Designer Q&A: Frank Chou

At this spring’s Design Shanghai, our editor-in-chief sat down with designer Frank Chou for a conversation on what it means to be a Chinese designer today

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Design Anthology: I wanted to ask you about your beginnings as a designer. At what age did you know that it was what you wanted to do?

Frank Chou: Oh, late. It was quite late, but the story is very interesting. I mean, even after graduating from university, I wasn’t sure if I should be a designer.

Had you studied design?  

Actually, my major was in wood science and technology, or something like that, to be a furniture engineer later on. Of course, we had some lessons related to design, art and such disciplines, but maybe only thirty per cent of our lessons. But, if you ask me to recall my interests, I do recall that since I was very little, I really was interested in all things creative. So I believed that maybe music or movies, like to be a movie director, or a designer — for me they were all choices. Life options. In the end, I feel very lucky to be a designer though because to be a musician or a movie director is so, how do I say, it's too difficult to achieve something. But in China, in this day and age, as a designer, we’re very lucky.

When you told your parents that design was what you wanted to study, were they supportive or did they want you to study something less creative, something that maybe paid better?

Actually, we didn't talk too much about this. I felt strongly and they never talked to me seriously about the way to live my life or career or anything. My family is quite open. They allowed me to make my own choice, though I think I heard something, that they were consulted my sister or someone. They asked my sisters for their suggestion if this major or career is good for me or not, so I do believe they had some doubt, some uncertainty in their hearts but they never spoke to me about that.

You're very lucky by the sounds of it.

Yeah, I think so.

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So you run your own studio now. What challenges would you say you face as a designer running your own studio? And what are the challenges of running a business alongside the creative aspect of designing?

Before this question, there is some background I should share. When I was trying to start my studio, I had to face a decision: whether to set up in Europe or in China.

In the end I chose to make my career in China because I think I should take a little responsibility for doing something that will always connect me with China. In China there are a lot of foreigners, but they're not really connected with China. They do business with European of US companies, and there are many Chinese people and designers in Europe that are doing business only within the European market.

So, when we start some independent, very nice design in China, the most difficult thing to face, I believe, is the whole environment. It’s just a start-up, everything is uncertain and everything is unbuilt still. So, for example, in China I do believe this is the generation for Chinese designers to build up their own brands. Build up their own studios. Our model is to cooperate with other brands to output our design thinking to some other partner. But if you don't have enough good partners, how can you realise this kind of relationship? How can you realise your design? So this is the most difficult part.

We think it’s our job to go beyond what those in more developed countries would do. We have to teach our partners how to build up their systems inside their companies and show them how to build up their design teams. Without their design teams, they cannot communicate with other designers. So here at Design Shanghai, for example, most of the people and Chinese media don't understand the true meaning of our position or our role.

You mean as a designer?

Yes, they always confuse and mix up brands and designers. So, for example, as an independent and freelance designer, they think we shouldn't take such big booths, because this is not our job. But we have to do that because we have to separate this kind of information. We have to, not teach — that's too big a word, I don't believe we have the right to teach anybody.

Are you a role model maybe? Do you feel a responsibility to people?

No, not that. But we do think we need to help our partners and other people understand what we’re doing. Maybe we could change something by doing.

Do you think there are any special characteristics about China at the moment that makes it more difficult or perhaps easier to work in? What is your experience?

In the end, I believe it’s more or less the same everywhere. In China the difficulty is like what I’ve said — it's uncertain, everything is just a start-up, the cycle hasn't been built up yet. But the good part is if you are really talented and if you've really got something, it’s really easy to jump in, to jump into the market. At this time in China, all the attention will focus on you and push you to move forward. Maybe this kind of opportunity is not so solid, but it’s still an opportunity.

On the other hand, when we go abroad, behind us is this country, so we think we will get a lot of benefit from our background. The world's economy, all the markets, all the brands, they're all looking to the Chinese market and think it will deliver a lot of chances, cooperative opportunities for business, and a lot can happen here.

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You've exhibited at Salone in Milan before. Did you feel that as a Chinese designer people were more interested and fascinated, or were they still stuck with the old preconceptions about copying and poor quality? How do you feel people internationally now are thinking about design from China?

I don't worry about these things. Firstly, copying was an issue for every economy, every country. They all went through this period, and China has already changed. So I don't worry about it. From my personal side, I only think about doing my job in a good way. That's enough. So in my personal experience, I don't think I gave a lot of attention to my condition or background too much. Because I have a lot of European friends and we don't have many differences when we're talking about life or music, movies, etc. We’re all the same generation, so we don't have too many differences. So I don't give much thought to it.

So you try not to worry about it?

Yeah, I try not to.

I have two more questions. One is about the production of your furniture. You're making everything here in China?

We choose the most cost-effective way.

How has your experience been because China obviously has a very long history of beautiful craft, beautiful materials. Did you find that it was easy to find people to make your products at a level of quality that you were happy with? Was that an easy process?

It’s not easy, manufacturing and quality control. I believe these are always the key points. When you have a new idea, realise its cost, it’s always much more difficult and demands a higher capacity of the manufacturer. It’s not just the machinery, it’s about the engineers, the mind of the craftsmen.

You could say everything is produced in China, and you could find the best manufacturers in China. You can find almost everything, but they never had the experience of facing a really new concept. Before, when the concept came from Europe by the ability of old European industry, they would deliver one part to China, the most difficult part has already been solved; it’s not a puzzle, it’s already an answer. So Chinese manufacturers only needed to follow the answer. When we have a really brand new concept, this is a puzzle. So this part they need to solve, and they need to spend a little bit more time.

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My last question is about Design Shanghai. It's still a relatively new show but I think it's become incredibly important. And it seems that people have been very receptive to the show and they're hungry to see new things, to learn new things. I'm wondering how important you feel it's been for you as a designer?

That's a good question. Because this is the most international show in China at this moment, we have a lot of different kinds of design, and we have joined up with some real local Chinese companies to improve their visibility or their brand.

Another part is what we show here. We want to show the international part, but we need to keep the balance between modern and China. So I gave a talk yesterday about my philosophy, my views and what I think about this balance. So during this show, because this is an important stage and maybe the whole world will come here to look for this sort of thing, we really want to show our concept and philosophy. To show that a modern China is coming. And if you look at modern China compared with the modern Western world, maybe we don't have too many differences. So in my work and designs, there are not so many obvious Chinese patterns, or Chinese elements.

We're all human beings. I believe that eighty per cent are the same, but another twenty per cent are different on the inside — it’s not outside. This part is really difficult to find. You need to search for it deeply and carefully. It may take a long time to arrive there. It’s the inside part and maybe it’s how we are thinking about relationships or how we do things, but its inside, not outside.

During this show we want to present this inside of China and outside of China. And we think, if the furniture and living accessories industry in China can enter in the modern stage, this will be an important sign. That means the whole of Modern China will move into the modern period. This is the last thing humans do. Firstly, when people get rich we show off, we have nice clothing, we drive a luxury car, our buildings and architecture must be good, our community must be good, and then we need good furniture. In the end, the people will choose something good for their life, not just fashionable. I don't know if that makes sense.

As told to / Suzy Annetta