“China has entered the era of the New Normal.” It seems like a headline in a newspaper. But actually this phrase – in reference to the slower growth in China since 2012 – was uttered by the current General Secretary Xi Jinping. And it is apt. Because the ‘New Normal’ explains that the economy of the People’s Republic is ‘slower’ indeed (so to speak… just +7% per year), but also constant. And it represents the yearned-for ‘normality’ after the early orgy: most sophisticated consumption, well considered, widespread, destined to last.
All this is excellent news for Italian furniture makers, which in fact have racked up considerable growth since the ‘New Normal’ began. Just look at the data supplied by Federlegno in 2018. Italian furniture exports to China, from 2009 to 2018, grew by +494%. In 2017, China was the seventh export destination, representing 22% of the total. And while in 2012 furniture was only the 22nd sector of Made in Italy to make inroads in China, in 2017 it was already in 17th place. Today it ranks fourth.
It could be only the beginning. According to a report in 2018 of the agency for the development of the Chinese furniture industry, the policy of the second child, the regeneration of decrepit settlements and urbanization will mean that over 770 million inhabitants will have to rethink their lodging options.
Does that mean more design? According to Claudio Feltrin, president of Assarredo, the answer is yes. “China is our seventh export market, for a value of about half a billion euros in 2018, but in five years it could become the first: Chinese consumers are demonstrating great interest in our products.”
The ‘new normal’ is a new generation of customers. “The demographics have changed drastically, with a wider audience and a lower average age,” says Sammy Ren, founder of Domus Tiandi, a distributor of furniture in China and a source of contemporary lifestyle inspiration (working in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen with brands like Poliform, Promemoria, Donghia, Baxter, Viabizzuno, and as the partner of Minotti for the enormous flagship store opened in Shanghai in 2015). “Today the average is 30-40 years: educated young people, up to date, not indiscriminate followers of trends but people who know what they want. They like to learn about and appreciate design, without worshipping brand names and luxury.”
This also implies opportunities for quality local brands. “In Shanghai and Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the passage to the new generations can be seen in greater refinement and a focus on innovative solutions, and a reworking of traditional languages,” says Gianmaria Quarta, who with Michele Armando opened the architecture firm Q&A in Shanghai in 2016. “There is a greater focus on products (and ideas) of quality, and this demand extends not only to imports, but also to local players.”
Patricia Viel, designer of the Bulgari Hotels in Shanghai and Beijing, agrees. “There is a big appetite for beautiful things, a desire to choose important objects, also for the inner zones of the home (which were previously left basic). It is a change that proves that the pleasure of owning things that reflect the identity of those who choose them is now a part of the oriental mentality.”
According to Viel, today in China there is a culture of products that did not exist before. “Since the Chinese have begun to practice design – as suppliers for international brands – they have also begun to understand it. Until a very short time ago, for them an object was just a form: they saw no difference between an original and a copy. Now they can grasp the meaning of the discipline, the culture of the sign. They know that design is also about manufacturing quality, and they know what that means. To have more erudite, sensitive counterparts is very important for Italian design brands, which have always exported quality. It also means the end of the era of unabashed copying. The Chinese now want Italian design the can consider ‘the original,’ perhaps mixing it with Chinese pieces of good quality. They appreciate it because it talks about them as aware, advanced consumers.”
Also according to Lyndon Neri e Rossana Hu (their architecture and design firm also works with Italian companies like Poltrona Frau, Artemide, Agape, Molteni&C, Driade, Viabizzuno...) this is a golden moment for Italian design. “Generic admiration has given way to true understanding of design quality. While before the Chinese focused on the trademark, today they are more capable of grasping proposals in terms of content. They are interested, for example, in the name of the designer, his or her way of working and producing, the professional background.”
Regarding the comprehension of design value, the risk one runs in China is very similar to that of the rest of the world. “More and more people are more interesting in photos on Instagram than in the effective conditions of their lifespace. The result is a mad search for decorative objects to have ‘styling corners’: useless things that then become junk and convey a false sense of domestic appeal.”
Actually there is another risk for the fate of design in China, at the moment. “The application of trade tariffs is starting to have effects on the Chinese economy,” says Claudio Feltrin. “In the first semester of 2019 China kept its position, with a value of 290 million euros and a variation of +2.4% over January-June 2018. But the situation is hard to predict and in the next few months we may see some changes.” What will clearly not regress is the spread of a culture of quality. “We have a big gap in recent history that led us to lose our age-old ties with our identity and our style,” Ren concludes.
“But now we have found them again. And the professionals in this sector have the responsibility to understand our true DNA and to act as a consequence.” Apart from tariffs, China continues to nurture its rediscovered culture of design. So it is more a question of culture than of sales figures.
With the collaboration of Claudia Foresti