Designed in China – Zhang Lei

In the coming weeks, we’ll present here on the blog a few designers from China. I don’t know about you, but thinking about design in China, I can’t even picture something in my mind. I can think of tons of brands and objects from Scandinavian design, but from China… none. So I thought it was about time to document myself on this subject, and share my finds. I’ll publish a few posts within the coming weeks, like a serie.
Let’s start today discovering the work of Zhang Lei and his collective, PINWU.


Through his work, Zhang Lei tries to reflect various aspects of Chinese traditional culture. Studying abroad (Milan, Italy), he discovered the importance of tradition and craft values in China. After returning to his homeland, his focus was to incorporate traditional art form in future design. He created his first collective in 2004, today named PINWU, and partnered with Jovana Bogdanovic (Serbia) and Christoph John (Germany).
At that time the team’s work was inspired by paper umbrellas, and the collective settled in Hangzhou, where these umbrellas are originally from, in order to be closer to the craftsmen and observe their techniques. Hangzhou is the ancient capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, and has been listed as a “Craft and Folk Art city” by UNESCO in 2012.

PINWU created the Piao furniture collection, including the Piao chair and table, along with the Xuan light.

Layers of paper glued together create the shell of the Piao chair, technique traditionally used to create paper umbrellas in China. Natural fibers allow the chair to remain flexible while being strong enough for a person to sit.
The table is made of solid beech wood, with a natural surface treatment, to keep original feeling of the wood. The pieces are joined using no screws, following again a traditional technique.
The third piece of the furniture collection Piao is the Xuan lamp: made out of sliced bamboo that is rough on the outside and changes into fine and smooth slices in the inside of the lamp.

Here is how Jovana described the making process of the chair in an interview for in 2011:
“The factory made a mould, we asked for the mould. We glued the paper ourselves: me, Lei and Chris. It is completely our work from the beginning. We were first gluing the paper layers with the water and continuing with the glue, and making it dry and finally pulling out the chair from the mould to see how it is. It was really experimental. We wanted to play this time; we were really not searching for basic serious result to show. We were just playing with the paper.”

The Piao collection has been showcased in Japan, Taiwan, Sweden, England, US, Germany and China. In 2009, PINWU was the first Chinese design studio to feature during Milan Design Week, gaining wide recognition across Europe. The collective then collaborated with brands as Fendi, Maison Martin Margiela for H&M, Elle Deco China, etc.

The Piao collection has been an opportunity for the collective to take part into “Rong: from West Lake to Louvre”. Their work has been exhibited in Paris in January, among with 13 other designers. This exhibition was the first step of their new project called Handmade in Hangzhou. It started in 2013 exploring bamboo material and related techniques with local craftsmen, and will be pursued in the coming years with representative materials of Hangzhou: porcelain, paper, floss silk and copper.


The most interesting fact for me in the work of PINWU is that they document themselves a lot about traditional techniques, observing the work of Hangzhou craftsmen and visiting their workplace. They don’t copy tradition, they get inspired by both material and techniques to create new forms and designs. Settling their collective in Hangzhou is a great way to participate in the recognition of the city and its artisans, and its consideration as heritage.
I’m looking forward their further creations, especially the exploration around copper and floss silk. Copper is seen as a trendy material nowadays, doing a huge come back in the design field, and I can’t wait to see what kind of influence the Chinese tradition will have on PINWU copper objects. Silk is on the other hand a really Chinese-stamped material. The oldest fragment of silk was discovered in China, dating back to 2570 BC. How will PINWU use silk properties to create innovative and contemporary designs?

You can find more about PINWU design studio and Zhang Lei’s work on the websites documenting their collections or on the collective’s website:
Info from the aforesaid websites and :
TV documentary “Designed from China” by CCTV and France Ô.

An article by Lise.


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