Design Society — Views from the Top

Portrait of Ole Bouman. Courtesy of Design Society.
Exterior View of Design Society. Courtesy of Design Society.
A geodesic dome in the atrium of Design Society. Courtesy of Design Society.
Shoes for United Nude by Fernando Romero, Zaha Hadid, Ross Lovegrove and Michael Young in Minding the Digital. Photo by Zhang Chao. Courtesy of Design Society.
Maki at Design Society’s exhibition, in the show about his work. Courtesy of Design Society.
CoBo Social Market News

Much has been written about Design Society, the design institution which opened in Shekhou, Shenzhen in December — including CoBo’s own interview published 29th January with Brendan Cormier, curator of the V&A Gallery’s Value of Design show there. But there is much more to Design Society, not least two more galleries with major shows. It occupies a stunning building, officially called the Sea World Art and Culture Center, designed by Pritzker-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki (who aged 89 made his first trip to China for the opening). Its atrium and grounds are open to the public right up to its roof.

To get the view from the top, CoBo talked to Ole Bouman, Design Society director since 2015 and previously director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, with a global curatorial portfolio from Manifesta to UABB. The meeting place was Extra Time, the Design Society’s café, and platform for talks and art. Over the sound of waves — actually coming from an installation by Fito Segrera of beads in moving drums suspended above us — CoBo started by asking:

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of Design Society

Portrait of Ole Bouman. Courtesy of Design Society.


The first thing that you encounter at Design Society is this extraordinary building. Why was Maki chosen to design it, and what does his building offer?

Maki was selected after some rounds, but there was a strong preference for this architecture. The thing that we started with, the public dimension, was very important. He is a great believer in civic qualities. More than thirty-five per cent of the building is public space — which is maybe, in China, even harder to realise because of course how are you going to make the money with so much public space? In terms of casual encounters, wandering or roaming the building is a kind of adventure. [There’s] a public platform on top, so that you have the views that connect you to the city and to the land, the mountain and the sea.


The building also hosts retailers and a variety of other organisations over its four floors. How does that fit in with Design Society?

There is already a ballet academy, a bookstore, a furniture store, an art gallery and a qipao (traditional dress store). It’s a very diverse landscape, and the common denominator is the creative impulse. This is very important for the whole philosophy, not only for the building, but for Design Society. First of all, to have strong galleries, and a cultural offering that should be strong, appealing and relevant for today’s design discourse. And to have several shops and cafes is attractive to the general audience. [They] contribute to the business case, but [also] to the overall design ecology. So for instance, this space (Extra Time) is not only the cafe that makes the money. We use the podium for talks, we help to curate projects, we have the gallery here. So this is a good example of the overlap that we try to achieve with businesses and the cultural project.

One of our key needs is to find fantastic partners who would like to be part of that ecosystem, and for international partners…. Once they have a China strategy ready, to find this place a perfect foothold to work that out and to reach out to the manufacturing world, and to the design world in Shenzhen and Pearl River Delta.


Exterior View of Design Society. Courtesy of Design Society.
A geodesic dome in the atrium of Design Society. Courtesy of Design Society.


Is Design Society effectively a private institution, not subsidised by the state or the city?

The private owner (China Merchants) is a state-owned company, so there is a public dimension because being a state-owned company means that you have to contribute to larger societal goals. And the second thing is, although it’s run commercially, there is this mission to contribute to the current shift from “made-in-china”, to “created-in-china”. So a huge social shift, almost a historical shift, to an alternative economy. More based on knowledge and skills and creativity, and less on mass-production. You could say, the shift from hands to minds.


Some worry about the replacement of the craftsperson by robots, and the design process is already deeply digitised. How does Design Society reflect that issue?

Our first big show in the main gallery — our ‘manifesto opening move’, so to speak — is exactly about this. It’s called Minding The Digital, and already the title represents our effort to let human imagination, or reflection, move into the digital revolution. There are a lot of people here succumbing to the technology temptation, and ready for an algorithm for everything. To be sure that there is an artistic view, we show many examples where that happens. And not only examples, but a floor where people in the end of the show, can become designers themselves. So it is a kind of mapping the technological landscape through the lens of design, but at the same time also showing how design is the force that transcends this whole domain from pure technology to a creative domain.


Shoes for United Nude by Fernando Romero, Zaha Hadid, Ross Lovegrove and Michael Young in Minding the Digital. Photo by Zhang Chao. Courtesy of Design Society.


About the V&A connection. Did China Merchants want a credible brand association from the worlds of design and museums? 

I also joined this project for a reason, and I would not join it if the deeper motivation was purely marketing or material… China Merchants was for many years in Hong Kong, so there is an old British framing of China Merchants history. But there is a very specific cultural reason, that is that V&A has a kind of similar founding principle. After the (1851) Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace (built in Hyde Park, London, to house it), the V&A was founded, also to communicate the power of design to a large audience, and to uplift the British people from the darkness of the industrial revolution, and to give them a benefit of this revolution. If you compare that 19th century story to the current shift from industry to a more creative side, it resonates.

The V&A is more representing a dimension of this project, rather than a section of this project. They represent a certain agenda. The V&A Gallery is not just showing pieces from the magnificent collection in London, it’s exposing this collection with a new narrative relevant for Shenzhen.


People associate China with piracy and a kind of lawlessness in terms of intellectual property. Is Design Society relevant in this question?

I hope so. I think there are two parts of this question, intellectual property and respect for intellectual property, and a certain agility in combining cultural ingredients. So if it comes to piracy, lets say straightforward: theft, it’s the easy buck you can make by stealing from others, and there’s a huge market. The moment you steal quality, you lose quality. So that is the message. It is about respect for the creative element.

But also, in China there is this copy culture called shanzhai, and this concept has been through its own transformation from plagiarism… I think there is an element in this shanzhai that doesn’t come from disrespect to the quality of the authorship, but a disrespect of consolidated categories. Like, I’m a musician [but] tonight I will be a cook and I serve a fantastic dish. So there is this kind of agility that cooks a much richer meal than lets say, nouvelle cuisine where you have the pure taste of just one ingredient. This is a way of thinking that I would really advocate, because it brings much more richness to culture. And that, I think, is the promise of China.


Maki at Design Society's exhibition, in the show about his work The Kaleidome by LAAB is in the atrium. Courtesy of Design Society.
Maki at Design Society’s exhibition, in the show about his work. Courtesy of Design Society.


Is your programming specific for the local audience, because part of their culture is making things?

Our program is unfinished, we are not delivering a final program. We deliberately create a margin for surprise, and more specifically, input from others. This means that we should do events of course, that provoke people. And that is really important to reach out and to not only say, the floor is yours — that’s too passive. But to have something that they can tap into.

For instance, when we have designers in residency, they should come up with a program that may benefit from additional intelligence coming from the Shenzhen community or manufacturers. But at the same time, these manufacturers can rely on the brain of a designer in residence. So there is this constant effort to create overlap. And also overlap between the galleries and the shops. Because with overlap, shanzai becomes great. Without overlap, shanzhai becomes theft.



Minding the Digital until June 3, 2018
Nurturing Dreams in Recent Work: Fumihoko Maki + Maki and Associates until June 30, 2018
Values of Design until August 8, 2018




Herbert Wright is a London-based writer covering architecture, urbanism, and art. He is contributing editor of UK architecture/design magazine Blueprint and the author of three books. He also writes on other topics including space, environment, music and the future. He has previously worked at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and he curated Lisbon Open House 2012. He graduated in Physics and Astrophysics.

Twitter: @Herbhastosay
Instagram: @herbertwrightuk



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