NIU

A process for reinterpreting traditional furniture for the modern Chinese home. The NIU bench is a hybrid of traditional Chinese furniture and modern aesthetics for the homes of young urban professionals. 

 

THE BACKGROUND

China dominates furniture manufacturing, flooding the global marketplaces and its domestic market with consumer furniture. “As the standard of living continues to improve in China,” the trade organization HKTDC observes, “people are becoming increasingly willing to invest in home decoration.”1  Through increased purchasing power, urban Chinese consumers have driven an explosion in the furniture market. Young professionals expect comfort and sophisticated aesthetics. With the rising awareness of cultural inheritance in China, NIU is a design process for generating new furniture forms that combine the cultural heritage of traditional classical Chinese furniture with modern styles for young urban professionals who will carry a modified tradition into the future. 

Popular Furnishing Styles in China Over the Past Decade

Modern Minimalistic Style

Modern European Style

American Country Style

Furnishing a new home is an essential event for urban middle-class Chinese who now invest considerable money in interior design. From 2010 to 2016, Chinese consumers favored Northern European, American country, and modern minimalistic styles. In 2016, younger Chinese families popularized a Modern Chinese Style.  This style has existed for the past decade, but lately, there has been a rise in the revival of traditional designs based on cultural pride. Industrial designer Wu Qing of the Wuhan University of Science and Technology calls upon designers to “seek for more profound connotation[s] of the performance of style,” when designers combine traditional Chinese culture with modern design.2

MODERN CHINESE FURNITURE

The designers of Modern Chinese furniture interpret the essence of historical Chinese culture using traditional materials and modern manufacturing techniques. The furniture combines the elegance and dignified appearance of classic Chinese aesthetics with contemporary characteristics. This style was inspired by classical Chinese furniture from the Tang (618- 907), Ming (1368- 1644), and Qing (1616- 1912) dynasties. Traditional porcelain, calligraphy and painting, Chinese paper cutting, and textiles have influenced the form of Modern Chinese furniture. 

Ming Dynasty Chair-Quan Yi

Chinese Traditional Painting

Ming Dynasty Chair- Guan Mao Yi

THE PROBLEM

Local furniture designers and manufacturers entered the market to satisfy an increasing demand for Modern Chinese furniture. Some designers reproduced the exact form of traditional Chinese furniture, and others simplified the structure and some applied elements of classical Chinese furniture to modern furniture. These designs attract middle age consumers; however, younger people think the furniture is out-of-date. They need more flexible and contemporary pieces that can fit into their diverse furnishing styles. The importance of cultural inheritance and cultural creativity is to adapt these valuable traditions to modern life and most vitally to attract the younger generation’s interest so they can carry this culture into the future.

THE RESEARCH

I investigated the design of furniture that not only communicates the beauty of classical Chinese pieces but also fulfills the aesthetic preferences of young professionals in China. To develop NIU I worked through three stages. The first stage was a series of interviews with young adults in China to understand what they did not like about existing Modern Chinese furniture and investigate the aesthetics and lifestyle of young urban Chinese professionals. The second stage was to analyze the form and materials of classical Chinese furniture and extract a matrix of aesthetic characteristics that carried the association of tradition. The third stage was to translate those features into a modern piece of furniture.

1. First Stage

I discovered that young Chinese professionals thought the furniture too closely mimicked classical Chinese styles, which they found bulky and old fashioned, and that it was hard to fit into an eclectic décor.

What do they like about modern furniture?

 

Flexible. Contemporary. Diverse. 

2. Second Stage

Analyzing the form and materials of classical Chinese furniture.

Classical Chinese furniture has a 4,000-year history. The earliest furniture was produced during the Xia and Shang Dynasties 2070- 1046 B.C. but reached a golden age of elegance during the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), so I chose Ming Dynasty furniture as my inspiration. The sophisticated Ming furniture system contains five categories: seating, tables, bed and couches, shelves and cabinets, and other household objects.

Seating

Beds and couches

Tables

Shelves and cabinets

Other household objects

Inspiration

I selected the seat, the most reproduced category of Ming furniture, to prototype my process. I focused on interpreting two chairs most typical of Ming Dynasty seating — “Da Deng Gua Yi” and “Guan Mao Yi.” I incorporated the distinctive, delicate and minimalistic aesthetic details of the chairs into the NIU bench. I maintained the headrest (Da Nao) characteristic of Deng Gua chairs, the arm, and backrest from the Guan Mao chairs.

Da Deng Gua Yi

Guan Mao Yi

3. Third Stage

I decided to create a seat because it provides different interactions and experiences for people and is not only a functional object but also a decorative one.

DESIGN PROCESS

Idea Sketches

The Ming Dynasty chair is designed for sitting upright, but my seat breaks the rules and allows young professionals in China to express their personality and habits more comfortably. 

More quick sketches to try different shapes, structures and functions.

Mock-ups

Different functions and sitting positions

Abstract forms- Multiple backrests

Combining characteristics of the Ming chairs with what I learned young Chinese consumers desired, I challenged the rigid symmetry of the traditional chair and introduced an asymmetrical, but balanced form. I exaggerated the differences between the left side of and right side of the seat. On the left side, it maintains the beauty and characteristics- the tilted headrest of the “Da Deng Gua Yi” chair, and on the right side, it smoothly transforms into a curved and modern form.

Scale Models and Tests

After the ideations, I decided to design a bench for the young Chinese couple. Furnishing a new home is an essential event for urban middle-class Chinese who are going to marry and settle down, so the bench is a perfect piece to fit in their living room. It allows two people to sit on it. I started to make scale models and tried to figure out the right proportions for two people to sit on.

Feedbacks

I send the picture back to China and ask for young people’s feedback. What style of this bench?

It looks like Japanese or MUJI style because of the color. 

It is a piece of Modern style furniture.

It needs more Chinese elements to be recognized as Chinese style furniture.

Refining

After collecting all the feedback, I made more scale models and added more elements from “Guan Mao Yi” chair.

Concept

+

Full-scale Test Model

Next, I figured out the right proportion for the bench by measuring different peoples’ sitting postures and made the prototype into a full-scale test model to test its ergonomics again. 

After the test with different people, I made some changes to the backrest and armrest. The original design is top heavy, so I also gave an angle to the back legs to balance the bench. 

Many quick cardboard models were made to try to figure out the shape of the backrests. I played with different forms to figure out which configuration is the most suitable shape for expressing the concept of transforming a Ming chair into a contemporary structure, and an appropriate fillet on the seat to echo the back curve.

Final Concept

Ming

Modern

MATERIALS AND MANUFACTURE

The early research and interviews show that young Chinese professionals recognize furniture with dark color as Chinese style and also prefer to desaturate color. Wood is a natural material which provides a sense of warmness; it has the same temperature as people touching it. I want to make furniture that is long lasting and can hand to people’s children and grandchildren, so I chose walnut to produce the NIU bench. I also want to experiment the material with contemporary technology such as CNC machining to make the sophisticated part of the bench. 

Structures- Wood Joints

Flat-Pack Option

Use steam bending solid wood for the curved piece.

Use plywood in the middle and walnut veneer on the surface.

Materials

Walnut

Walnut Veneer

Plywood

CNC

Glue the scrap woods together and use them as raw materials for CNC machining to create the sophisticated part of the wood joints.

Wood Finish

Tung Oil Varnish

FINAL PRODUCT

The left side of NIU has a form reminiscent of a Ming chair that transforms into a curved and minimalistic shape on the right side suitable for a modern Chinese interior. 

NIU provides people a flexible and comfortable experience. They can choose different cushions to match the bench.  

NIU provides seats for two or three people.

The method of designing the NIU bench is taking several small elements out of the classical Chinese furniture and twist it to transform into a modern shape. By challenging the rule of symmetry, to create an asymmetrical but balanced form. This method can be applied to many other types of furniture or even other products. Different materials can be also added into the future design such as fabrics, metal, ropes, and bamboo.

 

I hope this project will encourage more young professionals to appreciate classical Chinese furniture and that manufacturers in China will be more thoughtful when they try to bring back the traditions.