Zhang Zhoujie’s highly conceptual stainless steel furniture created quite the buzz when they were shown at Maison&Objet Asia last week, where he was also recognised as one of the “Rising Asian Talents” from the region.
Zhang's work, which has been presented in over 30 exhibitions around the world, is a compelling blend of Chinese traditional art perspectives, western design methodology, digital engineering and handcraft. And as we soon learn, the Shanghai-based designer even wrote his own software program for generating the objects that he then produces in his own workshop. Intrigued, we find out more.
Tell us about your preference for digital modelling methods and a digitised aesthetic.
We are in the digital age. Everything is transferred through digital data, yes? Music, images… but how about an object, like a chair? When transferred into digital context, what would it look like? My work is kind of like a testing [ground] for the very first of its kind digital furniture. This is a concept. It shows the future, and how people can use digital methodologies to generate objects. I find it very interesting.
So how do you actually manufacture them?
I’m a maker as well, a digital craftsman (laughs). Maybe in the future it will be a new kind of career option.
I train myself to use the laser-cutting machine to fabricate and weld objects together precisely. It’s a long process. It takes many years to achieve high quality digital objects. What I’m doing is similar to 3D printing, but at the moment 3D printing is not mature because the size [of the objects produced] cannot be very big and only plastic [can be used]. And what I’m doing is metal and on a larger scale.
It’s interesting to read that you have a background in the fine arts…
Yes, I have a fine arts background so I have quite a deep understanding of our Chinese cultural values. In China, ink paintings are very simple [to look at] but are masterpieces. Why? Because we believe that a masterpiece must look effortless, but behind [the work] is years and years of practise.
So on the computer this chair [appears] very simple. One moment it’s a square paper, one moment it’s four points, because a chair needs four legs, and then the back goes up. And it’s done. You cannot find a more simple way to generate a chair.
In your view, what sort of role should technology ideally play in the creative process?
I think technology is essential; it’s one of the most important [aspects] of creativity. Otherwise you’re always not doing something new. You’re not living in the now, you’re living 10 years ago. We have iPhones and Apple watches. Technology is pushing us to a new kind of life. So technology is very important I think, and designers should understand technology. But technology has limitations, too. If you’re too focussed on technology, you will miss yourself as a designer, because technology is moving so fast that even some technology companies cannot catch up. As a designer, what you can do is keep some of the technology, and make it better.
How has the Chinese design market embraced your work?
Now I have many clients in China. A couple of years ago most the clients were from Europe, America… but now, perhaps because I get increasingly featured [in the media], people are coming to understand my work more and more. So these days, famous designers, artists and architects [in China] collect my work, because they understand what I’m doing.
Are there any designers or architects that you look up to?
Not so much designers… I’m more interested in innovators, like tech companies: Facebook, Google and Apple. And in China there is Xiaomi... these are the stars that are driving society.