.5 meters wide, and it's worth more attention," says Wang, who focuses on art installation.
She made a column out of two pieces of Dai paper, where the viewer would feel as if they are in a cocoon while appreciating the wood fibers under a dim light.
Wang applauded Chen's program for bringing tradition back to life.
"It's amazing to express traditions via modern approaches and help more young people to understand and appreciate them," Wang says.
Chen's teacher in the Netherlands, Aldo Bakker, was inspired by the filigree inlaid metal art that was used by the Chinese royal families in the old days and applied the technique to modern-day utensils, such as a honey stick.
"Having those masters and young designers together is not just about creating an opportunity for innovation," Chen says.
He believes they are here to work on integration of craft, design and art, and the designer's mission is to make life better and more convenient as much as possible.