From Ming to Minimal: The Evolution of Luxury Design in China

By Jiaqi Luo and Nick Withycombe

Anyone living in China circa 2000-2010 would have seen a couple of tried and true design trends for luxury homes and the wealthy owners thereof. Or to be more precise, anyone living in China from around 1644-2005 would have seen the Qing and Ming dynasties being faithfully replicated with ‘mahogany’ as the answer to every design question. From 2005-2010, it was pan-European gold and chandeliers – many, many chandeliers that swept the nation.

This decorating-by-numbers ‘European’ décor was preferred for its apparently desirable reference to great riches and extravaganza, as did English thrones, French/Italian baroque table pieces, or anything gold-rimmed, gold-plated, or golden.

A style example of pan-European classical décor. Source: Baidu Baike

As the economy, culture and society have rapidly evolved and continue to do so, the new generation of modern Chinese home-owners have turned away from the bright shiny bling of the regal, instead craving the contemporary and the cosmopolitan. In international design weeks and China’s own booming design events – such as the upcoming Design Shanghai – affluent Chinese consumers are finding their own tastes for tailor-made, understated luxury.

The Italian luxury look characterised by brands like Poliform and Flexform.

While luxurious Italian design will always have a fanbase, Scandinavian minimalism chimes well with the global lifestyles and borderline hipster-ism of modern, first-tier Chinese consumers. Of course, IKEA has had a major part to play on the entire industry, and high-end Nordic design is now the barometer of contemporary, Instagrammable living, pervading through China’s design media today. AD China, the authoritative design magazine, featured similarly minimal décor on magazine covers throughout 2018.

Design magazine AD’s 2018 China covers. Source: AD.cn

Yet, the wide-reaching popularity of Scandinavian minimalism has its limit. Just as IKEA made the general concept a global phenomenon, the mass growth has also managed to dilute its appeal for the affluent demographic. Domestic low-cost copycats like Miniso and Nome have pounced on the business triumvirate of Chinese investment capital, a fast production pipeline and rampant store expansion, and so spread thin the value of Scandinavian chic.

So what’s required for long-term survival? Strong product differentiators, appealing brand identity, and attentive marketing that is well in tune with the right target audience.

International Design Success: HAY, Maison Dada

Described by Vogue as a cult-favourite that has already seen huge growth in Europe and more recently China, HAY is a Danish brand that has found just the right audience of affluent Chinese consumers who are looking for premium. Although HAY’s sales figures in China are not public, the social media hype lavished upon the brand and streams of social posts tagged at HAY’s 11 physical stores across China testify to the brand’s emotional tactility with urban design enthusiasts.

Among the posts about HAY in lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu / Little Red Book, most posts have showcased small ‘giftable’ buys. By offering such entry-level products to Chinese design consumers, HAY quickly amassed a big fanbase that returns for more. Their success also owed to the widely trending concept of ‘Hygge’ – evidence that despite certain digital roadblocks, modern Chinese consumers still peruse international social media and catch on to trends.

There are currently 2200+ posts about HAY in lifestyle platform RED. Source: screenshot

Maison Dada, a French designer brand born in Shanghai, is another emerging one to watch. The brand’s collection consists of sculptural, fantasy pieces inspired by modern art, as its name suggests. Comments on social media show that people are wowed by the brand’s quirkiness, and that they feel good about themselves for knowing such a niche brand.

Maison Dada captures ‘modern romance’ – a concept still beloved by Chinese consumers – in a furniture nutshell and their Shanghai showroom quickly became a wanghong (internet-famous) location among the country’s trend-conscious community.

Maison Dada’s Shanghai Showroom. Source: Sohu

Domestic Success: Fnji, Lost & Found

To gain traction in China, international design brands are leveraging their unique brand identity and unparalleled product aesthetic. Successful domestic brands, on the other hand, play to their other strength – innate understanding of local consumer desire. In recent years, neo-Chinese décor style has boomed as a part of the revival of Chinese culture. The trend is a ripple of young Chinese’ desire for regression to their own cultural identity, as opposed to the obsession with progression that otherwise surrounds them.

Domestic brands Fnji and Lost & Found are tapping right into this collective quest for cultural belonging via their brand strategy. Fnji, whose Chinese name has a strong Buddhist reference, is a prominent success story. The brand’s furniture, usually in Earthy hues and natural woods, is a blend of minimalist Asian design and sophisticated Chinese cultural references. Fnji’s Weibo account, boosting over 260k followers (notably high for a furniture brand), show families in Fnji-decorated homes basking in tranquility. Lost & Found, a brand selling renovated second-hand furniture, has a slogan which translates as “rediscover the emotion of objects through remaking them”. For Lost & Found, their products are about memory and history, thus attracting customers that hunt for something different than the fast, disposable lifestyle that can otherwise prevail in urban China.

Compared to international brands, these domestic players have stronger emotional appeals that speak to Chinese urban dwellers, who long for Zen reflection and the warm glow of cultural belonging. Both of them evoke a sense of Chinese tradition and escapism from futurism.

Chinese design brand Fnji tapped into the urban Zen aesthetic that appeals to urban millennial households. Source: Fnji official website

Lost & Found’s Beijing store. Source: Lost & Found official website

What’s on the design horizon?

From extravagant, jewel-encrusted sofa-bling to contemporary luxury and Scandinavian minimalism, China’s design preferences reflect the zeitgeist of their times. While the natural and cultural have the gravitas to remain as popular ethos, the digital world is still a fascination for Chinese consumers. China is a digital pioneer, with a near cashless society, a peerless logistics network and is even integrating personal ID within WeChat.

Digital gadgetry is a fascination for consumers looking at diverse product categories, and so integration within smart furniture and design seems inevitable – according to a report co-authored by Boston Consulting Group, AliResearch and Baidu (links to Mandarin) China’s smart furniture penetration rate grew exponentially in the last year: as an example, smart speakers being sold in China grew from 1% of the global market in Q3 2017 to 35% in Q2 2018.

Though smart furniture, design and accessories aren’t necessarily a very current design trend, it’s logical to foresee more luxury players in the market soon. While not in exactly the same category, premium home appliances are booming in China. Dyson’s smart vacuums, floor mopping robots, and air-cleaning systems are becoming the status symbol of millions of Chinese consumers. The brand, posting $1.10 billion profit in 2017, said most of its sales growth came from Asia and China in particular. Ember is an example of a kitchen product-becomes-appliance, and started selling in China just a few months ago.

Chinese consumers are renowned early-adopters of new tech, and are enthusiastic about anything IoT or mobile-operable. It’s inevitable that holistic interior design, furniture and decoration will be impacted by this in some way.

For brands not looking toward smart furniture, turn back to the essential needs of the target audience – a positioning towards nature, a nod to Chinese aesthetic tastes, and crucially – as the sea of international design brands look to flood the market – a clear brand story which is indentifiable and distinct.

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