New East

Designer Rick Lee discusses his recent collection and the future of manufacturing in China

From bottom left: Wen Chaise Lounge, Storm Trash Bin, Mojave Chair

Chinese manufacturers have long been held in contempt by the international design community for producing second-rate knock-offs of existing designs and selling them at a much lower cost. This perception is starting to change however, thanks in large part to a new generation of manufacturers who are beginning to work with talented designers and produce original designs at a very sophisticated level.

Rick Lee is a successful San Francisco-based industrial designer who has launched a collection in collaboration with Viken, called the Bamboo Furniture Collection. He is a perfect person to provide insight into the changing design landscape in China.

So what is your background and design history? What influences you?

I was raised in South Korea by Chinese parents and immigrated to California during my early teens. My design career began in Chicago working with local design firms and manufacturers. A few years later, I moved to Milan, Italy, to hone my design knowledge. After three years of working in Milan as a designer-gypsy (for Studio Alchimia, architectural firms and furniture manufacturers), I moved to the SF for love—and I’ve been here since 1992. I am pure Chinese, but culturally a mutt. My team and I are currently collaborating with manufacturers and independent clients globally. I’ve also been producing my own label, creating a line of limited edition design and art objects for the design trade and collectors. My projects vary from furniture, lighting, textile, interiors, and museum installations.
My influences are my artistic family, my design professors and my Italian mentors, especially those in Studio Alchimia, who helped to propel the international success of the Memphis movement during the ’80s. I also admire George Nelson, Ettore Sottsass, Philippe Starck and Colleen Quen, my wife, the couturier. I like to combine my rational thinking with radical influences to create minimalist pieces with whimsical touches. I love working with a wide range of materials and resources, a mix of seemingly incongruent ingredients carefully combined to create something new and fresh.

You just launched the Bamboo Furniture Collection— please tell us more about that.

It was an exciting and challenging process of combining ancient Chinese craftsmanship with modern technology; the first 35-piece bamboo collection was inspired by the beauty of China’s giant bamboo forests and classic Chinese culture, architecture, and design. They are organic, sophisticated, functional and highly energetic! Each piece is carefully produced using Mao bamboo plywood from China’s Zhejiang province. Mao bamboo has a dense structure, making it a strong and desirable material for sustainable furniture production. Tell us about Viken. How did you connect with them?
Viken is a brand new design-driven furniture manufacturer. Together, we’re pushing the envelope in design, sustainability, and craftsmanship in China, with a focus on international marketing for the design hungry market. Viken and I are planning to show our work at the next ICFF in NY, and then Milan. I was introduced to Viken’s founder, Aubrey Zhang (who shared a passion for earth-conscious design) through a mutual American friend in the furniture industry. Aubrey understood my work and liked one of my recent installations. Soon after that, I was invited to the bamboo forest on numerous trips; there we worked together intensely for more than a year with local Chinese artisans from the bamboo region, and a beautiful collection came to life.

You describe Viken as being a part of a new generation of Chinese manufacturers, one that is going in a completely different direction from the old guard. How do the old and new manufacturers differ?

Since China opened its gates to the western world and developed countries, the old guard manufacturers have contributed immense economic success for China today. But there are heavy prices that come with that, especially in terms of environmental impact. Therefore, it inspired a few new generation manufacturers (mostly younger and highly educated) like Viken, to think outside the box. In a dramatic contrast to the old guard, they strive to be socially responsible, to manufacture sustainable products, to invest in original designs for their own sense of pride, and to respect their ancient traditions, culture and history, which was taboo during the Cultural Revolution. I foresee in the near future that manufacturers like Viken will be a role model for the other manufacturers to follow. They despise the knock-off mentality of the fast and cheap manufacturing process. They are the visionaries and the investors of original designs, which are expansive and challenging, but without them, there will be no progress.

What do you think the design landscape will look like in China in the next 5-10 years?

I think the design landscape looks extremely bright, because China has become one of the biggest luxury product consumers in the world, and the younger generation is being cultivated and exposed to a better lifestyle. With this change of perception, the demands for better quality and designs are rising rapidly. Some Chinese experts told me that currently, the Chinese government is encouraging manufacturers to build their own brands, and in return, granting them with tax breaks and government loans. With this kind of incentive and change, I predict that one day soon, it will not only be made in China, but also designed in China for the domestic and global market. A few years from now, it will be very interesting to see design advocates admiring and buying sophisticated designs from Chinese brands during the Milan Furniture fair and alike!

-Adam Pollock