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Cracking the Oriental Creativity Code


Across the globe, designs from Asia are captivating the imagination. Not only Westerners, but Asians themselves are eager to unlock the secrets of style from the East.



Cracking the Oriental Creativity Code

By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 374 )

“Long Absent, the Wind from the East.”

So declared five Chinese characters adorning Taiwanese designer Chen Chun-liang’s entry in the 2002 International Poster Salon awards in France, where it earned top honors. Set against the poster’s broad, plain white backdrop, two Chinese calligraphy brushes rested on a pear blossom branch, with the accompanying English-language text: “The wind, from east crystallizes the world with a new perspective.”

This poster, chosen the winner from among works submitted by more than 8,000 designers from around the world, was a pronouncement that the long-truant Eastern flair for design had returned with a vengeance.

In fact, that year, 2002, Korea’s Samsung Electronics took home five awards at the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) hosted by the Industrial Designers Society of America, prompting something of a rethink internationally as regards the true power of fine design. Three years later, according to a survey of global brand values by the international marketing agency Interbrand, the value of the Samsung brand formally eclipsed that of Japan’s Sony to become the leading Asian technology company. Last year, Samsung ranked a solid number 20 on Interbrand’s list of best global brands, with a brand value of US$16.2 billion.

Outside of Japan, Samsung is the first Asian company to utilize the power of design to transform itself into an example of a world-class enterprise, U.S. magazine BusinessWeek enthused.

Of course, Samsung is not the sole Asian company to rise with the aid of elegant design.

Taking Flight on the Wings of Design

Known for its stylistic simplicity, Japan’s Muji brand is now marketed on three continents – Europe, Asia and North America, with its two top performing overseas markets in the UK and Taiwan.

The Japanese brand, devoured by European and Asian consumers to the tune of US$1.3 billion in annualoperating revenues, this year formally entered the U.S. market, its big flagship store in Manhattan prompting the likes of IKEA and The Gap to begin circling the wagons. No one dares underestimate the allure of the Muji brand among youthful consumers. Even leading upmarket brands like Chanel and Gucci trailed Muji in a World Brand Value Lab survey of the world’s 100 most influential brands.

Thailand, the “Land of Style” as characterized by Time magazine, has taken a softer, gentler approach in gradually carving a niche for itself on the global design stage with a lifestyle aesthetic of clean and natural simplicity.

Thailand’s renowned hand-woven water hyacinth home furnishings took the global furniture industry by storm in the mid-1990s, sparking a fashion trend that has lasted more than a decade, with high-end home décor brands such as Fendi Casa sourcing from the country. Thailand’s water hyacinth furnishings are now exported to 40 countries around the world, with operating revenues in excess of NT$100 million.

Welcome to the age of West emulating East.

According to Hong Kong designer Gary Chang, retained by renowned Italian home décor brand Alessi to design tea wares, with so much room for growth in the Asian market right now, Westerners will turn an increasingly attentive eye toward the Orient, to observe what things East Asians do differently. “The way Westerners view Asia now is markedly different than in the past,” says Chang.

As French design guru Philippe Starck put it during his 2005 Taiwan visit: Asia was built on manufacturing. Europe and America gave up onmanufacturing long, long ago. Consequently, Asian design innovation can be tied in with basic manufacturing and strategic planning to offer greater diversity in creativity, something lacking in Europe and America.

It’s not only Westerners that are curious about the origins of Asian aesthetic and design innovation; Asians themselves are now endeavoring to crack the code of their own creativity.

Kenya Hara, one of Japan’s most inspired designers, and artistic director for the home products company Muji.

Oriental Creativity Code 1 –Beauty in Harmony

It was following a tour of the contemporary design capitals of Germany that Japanese design prodigy Kohei Sugiura had an epiphany regarding his own creative inspiration.

Prior to his tour of Germany, Sugiura’s designs had been largely in the Western style. But after gaining some insight into the relentless German pursuit of rationalism he became acutely aware of the intense “Asian character” flowing through his own veins.

Soon thereafter he elucidated his feelings on the difference between the Western and Eastern aesthetic in the CommonWealth Magazine publication Asian Creative Scene:

European art is “solitary” and “profoundly cold,” at once more rational and exclusionary, with a powerful sense of the self. In comparison, the Eastern aesthetic is less centered on the self, as before the self there is nature, the cosmos, family and friends.

It is precisely for this reason that Asian designs often exude a pleasing sense of harmony, which can be very appealing in the highly pressurized competition of modern society.

Oriental Creativity Code 2 – Grasping the Essence of Tradition

“Our forward foot represents the future, while our rearward foot represents tradition. Only when there is stability in the rearward foot can we move ahead on our forward foot. But now, young people time and again only remember the forward foot while seldom remembering the tradition of the rearward foot,” Sugiura laments.

Traditions were once the most outstanding innovations, most cutting edge concepts and most passionately pursued objectives of some bygone age, reliant only on the ability of succeeding generations to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Oriental Creativity Code 3 – Self-expression

Tai-Keung Kan, the godfather of Hong Kong designers, is another innovator with the innate ability to grasp the essence of tradition without sinking into the banal.

“[One must] understand enough to raise questions and to answer those questions,” Kan says. “An eternally questioning mentality is the essential element in deliberation. Many young people today look at something beautiful and that’s it. There’s no questioning why; it stops at any effort at deeper understanding.”

For Kan, creativity is an attitude toward life – dissatisfaction with the status quo and an outlook in eternal quest of the groundbreaking. “If you cannot express your own thoughts, you cannot be considered a real designer,” Kan says.

Competition Shifts from Technology to Culture

“Henceforth, the economy will not be a competition of technical production but a competition at the cultural level. This will be the major paradigm in the future,” says Muji artistic director Kenya Hara.

When BMW announced that what they manufactured were not, in fact, cars but “mobile works of art that express the driver’s preference for quality,” the focus of competition in the global market had already shifted from industrial products to objets d'art.

Last year, after successively earning top design honors at the German iF and reddot design awards and the U.S. IDEA awards, Duck Image design director Rung-Ya Hsieh says this year he won’t be taking any initiative to participate in such international design competitions. “Because those are Western benchmarks. I believe we’ve now reached a point where our own self-recognition is enough,” Hsieh explains.

The growth in Asia’s market, its rising political and economic clout, and the accelerated pace of cultural integration due to globalization all combine to make the power of Eastern creative design shine with a brilliance different from that of the past.

“The paradigm has already begun to shift in our direction,” says Hsieh. “Now it remains to be seen whether or not we can seize the initiative to create designs that will shake the world.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Chinese Version: 東方創意解碼