‘Toys for Grown-ups’: China’s Design Boom

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A healthy obsession with Le Corbusier, Jean Prouve and Pierre Jeanneret’s modernist works led Kyle Zhang, a former fashion branding expert, to quit his job and open one of the first design galleries in China, in 2018.

Now Gallery Sohe has become a part of a cohort of galleries, including Gallery All and Objective Gallery, that are driving the flourishing collectible design movement in China.

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Much of the popular artists’ works showcase a certain inclination for the fantastical and otherworldly — with extravagant price tags to match. A gold, drippy and tentacled dining chair by the Fenty-approved Haas Brothers went for 300,000 renminbi, or $44,032, at Gallery All; several Vincent Pocsik wooden chairs and lamps that eerily incorporate human limbs are priced around that point too, while at Gallery Sohe, animal-shaped Yilun Zhou chairs range from 30,000 renminbi, or $4,400, to 80,000 renminbi, or $11,730.

A dining chair by the Haas Brothers.
A dining chair by the Haas Brothers.
A carved walnut lamp by Vincent Pocsik.
A carved walnut lamp by Vincent Pocsik.
Yilun Zhou’s “The Drunk.”
Yilun Zhou’s “The Drunk.”

“It’s not the most attention-grabbing part of the art world,” Zhang admits. “But it’s certainly a more forward-looking sector.”

“Selling collectible furniture has always been around, but selling [it] in galleries builds up an aura and justifies the artist as a brand,” explains Sonia Xie, China head of editorial and marketing at Artsy.

Xie notes that design collectors are often also art collectors, while Zhang underscores collectors from the celebrity world, such as Edison Chen, and top Asian collectors such as Lu Xun and Tian Jun, as driving the trend. “Younger collectors are looking to fill up their homes with something fun, to embed a sense of playfulness with these toys for grown-ups,” Zhang says.

According to Gallery All’s cofounder Yu Wang, a global boom for collectible design started 20 years ago and China is merely catching up.

“The global collectible design market went through two prominent stages: midcentury modern, then contemporary design. But the Chinese market is skipping over the first step, plunging right into contemporary design,” Wang says. “The thirtysomething clients might not be seasoned collectors, but they certainly are very opinionated.”

Launched in Los Angeles almost a decade ago, Gallery All was one of the first to champion Chinese artists and designers abroad.

Seeing a booming local market, Gallery All launched a second space in Shanghai in 2021, in an up-and-coming neighborhood populated by creative types, skaters and sometimes diehard Raf Simons fans — after a Machine-A outpost opened next door. Recent blockbuster shows include solo exhibitions for James Jean and the Haas Brothers specializing in mystical creatures and fuzzy furniture.

Gallery All
Gallery All
Hass Brothers’ exhibition “Clair de Lune” at Gallery All.
Hass Brothers’ exhibition “Clair de Lune” at Gallery All.

“Buying collectible furniture is a risky and atypical affair, but social media is opening up this world to a wider audience base,” Wang says.

Gallery Sohe’s Zhang also understands the impact of fashion and pop culture. Zhang recently signed on French contemporary artists Leo Orta, who is known for his collaboration with Kiko Kostadinov, and Chinese artist Yilun Zhou, whose work has been displayed in Louis Vuitton’s Chengdu Maison.

Gallery Sohe
Gallery Sohe

Zhang has been an avid champion of Yilun Zhou, one of the few Chinese contemporary artists working on collectible objects. Zhou’s clever use of discarded plastic and paper-based consumer goods, such as Louis Vuitton shopping bags repurposed into totems, offers a witty commentary on consumer culture.

“Like Pierre Jeanneret, Yilun Zhou’s work is hands-on, simple and pure,” he says.

At Sohe Gallery’s recent exhibition “Future-Primitive,” Zhang’s prized collection of French modernist furniture is cleverly placed alongside naturalistic works by Chinese artist Zhou, Mao Guanshuai and Dong Han, who is a recent finalist for the 2023 Loewe Foundation Craft Prize. A zany dining table with bold color and figurines by the Balenciaga-approved artist Nik Kosmas are matched with a set of Pierre Jeanneret dining chairs, showcasing how the classic and the new can go hand in hand.

Sohe Gallery’s recent exhibition” Future-Primitive.”
Sohe Gallery’s recent exhibition” Future-Primitive.”

“Contemporary design occup[ies] a nuanced space between art and industrial design. If you put these works within the context of contemporary art, it’s harder for the general public to understand, but if you put them in the context of contemporary design, it’s more digestible. It also makes people think beyond its functionality,” Zhang explains.

At Objective Gallery, one flight up from Gallery Sohe, one enters an entirely different universe filled with raw, sometimes grotesque collectible pieces. Founded by Chris Shao, an interior designer, Objective Gallery boasts a client list that includes top-notch Chinese celebrities and prominent art collectors.

Objective Gallery
Objective Gallery

Perhaps stemming from its roots in interior design, Objective Gallery is known for transforming its gallery space into immersive living environments that offer a rich and sensual experience from a bygone era.

For “Vintage Brutality,” Objective Gallery transformed the whitespace gallery into a livable domestic space called “Objective Suites,” fully outfitted with decadent wallpaper, plush carpets, designer furniture and two taxidermy peacocks.

“Vintage Brutality” at Objective Gallery.
“Vintage Brutality” at Objective Gallery.

According to Ansha Jin, aside from high-roller clients, the gallery has seen an increase in walk-ins, with people willing to purchase pieces in the four figures with a quick scan on Alipay. She credits the pandemic for the rising interest in homemaking with a bit of drama.

“People are now willing to invest in their homes. Staycation is here to stay,” Jin says. “Works by Brett Gander and Jay McDonald have gained popularity for their daring naturalistic beauty. People want to bring a piece of nature home.”

Since 2021, Objective Gallery’s sister company has become the local partner for the influential design fair Design Miami. After a COVID-19-induced one-year hiatus, the second edition of Design Miami/ Podium x Shanghai is slated to launch at Shanghai’s newly opened retail complex, Zhangyuan on March 8.

Shanghai’s newly opened retail complex, Zhangyuan
Shanghai’s newly opened retail complex, Zhangyuan

Staying true to the theme of “Transcendence,” the fair will present various works from artists and designers that create a sense of anachronistic beauty. Zhang Zhoujie’s digital chair with spiderlike legs, and Shao Fan’s expertly deconstructed Ming dynasty furniture will be local heroes highlighted by the fair.

But the star of the show is likely to be Gaetano Pesce, the legendary Italian designer known for his work with Bottega Veneta. Pesce, whose market price has more than doubled in recent years, will bring his bold and whimsical pieces to Zhangyuan under the theme “Diversity is the most important value for a better world.”

Poster for Design Miami/Podium x Shanghai 2023.
Poster for Design Miami/Podium x Shanghai 2023.

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