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Idealog—in the ideas business

MayDE in China

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China’s Mayland Design Exchange—MayDE to its friends—is marrying our creative can-do with their manufacturing know-how. Could ‘MayDE with New Zealand’ be just what ‘Made in China’ needs? Gena Tuffery finds out

Although its name suggests serenity, there’s nothing calm about St Lukes Shopping Centre in Auckland. That concrete retail rotunda heaving with people lugging kids, groceries and chain-store bags jammed with stuff? Yeah, that’s the one.

Now multiply the size of St Lukes by 65—pretty ugly, eh? Not at all. Mayland is a two-million-square-metre mall in Guangzhou, China, filled with all things ending in ‘design’—object, furniture and interior. And now some of New Zealand’s best conceptual thinkers are upping the aesthetic even more.

The Mayland Design Exchange—MayDE to most—is the mall’s creative boardroom. Here new designs are presented to manufacturers. They, in turn, hand over fresh briefs to the consultant—who pops them in an envelope addressed to the design school at Unitec, Mt Albert, New Zealand. 

Now a handful of the school’s young designers are set to dispatch themselves, par avion. And they’re taking a fresh batch of their designs with them. In late November the future of design will meet with manufacturers at Design for the Future—the theme of this year’s Guangzhou Design Week. 

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When Melodie Jones studied the Chinese lifestyle, she found the ceremonies around eating and drinking absolutely beautiful—but the tableware straight-out ugly. So she designed Bloss om, her literal twist on the traditional floralprinted ceramics often found in China. The ceramic tableware set is also designed to address space issues, with the pieces stacking inside each other like Russian dolls—and it seems there is room for it in the market. Jones’ project is the first from her class to go into manufacture: “I’m the guinea pig I guess,” she says

The collaboration is a by-product of the original creative exchange between Unitec’s head of design, Dr David Hawkins, and his onetime PhD student, now Mayland creative director, Liping Liu. “We wanted to create a network-based design matching service between our two countries, where we could both benefit,” says Hawkins. “We’re getting access to manufacturers and invaluable knowledge of the Chinese market and they’re getting the development of a design network and up-to-date advice.”

But to be of help, you must first ask what needs to be done. So, before MayDE opened with a Growth by Design conference earlier this year, Hawkins did a whirling minivan-tyre tour of Guangzhou’s manufacturing plants with associate head of school Roger Bateman. They were feeling around for a hole in the market in need of good injection moulding, and they found more than one.

“What we uncovered is that most of the companies that want to be served by MayDE don’t have a true understanding of what design is,” says Bateman. “And therefore they don’t have a true understanding of what design can do for them. We take things like creativity, innovation and sustainable design for granted here, but they often don’t get taught it in China.” 

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Joel Stirling’s Store-door addresses the lack of space in the country’s coin-pocket-sized apartments. It’s a pressed aluminium door that protrudes slightly into a hallway, increasing the size of an apartment by Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe proportions. Inside Stirling has managed to fit hooks for umbrellas and coats, a shoe rack with a drip tray that can be removed and emptied in the monsoon season, vents and even a mirror. The design has already hooked one New Zealand investor and Stirling is looking for more so he can get his Store-doors installed

Usher in phase one: ‘master classes’ for Chinese designers, retailers, manufacturers and academics. “We started with a seminar on idea generation,” says Hawkins, “and we’ll be doing more on creativity, design management and point of sale. Generally [the Chinese] have quite a conservative view of design so we have to show them what it’s all about.”

But it’s hard to show what people don’t know, so Bateman says another way to raise someone’s awareness of good design “is to put it in front of them and point to it and say ‘That’s good design’.” So they did that too, with a bit of help from those students back in Mt Albert. 

Mayland’s first Unitec brief was broad—analyse the growth of China’s middle class, and anticipate what they might want to buy—but the solutions presented fell into clear categories.

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Michael Xiaobing Wang’s Tea or Coffee? set was conceived from of his observation that things Western are increasingly popular in the East, and vice-versa. Coffee is becoming popular in China but tea will always be the traditional drink of choice, which is why Wang married old with new on one yin-and-yang-etched tray. Tea or Coffee? was short-listed last year in the Student Product design category of the BeST Design Awards. The set comes complete with sugar and tea-leaf containers all ready for a raging tea-and-coffee party

Among the many space-saving designs—such as shelves built into apartment doors, which curve out into hallways to steal a few more precious inches of room—were some addressing a global preoccupation: “A lot of the Chinese people in our research documentation said they were very unhappy with their environment,” says Bateman. “The quality of the water—you know, the congestion, the pollution …” 

Ah, the China of the 6 o’clock news—the one uglier than St Lukes on Christmas Eve, the place where people are kicked out of their cars to give Olympic athletes a chance of making it to the finish line. The same place that has had its ‘Made in China’ label tattered at the edges in recent months after attaching it to poorly-made and chemical-rich products. 

“A lot of people question working with China because of their manufacturing practices and so on,” says Bateman. “But what’s better, to sit here and talk about it, or go over there and try and do something?”

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Stephen Brockett isn’t a maths student but he knows all about the sum of parts. His SHelf+ wooden shelving kit can be put together in many different formations, which, he says, suits the Chinese way of displaying knick-knacks: “it’s not very linear.” Shelf+ is made from sustainable sapele wood and recyclable aluminium. “It’s important to me that things I make can be recycled at the end of their lives,” Brockett says

“Every time we talk to a manufacturer we bring up sustainability, because it’s just a natural thing to do,” adds Hawkins. “And they’re interested. There’s definite progress going on. The new factories springing up pay a lot more attention to conserving energy and avoiding waste.”

It is these manufacturers that many of Hawkins and Bateman’s students will be targeting. “A lot of our students have taken the slant that this is about trying to entice Chinese manufacturers to use more sustainable materials and processes,” says Bateman. “And so that’s what their designs have focused on.” 

While the students are narrowing their focus, Unitec is broadening its gaze both here and abroad. In fact, there’s an exhibition of Finnish design on at MayDE right now. Whatever it takes to raise awareness of good design, says Bateman. 

“Our aim is to raise their game. We want all the manufacturers that are making and selling their wares in the Mayland Centre to get to a higher level. Because if we raise their game, then other companies will want to follow.” 

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Every time we talk to a Chinese manufacturer we bring up sustainability, because it’s just a natural thing to do. And they’re interested. The new factories springing up pay a lot more attention to conserving energy and avoiding waste

And other New Zealand designers may want to follow MayDE’s successes too, as this victor plans to spoil a wide range of Kiwi creatives. “The idea is that we’ll have so many briefs that we won’t be able to take them all ourselves,” says Bateman. “We might get a brief and say we’ve got a couple of students in their final year and this could be quite interesting for them. Or it would be perfect for so-andso in the incubator. Or we could say this would suit a student who graduated from Victoria School of Design.” 

Clearly, Hawkins and Bateman aren’t fussy. They’re simply seeking out the upper echelon of New Zealand designers, wherever they may be. “We just want to build opportunities for New Zealand designers to engage with Chinese manufacturers,” says Bateman. “You need a conduit and this is it. MayDE is a matchmaking service for designers.” 

And if you don’t fancy finding your one true design match in Guangzhou, hold on. Further Mayland Centres are planned for Beijing, Shanghai and New York. Bound to be the start of something beautiful.

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Terence Tsang proves the guys in the product design department don’t have the MayDE market covered— visual identity has had a thorough going-over too. The graphic design graduate beat two Chinese design agencies in a pitch to win the MayDE Design Exchange visual identity business. It’s been a comprehensive creation. From business cards and letterheads to wall and window graphics, Tsang set the aesthetic expectation high before MayDE customers even step inside

Originally published in Idealog #12, page 46

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Well Done Roger! Great to read about what you are doing
Dorenda Britten, designindustry

The designs are fresh, and thought out of the box. I like the various designs featured in this blog, and these are amazing. I particularly like the storage designs made by Joel Stirling and Stephen Brockett. I could imagine that with the shortage of space in most homes, especially in Asia like Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, etc, these are going to be a big hit. I just hoped that Stephen Brockett’s shelving could come with closed storage for some parts so that people will have more options. I hope to get a catalogue of this and hopefully the designs are going to be available in the market soon. We hope to complement our existing pieces of furniture and fixtures, which most of them are inspired by Asian designs. Two of these pieces of furniture are tables and storage fixtures that we bought from Tokyo Design Week.

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