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Furniture by Nula Living

"International brands now have to work much harder in China" says Design Shanghai director

European and US furniture brands face much stiffer competition in China from local rivals that have grown rapidly during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Design Shanghai director Zhuo Tan.

"Chinese brands are doing very well, their business is really flying," said Tan, who spoke to Dezeen ahead of the first edition of Design Shanghai to take place since China relaxed the international travel restrictions it imposed during the pandemic.

"I've spoken to the Chinese brands and they say that during Covid, their sales jumped up two or three times compared with before Covid."

"The international brands now have to work much harder in China because the golden age for western brands selling without any competition has passed," she added. "They will have to work harder to win market share."

Design Shanghai director Zhou Tan
Design Shanghai director Zhou Tan (above) says that Chinese brands such as Nula Living (top) are growing rapidly

This year's edition of the Design Shanghai trade show, which celebrates its 10th anniversary, takes place this week from 8 to 11 June and will be the biggest ever, with floorspace increasing 40 per cent compared to last year.

Like previous editions, it will bring together international furniture and lighting companies with Chinese designers and brands to create what Tan calls "a platform for engagement between eastern and western consumers and brands".

Tan still believes that there is a huge opportunity for western brands in China.

"I still think there's a very big market for them," she said. "China is big. And there are lots of cities for brands to explore which they haven't yet. In every city, you always have a premium consumer with a desire for good products. So I still think the market is huge."

Furniture by U+
U+ is one of the Chinese brands exhibiting at Design Shanghai

But, according to Tan, international visitors to the show this year will find a much bigger and more confident contingent of Chinese designers and brands, which have benefitted from the logistical challenges faced by international companies during the pandemic and a renewed consumer interest in locally designed and manufactured products.

"It's quite obvious when you think it through, even if a European brand could come into China they would have to wait six, eight months – the lead time was just impossible," said Tan.

"A lot of projects needed the furniture immediately. So, of course, they would go for local alternatives."

"And the second much bigger trends across China is the confidence in 'made in China'," she added. "Consumers are very proud to use stuff designed and made in China. It's a big trend, driven from the top of the government and filtering into every element of people's daily lives."

Furniture by Frank Chou
Chinese designer Frank Chou is presenting work at Design Shanghai

Significant Chinese brands exhibiting at Design Shanghai this year include Stellar Works, Benwu, Jianze, Kundesign, Nula Living, U+ and Xue, while prominent Chinese designers Frank Chou and Chen Min are exhibiting.

These designers and brands are developing their own unique identities rather than aping their western counterparts, Tan said.

"I think the big switch from 10 years ago to today is people have stopped talking about copying," she said.

"Right at the beginning of Design Shanghai, everyone was talking about copying. But now I think the Chinese designers are more confident and their work is much better. And consumers are also more focussed on original design., there is a more sophisticated consumption in China and people are demanding more."

Chair by Stellarworks
Stellarworks is also showcasing its products at Design Shanghai

Tan believes that this increase in originality and quality is fuelled by a new generation of Chinese designers who were educated at leading design schools around the world but then chose to return to China to take advantage of its manufacturing industry.

This year's Talents section of the show, which is curated by Chou and showcases upcoming Chinese furniture designers, is bigger than it's ever been before, while a new exhibit at the show called Design Street shines a spotlight on young industrial designers. Tan is very optimistic about the future for Chinese design.

"In the past we maybe had 20 Chinese designers," she said. "This year, we have over 100. They're all educated at Central St Martins or other famous design schools. They learn proper professional practice and they come home for the manufacturing in China."

"Good design married with excellent manufacturing – I think there are some great things to come out of China in the future."

Dezeen is media partner for Design Shanghai, which takes place at the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center from 8-11 June 2023. For more information about events, exhibitions and talks, visit Dezeen Events Guide.

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