The V&A’s current flagship exhibition has a very clear, chronological layout, which is a little surprising considering its slightly clumsy title. The show itself begins in Shenzhen – the site of the first McDonald’s in China – and, perhaps more significantly, the birthplace of contemporary Chinese graphic design. Throughout the exhibition, China’s lust for iconic style and mischievous trends is depicted via a dazzling array of poster designs, illustrations, animations, photography and quirky films: many of which frequently reference, on the one hand, the Buddhist way of life and, distinctly on the other, the visual potency of Maoist China.
From Shenzhen, the exhibition moves to Shanghai (known as the ‘Paris of the Orient’), where both consumerism and urban culture have exploded. This is epitomised in a display of Nike trainer designs that take inspiration from Tibetan headdresses, scroll paintings, meridian foot points and ‘xiao long’; the steamed dumpling that Shangai is famous for.
Apparently, for the xiao long trainers, the stitches, the criss-cross patterning and even the colour of the leather are all designed to evoke the bamboo steamer used to cook this favourite dish. The logo, too, is a small saucer with a pair of chopsticks; not something that you necessarily expect to see on a pair of Nikes.
Many of the posters that feature in the exhibition rely heavily on calligraphy but employ contemporary twists to give the ancient art a new lease of life. The posters are also printed on a range of materials; from handmade paper, black lithograph (above) through to silkscreen.
There is, understandably, a considerable amount of work on show that shows the influence of Mao. T-shirts by design studio, Shirtflag, use images from the Mao era, deconstructing their political meanings by mixing them with symbols of global culture; such as the much-loved Gameboy.
While the all-too brief taste of creative publishing is provided by Plugzine (above) and Frontiers magazine, the introduction to design group, Perk Shop, may leave you scribbling names on the back of your hand for future reference.
There’s also an eclectic collection of CD sleeve designs (many are cheaply produced or handmade) and a vast display of independent music magazines that serve to give the exhibition a blast of the underground design scene that has taken root in the country.
The exhibition as a whole is certainly refreshing and places China as a country determined to make its mark on the contemporary design world, despite being a late starter. And in order to catch up with the West, the burgeoning Chinese design community is working full speed ahead.
See the V&A Museum’s China Design Now page for full details of the exhibition which runs until July 13.