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News Interview with Zhuo Tan, Design China Beijing
“From a new material point of view, of course the focus was on sustainability – it’s a key message for us here. Recycled, sustainable and also antibacterial materials were getting popular. Also the young designers are rethinking what they can contribute to society.”
Zhuo Tan, Design China Beijing
Beijing

For Zhuo Tan, the director of Design China Beijing and Design Shanghai, it’s been a surprisingly upbeat year. Having been able to resume tradeshows, albeit with protocols in place, business has been unexpectedly buoyant for both Chinese and international design brands that presented in Beijing last month. Design Shanghai opens in November.

WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AT DESIGN CHINA BEIJING AND DESIGN SHANGHAI AND IN DESIGN TERMS, ARE THERE PERSONALITY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO CITIES?
As the event director for both Design China Beijing and Design Shanghai, I helped launch the first edition of Design Shanghai in 2013, creating the format and deciding what design message we wanted to bring to China. And then three years ago we decided to launch in Beijing to cover more territory - the country is huge. There’s no point cloning the same show in China, since Design Shanghai is the biggest show in Asia and people come from all over to exhibit and visit. For the Beijing show we want to go deeper into the Beijing community, paying attention to finding local talent, local brands and actually people’s tastes are quite different in two cities. There are subtle things that are sometimes hard to explain like New York and Boston, but the obvious thing is the audience: the architects, product and interior designers. Beijing feels a lot more open and they quite like the cross-pollination of ideas, it’s not only the capital but also the capital of culture. There, not only do they want to see new products and new materials, they also want to see fresh elements like art, drama, photography and music. In Shanghai the atmosphere is different. It’s bigger for a start; you have local visitors, but also from surrounding cities. There’s a more practical, commercial feel and industry visitors want to see products to use immediately and get a good deal, which means that exhibitors tend to have their decision-makers on site so they can talk business straight away. They’re looking for more choice. In Beijing, they prefer less choice, but good quality, they don’t want to spend too much time comparing. In Shanghai the audience is looking for the best design, good service, the best price, flexibility, so, yes, it feels more commercial. They also expect more European brands to exhibit so you can immediately feel the difference. The business challenges are quite different in both cities. In Beijing there’s a huge community of architects so materials, construction, lighting, carpet – so these brands are popular, as well as luxury brands. In Shanghai the Danish design, Italian design is popular. The one rule we always have for both shows is ensuring that we handpick the best design brands and introduce them to the community. Both shows need to have good content, good new products, and a good business trading environment.

THE BEIJING SHOW TOOK PLACE IN SEPTEMBER. HOW DID IT GO? WAS THERE A MOMENT WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT MIGHT NOT HAPPEN THIS YEAR?
We had our fingers crossed because you never know what might happen. We had a second wave of COVID in Beijing in June so everyone was very cautious, but luckily, we’ve had great support from the government and our operations team went to great lengths to keep the show safe for everyone. We have identity checks too. There’s a green code in China that shows on your phone to prove you’re not affected by any virus cases and therefore free to walk around any events and shopping malls and so on. So, we’re checking green codes and personal ID to make sure it’s all safe and just in case we can trace people. The show was surprisingly crowded. There wasn’t a big international audience of course, but we did have a lot of international brands with their local staff. Visitor numbers were surprisingly high, 20% up on last year, probably because we were the first design event in Beijing for this year, so everyone wanted to come out, finally. Also, exhibitors talked about having done really good business at the show. We’d arranged more than 500 matchmaking meetings on-site: bringing buyers with real projects to come in to talk to brands. It felt like the community was coming back; that was so encouraging.

OUT OF TROUBLED TIMES COMES AN OPPORTUNITY TO CREATE SOMETHING BETTER. HAVE YOU SEEN TRENDS AND THEMES EMERGING FROM SOME OF THE BRANDS OR YOUNG DESIGNERS?
Yes, I think by looking at the first show we found the beginnings of some interesting trends. Firstly, from a new material point of view, of course the focus was on sustainability – it’s a key message for us here. Recycled, sustainable and also antibacterial materials were getting popular. Also, the young designers are rethinking what they can contribute to society. We had a project on-site called Creative Cure, which is a campaign by 40 young designers, started at the beginning of the year. They came together to work out how they could help with people’s safety. One great idea was a colourful sock with the toe cut off, which the designers asked people to wear on their elbows, to remind us to cover our noses and mouths. The idea was when others saw you with the sock it would remind them too; changing people’s behaviour in an interesting way. It was a genius idea. We gave each of our 30,000 visitors a sock for their elbows, and when they left the show, they could bring that behaviour back to their friends and family.

SO, BEING THE FIRST TRADE SHOW TO TAKE PLACE THIS YEAR AND CHINA BEING AHEAD OF THE REST OF THE WORLD IN DEALING WITH THE PANDEMIC, DO YOU HAVE ADVICE FOR THE REST OF THE DESIGN WORLD?
I can only share my journey and experience. We are still practising and although China feels much more safe, we’re still not sure about more waves of the virus. To go back to the beginning of the year when China was the worst of the pandemic, we wanted to send a positive message to the design community, so we created a lot of online live stream channels to visit showrooms virtually, and see design shops. We had over 200 live-stream activities from March until May with the aim of connecting people and helping shops and keeping the community close. In May when Shanghai was just opening up and people were allowed out, but were still nervous, we worked with the Shanghai Design District to open the first local design festival where we had 20 architects creating 20 installations to attract people to come out. That was the first physical event and it really helped the community with confidence and positivity.

DO YOU THINK THAT THE TRADITIONAL TRADE SHOW SYSTEM HAS TO ADAPT?
You have to. During the pandemic we adapted already. We’d already used so much live-streaming for those unable to attend in person, which of course makes show organisers thinking of launching virtual events. I think this effect, out of necessity during the pandemic, will change the way we do things going forward. I think adding to the offer is the way to see it as it won’t replace the face-to-face; people still want these opportunities. But this is about reaching those who aren’t physically able to attend a show. It’s still not easy to travel everywhere, so at least you have that opportunity. It’s an extra communication channel.

YOU’RE LOOKING FORWARD TO THE SHANGHAI SHOW IN NOVEMBER. WHAT LEARNINGS WILL YOU TAKE FROM BEIJING WITH YOU TO SHANGHAI?
Beijing really exceeded my expectations, but the key thing I always take with me is to produce great content – this is the key for design events. The other thing I learned from this show was to pre-arrange a lot of business matchmaking meetings before the show. That really saved people’s time and made the visitors’ time more efficient and ensured exhibitors were spending more quality time with the right people. So, the matchmaking service worked successfully in two ways. Firstly, there was a new app for the show, which we’ll also use in Shanghai. Visitors can see a list of exhibitors and tick a list of those they’d like to see at the show and book an appointment before the show. The exhibitors can then read through their list of requirements, their business profile and if they accept the meeting then it synchronises with both parties' calendar. The other way was for some really big projects, buyers might have a lot of mixed requirements so there’s a team to manually match them with the right exhibitors and take them around the show to introduce them. I think matchmaking is really, really important. This was a new feature for Beijing and we’ll take that with us to Shanghai. We’ve been trying to match-make on a smaller scale previously, but this was much better.

FOR SHANGHAI, DO YOU HAVE PREDICTIONS ABOUT THE DESIGN WELL SEE IN NOVEMBER?
It’s a much bigger show than Beijing and the industry, having seen Beijing run smoothly, will have confidence to come and do business. The theme this year is Design Completes the Circle. We decided on that in 2018 and now with the pandemic it makes even more sense; how design can help circular economy, which is really relevant. For the young talents programme – that’s something we really want to highlight, so this year there’s a dedicated area, which is much bigger with over 10 fresh talents from all over China to introduce to the industry. Another new area is the New Object sector, which is a much more contemporary way of looking at craftsmanship. China is a country full of culture and craft, but much of it is quite old fashioned, so we’re using young designers’ eyes to help the traditional craftsmen and the culture become modernised.

YOU SOUND VERY OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE OF DESIGN IN CHINA.
Yes, I think I am. Designers can play an important role in the repair of this year; it’s a year to shine through. Brands are open to new ideas and how we can do things better and more beautifully. China is a country full of great factories and with this pandemic we’ve been ahead so the design community here has had more time than in Europe to think about how to react. There have been lots of proactive solutions to be more sustainable in the future, and speaking to architects, I hear how much they’re changing the way in which they’re thinking about public spaces, how people engage with indoor space, how the needs have changed. That’s exciting to me.

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