Provenance adds value to design, whether it is American oak or Murano glass. But for Westerners, the “made in China” label is sometimes accompanied by preconceived ideas of mass production and piracy. Last week’s Design Shanghai show challenged these prejudices, showing how the richness of modern Shanghai and a new approach to manufacturing looks set to change our view of the country in the future.
Over the past year, Michele De Lucchi – the revered Italian designer who turns 70 this year and was a member of the postmodern Memphis movement in the 1980s – has worked with Shanghai-based Stellar Works on a series three new models. The first to be revealed is a modular sofa, called the Float, which debuted at the living room.
This collaboration is remarkable for two reasons. De Lucchi routinely turns down offers from luxury Italian design firms, having essentially withdrawn from product design to focus on “the reality of our extinction as a species,” as well as futuristic experimental architecture. in Georgia.
Second, Stellar Works is a Chinese manufacturer and De Lucchi has to date worked almost exclusively with European brands, such as Alessi, Olivetti and Siemens.
“I wanted to do this because I believe that craftsmanship and industrial manufacturing for the mass market cannot exist independently,” he tells me via Zoom from his rural chalet north of Milan. “In Italy, craftsmanship is a way to experiment – everything at Salone del Mobile is a prototype, not a salable product.
“In France, it’s about creating industrial perfection by hand, but in a way that still recognizes the human touch. But it comes at a price: a lamp he designed for Hermès “costs the same as a small car,” he says. Stellar Works produces everything by hand, “but the cost means the end product isn’t just for a very small number of people.”
That means an expansive Taylor sofa designed for Stellar Works by Yabu Pushelberg starts at £ 3,282, compared to Lombard Street sofas by the same designer, made to order in Germany, starting at around £ 14,000.
Stellar Works is a rising star in the design world. The company – founded by Japanese entrepreneur Yuichiro Hori in 2012 – has worked on collaborations with big names such as designer BassamFellows and architect David Rockwell, and aims to do for the mid-range furniture market what ‘Ikea made for economical home solutions across Europe in the 1980s.
“The final selling price of our products is 30% lower than it would be if we made them in France,” explains Hori. “For the price of an hour of upholstery in France, you can create an entire chair in Shanghai. Prices for the Float sofa will start at £ 2,324.
The wages of factory workers could be lower in China than in France or Italy. But the absence of a university education does not mean that these workers are not highly qualified.
Hori and De Lucchi insist that the manufacturing landscape is about more than profit margins and low wages. “When I was looking for a place to set up my base, I went all over Asia,” says Hori. “I needed at least 100 workers and couldn’t find them in Japan unless I hired unskilled students. In China, I found people in their mid-twenties who already had 15 years of experience – they learned their skills from their parents.
The choice of Shanghai as the base, where the minimum hourly wage is Rmb 22, or about $ 3.44 an hour, was made as much for talent as it was for the economy.
“Someone could touch a piece of wood and tell me its precise moisture content, and these are carving experts,” says Hori. “I asked a guy to make me a chair. Without making any drawings, he made a duplicate of something that I showed him, and it was incredibly high quality.
Stellar Works is shaping up to be a global brand. Its main focus is the United States and Europe, but Hori says the domestic market still accounts for 19% of sales and is growing as Shanghai and Beijing prosper financially. The company also produces some of its materials in France, and Hori is happy to point out that the same factory produces work for Hermès and Dior.
While Stellar Works has no ambition to become Chanel’s Chinese equivalent for furniture, it may well become the Shanghai Agnès b – widely distributed, stylish and well-made.
Its overall creative direction is provided by architects Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu of the Shanghai and London-based design and research firm Neri & Hu. “More and more independent brands are developing in China,” said Hu. “Technologically, China is getting closer and closer to the west. In many cases, it has overtaken many Western countries.
Neri believes that the appeal of Stellar Works lies in its Chinese identity and in creating a bridge between the past and the present: “The company is rooted in Asia, so the aesthetic sensibilities and ethics are quite different from those of Europe. There is a preservation of the culture of handicrafts, the workers still use their hands to make things. It is becoming a lost art in some western countries in the production of furniture.
It was a long-standing friendship between De Lucchi and Hori that gave birth to the collaboration. De Lucchi was working on a hotel project in Japan and finding communication with the owner problematic, so he asked Hori to act as an intermediary. Some time later, after years of polite requests and refusals, De Lucchi surprised Hori over dinner with sketches for Float. Personal relationships aside, it was the nature of Chinese craftsmanship that appealed to De Lucchi.
He had also wanted to make a sofa because he found there intrinsically “strange” objects. “It is only a bed in the room, but it is fundamental to furnish a room and give a feeling of hospitality and comfort”, explains De Lucchi. “I wanted to create one without any structure, like a bunch of components that you organize the way you want.” The design was developed through laborious video calls between Milan and Shanghai last year.
While Float’s geometric design seems industrial in nature, it is nuanced. De Lucchi believes that the Japanese and Chinese approaches have similarities that contrast with European design. It is “perfection that is not perfection,” he says. “Every master craftsman clearly shows that his work is done by a human. It’s not immediately obvious with the sofa, but I can tell they do everything by hand.
We are a long way, stylistically, from De Lucchi’s Memphis era, defined by postmodern and hyper-real pop shapes and colors.
He mentioned Praise of Shadows, the 1933 essay by Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki which is a touchstone for many designers, on how small imperfections bring humanity to an object and how modernity has taken a toll on that. He is currently working on a chair with Stellar Works which makes the handmade look more evident.
Aesthetics is one thing, but no discussion of large-scale manufacturing can avoid issues of durability, ecology and worker welfare. Hori assures me that Stellar Works excels internationally in every area.
China has set itself carbon neutral targets, but not until 2060. It began its journey there by strengthening its environmental protection law in 2016, closing more than 14,000 factories and inflicting fines to 80,000 others.
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“[These are] criteria put in place after they had a major air pollution problem. We purify our air and our water. We set up Toyota’s production system to manage the workforce, so every item is scanned and tracked at every stage of production, and each one performs a single shift, with a day off on Sunday.
Hori admits that many workers still work on their day off and are open to overtime – something unheard of in France, where even looking at emails after hours is not allowed.
De Lucchi could have taken his creations anywhere. But with Stellar Works, it was the end result that intrigued him enough to return to furniture design. While he’s busy creating buildings elsewhere for humans to survive a possibly dystopian future, he’s also making sure they can be furnished affordably. It’s a new kind of democracy for high-end aesthetics and craftsmanship.
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