Seducing the World with Oriental Aesthetics
Three mid-career Taiwanese designers demonstrate how they integrate Oriental and Western aesthetics into print, theater, and industrial design to speak the world's language.
Seducing the World with Oriental AestheticsBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 374 )
"Over the last five years it has become less and less unusual to hear about prominent Taiwanese corporations winning major international design awards.
At last year’s iF exhibition in Germany, Taiwan set another new high for the number of awards it received. Among the 72 honors, one-third of those in the Product Design category were claimed by small and medium-size businesses, showing that “stepping out with innovation and leading with design” has become an undeniable trend of the times.
In this era of emphasis on innovation and design, how does one harmonize Western and Oriental aesthetics to speak the world’s language?
To find out, CommonWealth Magazine interviewed Xiao Qing-Yang, Austin Wang, and Yu-Tsung Hu, three 40-something Taiwanese designers in the print, theater, and industrial design fields, respectively. While no longer youths in a strict sense, they display youthful vigor in their design careers.
Innovation Spanning a Millennium of Time
“Today in Thailand, in the world’s most beautiful new airport, you can see a three-story tall Buddha. Surrounded by modern black-and-white glass, as soon as Westerners see the gigantic, elegantly carved Buddha, they think, ‘Wow! Such grand Oriental atmosphere!’ says Xiao Qing-Yang, often known by the nickname “Shout,” whose description makes the scene at the airport come to life the way his CD package designs embody the charms of the music inside.
Xiao Qing-Yang hit the world by storm in 2005, when his cover design for Monte Wang’s album Wandering Accordion won out over more than 20,000 entrants from around the globe to become one of the five finalists in the Best Record Package category at the Grammy Awards – the music industry’s top honors.
It was a huge boost for Xiao, who’d worked quietly for more than 20 years on the little island of Taiwan, to gain recognition all the way across the world from its most important citadel of music. For Xiao, who’d considered getting out of the record design business about once every three years, it was a sign that someone had noticed a committed innovator such as he.
“After that I started encouraging the kids, saying, be careful – it’s not like people aren’t watching you. If you have world-class ambition, don’t think that if the client tells you to do a big shot of the star’s face, you should give them a big face. If you don’t put up a strong resistance, you’re not going to produce anything,” he shares. Xiao firmly believes that a work is an idea the designer passionately wants to get across. Aesthetics come first, and when the time is right, the market will respond.
He likes to refer to the younger generation as “kids.” The copious information he prepares for school lectures he calls “helping kids with their homework.” The night before our interview he had stayed up through the middle of the night with his assistant going through Rolling Stone magazine’s selection of the world’s top 500 album cover designs, collating, analyzing, and choosing musical accompaniment to show young people who only get their music from Internet downloads the most important record packaging designs from around the world.
Shout Xiao always assigns himself the task of paying attention to international trends, observing the techniques and aesthetic tastes of foreigners, and evaluating his own works in comparison to them. Each design job that comes along thus marks the start of another research project for Xiao.
Taiwanese Opera Takes on the Western Market
Xiao Qing-Yang is the designer behind the record White Horse, an electronica interpretation of Taiwanese opera that has been a hot topic of discussion recently on the Internet.
Right from the start Xiao Qing-Yang and the record producer determined White Horse’s international market approach.
The design is purely black and white, with only the horse white against a black background, like a rubbing of a tablet. The cover shows an ancient Chinese general astride a white horse, while the reverse side features a classical ancient Chinese beauty standing before the white horse. And when folded out, an exquisite image of romance and a handsome equine emerges.
In order to make the horse look just right, Xiao spent six months culling through paintings from across numerous dynasties, starting with the Tang dynasty 1300 years ago and on through the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing. He then photographed them, scrutinized them exhaustively, and finally processed them all over again in a computer to create the finished product.
The record’s release even reverberated across the strait, Internet users in China describing it as “a nutty case” for using all the emperor’s official seals as design motifs.
“People in the European and American markets don’t know the story of Syue Ping-guei and Wang Bao-chuan, and they don’t know what Taiwanese opera is. For them it’s just traditional (Asian) opera, so we approached the design knowing it had to be simple to ease them into it,” notes Xiao regarding the contrasting black and white, and the visual purity. Xiao adds that since Westerners believe that well-packaged records will sound good, “we must use design to help Taiwanese opera take on the Western market.”
The Quest for Assimilated Oriental Aesthetics
Taking on the record market through package design is a natural outgrowth of Xiao’s course over the years. Undaunted by the prevalence of music downloading over the Internet, he gushes that he is determined to make his designs so good that those who don’t buy the records will feel they’re missing out.
For Xiao, contemporary design has moved into the “research realm”; the rise of Oriental style is still in its infancy in terms of application. “It’s not like ink splash painting equals Oriental, or something on Meinong oil paper equals Taiwan. You’ve got to immerse yourself in that environment to come up with your own thing to say. Only then, after thorough assimilation and sublimation does it count as Oriental aesthetics,” he opines.
A lover of both music and fine arts from a young age, Xiao Qing-Yang has a burning passion for the pursuit of beauty. When he was just a third grader in primary school he talked his younger brother into riding their bicycles all the way from Nan Shih Jiao in Jhonghe to the Renai Road roundabout in downtown Taipei – a four-hour excursion – just for a short look at the fine examples of architecture one could only find in that neighborhood at the time. His intense revulsion at the ugliness of Taiwan’s environs from a young age strengthened his conviction that creativity should arise from life experience.
With a baseball cap on his head and tanned complexion, Shout Xiao has a sunny appearance. Still, his established design style – characterized by its density, freeze-frame consciousness, and sleepwalking vistas – are evidence of a methodical thinker. “That’s just the way I am, always thinking too much. I only feel better when I get it all in there,” he says somewhat sheepishly.
In his studio Xiao enthusiastically explains to guests his visual design for this year’s Ho-Hai-Yan Gongliao Rock Festival. While others look for a creative code in his work, he looks for an antidote to life in his designs.
Emulating Nature with Chinese Elements
Fancy visions invariably turn into mirages.
Behind the creative impetus of Austin Wang’s set design for the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s Moon Water lies a well-grounded line of thinking.
The entire production was developed from out of dance troupe founder Lin Hwai-min’s principles informed by Taiji. Flawlessly interwoven with Bach for unaccompanied cello, it achieves a state of pure aesthetic beauty in art.
Moon Water has shaken the international scene with its ethereal, flowing dramatic effects. Yet Austin Wang insists that he inadvertently happened upon its visual style.
“It’s a rather seamless design, approaching the essence of nature, which echoes the essence of Oriental aesthetics,” describes Wang.
Having passed through the crucible of Lin Hwai-min’s meticulous, strenuous demands and the scrutiny of art critics in Taiwan and overseas, Wang’s set design and Chang Tsan-tao’s lighting have been called Cloud Gate’s “golden pairing.”
Austin Wang recounts a time when, on tour with Lin Hwai-min in Munich, he saw a row of mirrors hanging outside a strip of shops. They were angled in such a way that passers-by were reflected upside-down in the mirrors, becoming another fascinating street scene themselves. “At the time I just thought it was a good idea, but when we did Moon Water I thought about employing the same device.”
At the finale of Moon Water the stage is covered with water, which is reflective like a mirror. The clear water is still and the reflections are clearer and more real than real people. This is the Chinese way of thinking about the tangible and intangible, according to Wang. “But when I was designing it, I wasn’t thinking about making it very Chinese. If that had been on my mind, it would have looked too contrived,” he explains.
Moving between dance and drama, no matter how abstract or real the subject is, Wang stresses, “you can never overwhelm it.”
It seems the less deliberate the presentation, the harder it is not to get noticed for shining through.
Distilling the Wisdom of Traditional Oriental Objects
“Tung Blossom Snow,” the work that earned Yu-Tsung Hu the Grand Prize in the first Tung Blossom Creative Product Design Competition last year, was an unexpected yet natural result.
As creative director at ndd design group, Hu has done more than two or three years of research and development on lighting fixtures. The genesis of the idea to establish his own brand of lamps came from observing all the Taiwanese lighting companies withdrawing from the market one after another after bowing out to competition from China.
“That didn’t make sense, you know. The Western lighting industry is perfectly healthy. Who says there’s no way forward for Taiwanese lighting?” Assessing the situation, Hu knew instinctively that something was wrong somewhere.
The Tung Blossom Creative Product Design Competition gave Yu-Tsung Hu the answer he was looking to clarify.
The lamp shades featured in “Tung Blossom Snow” are made with multiple plastic slats conjoined laterally to form a single structure, on which are pressed cross-sectioned flower shapes and silk-screened dual-color flower patterns, evoking the soft brilliance of fallen tung blossoms. When the light is switched on, the three-dimensional floral shape and shadows play against each other due to the way the structure is joined, adding additional layers of beauty – for which it earned the top prize in the overhead lighting category.
“All the structures, materials, and means of assembly are common around the world. Very common. However, the Chinese cultural associations ofthe tung blossom clearly differentiate this lighting set from foreign designs and give it originality,” Hu asserts, appreciating distinctive beauty beyond universally understood concepts. “It can take you some place you’ve never been before. My previous designs lacked that power to move you forward.”
For Yu-Tsung Hu the discussion that sticks out most in his mind from his days as an industrial design student at the University of the Arts in Berlin was an impassioned deliberation on the differences between Chinese and Japanese chopsticks. Just going over how the head of one is thicker, while the other is pointier, fascinated his European classmates at how different the Asian cultural connotations and ways of life could be conveyed through everyday articles.
Having been back in Taiwan for many years, Hu felt that although he was skilled at Western design conception, he seemed to be playing the role of a “Western design colonial.”
With this realization he began reading Lin Yutang’s The Art of Living and observing how the master dissected Oriental and Western approaches to life. He also began meditating and visiting with traditional furniture collectors to try and distill the sensitivity towards the use of objects that the ancients gleaned from their wisdom of life.
“When LG from Korea is taking inspiration from classical flower vases and applying the texture of lacquerware to LCD TVs, technical accomplishment isn’t enough to lead the way and set trends!” exclaims Hu from his studio in a Tainan back alley, as if animated by southern Taiwan’s bright hot sun.
Taiwan Designers’ Week – First Step toward Integration
There are actually at least 200 designers all around Taiwan who think like Hu, only they are usually designing mobile phone handsets or computers. Nevertheless, they are keenly interested in designing for the high added-value lifestyle industry around the world.
Taiwan Designers’ Week, running from June 29 through July 4, represents the first step towards interdisciplinary integration. Yu-Tsung Hu is serving as curator for one of the Designers’ Week exhibition’s seven main “sub-themes,” titled “Benches.”
“With over a millennium of history, benches are still a part of our everyday lives. We hope that by re-evaluating our thinking on traditional objects such as these, we can stimulate both familiar and brand-new design power,” says an upbeat Hu.
Going back and examining the value of conventional objects and transforming them is the foundation for dialogue with the West.
There once was a time when all Taiwan’s designers could do was design handles for Japanese refrigerators, while today a growing number of young Taiwanese innovators are tilling away, getting together and breaking through. As they put their ideas into practice, the age of the creative economy is just getting going.
(For further information see www.designersweek.tw)
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman