GRADO Q&A: YINGJIE LEUNG, Design Chinese-Finnish Inclusive Otherness Since the LOCUS

YINGJIE LEUNG intricately delves into the diverse cultural influences shaping her latest design LOCUS and eloquently narrates the collaborative process with GRADO, shedding light on the fusion of design values and the profound reflection on inclusive otherness.

Photo Credits_La Biennale Di Venezia. Quotes from the renowned French film director Robert Bresson, echo Ying's design philosophy of embracing the true self and honoring the inherent differences that make each unique; YINGJIE LEUNG: Furniture Designer & Cross-Culture Observer.

PROFILE:  YING JIE LEUNG, furniture product designer, and the founder of YINGJIE DESIGN STUDIO. Graduated with a master's degree at the School of Design at Aalto University, Finland, participated in an exchange program at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, established a personal design studio in Helsinki three years before, and has once exhibited in Sweden, Finland, and the United States. The phrase "YINGJIE(撄几)" quotes ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu connotating a state of mental peace resists external temptations, serving as a core design principle of Ying's by prioritizing adapting to the characteristics of the material, respecting the physical logic of its structure, intervening minimally in the expression form, letting the design manifest within its inherent self.


Q1. Let's kick off with the co-curation story behind the LOCUS CHAIR and how the structure, materials, and form work together into such a cohesive piece.

YING: GRADO spotted out a metal leather chair that I exhibited remotely. They extended a design invitation. The collaboration unfolded. First, the naming of the Locus Chair comes from the English word location, which can be interpreted as the place that reveals the objects or a focal point towards which actions or activities are directed. The LOCUS Chair here becomes the object towards which human will is directed, unveiling the existence of people and places.

Generally, a metal frame chair consists of two parts: the frame as the supporting structure and the seat and backrest as the supported body. The junction between the two is usually the supporting structural node. On the one hand, ergonomics determines the proportion and angle of the supported body, which imposes corresponding proportion limits on the frame. Therefore, the prototype of a typical metal frame chair has always been strictly defined. But we have to figure out how to design a commercial leisure chair that is built on this prototype.

We started with structural logic to find breakthroughs in form. We first break the rigid square metal outer frame. The armrest part drops in advance forming a highly identifiable metal frame, but it functions well as a fulcrum for support when a person stands up. Second, two D-shaped short tubes at both sides, serve as the only two connecting parts between the frame and entity. The bottom structural plate of the entity protrudes in a cantilevered manner beyond the frame outline, exuding an interesting lightness.

From initially being suitable for civil and office use, it transitioned to purely office use, involving thorough adjustments in design language and metal bending radii. The details underwent meticulous scrutiny by the craftsmen, urging until we all felt the product as presented now reflects its natural state. There was an overall sense that GRADO rarely seeks more attention through style design to dominate or overwhelm the space. Instead, they hope the furniture piece serves as an indispensable element in creating space.

BY YINGJIE LEUNG, the TOP installation is inspired by the scene of cracking spring ice floating on the water resembles beautiful fissures. The bench bears a similar visual shape, using repeated triangles to achieve a high level of harmony and elegance in form and function. Photo credits_ECHO official.

Q2. GRADO values the Nordic design style for its simplicity, nurturing in nature, altogether organically coming into being. With nearly a decade spent in Finland, we are curious about how the cultural, social, and natural environment have influenced you as a designer. What would you say is the most enriching aspect?

YING: I believe it primarily stems from trust. They trust and respect designers and the act of designing. In Finland, there was once a hopeful vision of creating a design-focused nation, which made you feel that the work you were doing was respected. In China, designs might be perceived as a service catering to the people.

Another key is 75% forest coverage across the nation, where nature is omnipresent, coupled with the exceptionally low height of the sun and the subtle changes in light between the seasons. You can’t help but be exposed and drowned in such natural beauty.

The prolonged chill at home also has such an impact, as dark and cold conditions draw you back to quality home life compared to Southern Europe. Especially in winter, on the way home from work, seeing the myriad of lights, people feel the urgency to return to such an environment, a warm and comfortable space with various cushions. Under such circumstances, I believe it certainly fosters the creation of very comfortable and human-centered home products.

To be honest, when we talk about style or fashion in our daily conversation, it becomes more of a shortcut for the convenience of understanding each other. I have to go back to the nature of design which I think is about authentically reflecting the core of things no matter the form, or structure. I try to let it reveal the true self to make sure the design tells the truth evoking resonance naturally. Resonance can be understood as an exchange of authenticity through the intermediary, hinting the mutual real being. However, style cuts off the energy flow by overstating the way of designing and creating and paying less attention to the changing life.

Aalto Uni_Hands-on Wood Program, Photo

YING at the workshop, Photo credits_ECHO official

Q3. What do you find impressive about Finnish schooling and the education environment overall?

YING: The Finnish schooling and education environment presents a fascinating blend of traditional and modern approaches, as seen through different design philosophies adopted by professors. Initially, there is a focus on Bauhaus aesthetics, emphasizing functionality, proportion, and composition, reflecting a more traditional mindset. In contrast, contemporary design ideologies embrace experimentation with new materials, collaboration with brands, and a more commercial and cutting-edge orientation, as observed during internship experiences.

Within Finland's educational landscape, there exists a tug-of-war between local culture and international trends. This dichotomy is represented by conservative factions rooted in geopolitical, climatic, and historical influences and activist factions eager to integrate with global influences. The conservative stance may be inherently shaped by innate factors, while the momentum to express national culture seems to be driven by external stimuli, particularly the increasing levels of internationalization. Hence, there is a dynamic interplay between inherent traits and acquired responses, creating a harmonious yet conflicting educational environment in Finland.  

Q4. How do you see the ethos of "sisu" reflected in Finnish design?

(Sisu is a Finnish concept embodying extreme perseverance and dignity in the face of adversity, rooted in difficult historical experiences such as the Winter War, and embraced as a national trait, although its relevance to younger generations is declining)

YING: The ethos of "sisu" is deeply embedded in Finnish design, reflecting a pursuit of essential elements and a minimalist approach that values simplicity and clarity. This commitment to the core aspects is evident in the deliberate removal of decorative elements and the cautious use of color, emphasizing the importance of direct and impactful communication.

Also, Finnish design mirrors the extreme honesty and integrity inherent in "sisu" through contempt of pretentious promises, emphasizing the importance of authenticity and genuine interactions.  If a Finnish person commits to delivering a bundle of firewood to you tomorrow afternoon, they will fulfill their promise because failing to do so could have severe consequences like freezing to death. This honesty is deeply embedded in their culture and interactions. This honesty also extends to the genuine and warm relationships cultivated in Finland. Even a small gift like a box of chocolates can convey appreciation or reciprocate gratitude, while extravagant gifts are often considered inappropriate as they may overshadow the sentiment behind the gesture. However, the cultural aversion to dishonesty underscores the significance of integrity within Finnish society, where the consequence of lying can be severe, especially within close-knit social circles.

Q5. So how do you think about the inclusiveness of Finnish society assuming such an emphasis on absolute honesty?

YING: In my opinion, the inclusiveness of Finnish society is relatively low within the broader Nordic context, characterized by a homogenous population and limited diversity in immigrant communities compared to neighboring countries like Sweden. Trust among Finns is often built on mutual understanding based on being Finnish, which can create challenges for individuals from outside groups who may not share the same cultural references. Communication can be influenced by an unspoken understanding among Finns, making it quite difficult for outsiders to fully grasp the nuances.

With fewer immigrants and lower cultural diversity, Finland has the advantage of preserving its indigenous culture and a strong national spirit, despite its small population. However, this cultural conservativism might lead to a sense of closed-mindedness, as seen in instances like the decline of Nokia, which was attributed to a conservative approach.

Although Finns may appear polite and tolerant, there can be an underlying reluctance to fully embrace external cultures. This subtle exclusion is recognized more by long-term residents who may find it challenging to integrate into the core Finnish social fabric and understand the implicit parts.

The master craftsman from the workshop once asked me on the car that, "What do you think about Finns’ regards towards foreign people?" I replied, "I can see that outwardly, you tend to express a high level of acceptance towards differing opinions, but internally, there is a conservative suspicion." He responded, "Indeed."  

Finnish people actively engage in the international community, yet they do so from the standpoint of representing their Finnish identity and values to maintain the authenticity of their culture amidst global interactions.

Q6. What might be different in doing design in Finland compared to Mainland China?

YING:  I've heard that in China, many furniture designers sketch their designs, model them on a laptop, and then directly hand them over to the factory for the craftsmen to implement. This could never happen in Finland. Here, a very close connection between designers and workshop craftsmen is common. Most brand designers have backgrounds as craftsmen. When we start designing, communication with workshop craftsmen will go way much more than that with mentors. The craftsmen are the ones who help bring the model to life and who we can learn a lot from.

Finland's workshop system is comprehensive in binding all roles together. A long-lasting and close tie between designers and workshop craftsmen enables grounded design. In contrast to Chinese designers making factory visits in glamorous attire; in Finland, design workers share an equal and cooperative relationship with craftsmen, fostering a strong sense of mutual respect and collaboration. Designers are fully acknowledged that craftsmen have their pride as artisans. It has nothing to do with market value. They approach you with their professional dignity.

Q7. Working with design brands from other countries and China, what are they focused on?

YING: In general, foreign design brands, particularly those from the Nordic and traditional European design traditions, place a high value on the act of designing. A comprehensive design industry ecosystem includes aspects encompassing design education, recognition of the social status of designers, and a commitment to design services. There is always a strong emphasis on the sustainable use of products, with both users and brands placing significant importance on the longevity of home products. However, the Chinese design industry tends to prioritize product iteration, strong adaptability, manageable costs, and time investment as well as market potential. Also, there seems a desire to keep pace with trends and changes, resulting in a large number of replicas sweeping across the market of the same product category and subsequently phased out. Foreign brands prioritize creating designs that stand the test of time, resisting easy replacement, while in China, the emphasis is on return and safe bets, leading to continuous pressure on designers to conform to current trends, potentially hindering long-term career growth for designers. China has made significant progress in recent years though, with the rise of original brands and the awakening of contract manufacturers to be brand-conscious.

Overall, European brands are more focused on creating well-crafted designs, beyond barely producing aesthetically pleasing items or striving for brand dominance. Their commitment to environmental protection, sustainability, and zero carbon emissions is more pronounced compared to China. There is a new challenge in China that environmental protection serves as conceptual labels for the sake of gaining. In Europe, these concepts are deeply embedded in daily life. Throughout their education, including community education, the emphasis is placed on the potential for recycling and maximizing the value of each product, permeating every project and assignment. As a result, designers integrate these concepts into their designs, not simply to cater to the market and affix labels accordingly. At least in Finland, on a social level, making good design accessible to everyone is such a vision, rather than rendering design as a tool to entrench social class. So far, Finnish design has reached a place where the majority of households can afford good design.

Q8. When foreign designers decide to collaborate with Chinese brands, what are some important factors to consider?

YING: Considering the immature protection of originality in China and the ongoing transformation in the design and manufacturing sectors, trust in Chinese design takes time to evolve. When returning to China to exhibit and discuss collaborations with domestic design brands, there is a bit of hesitation in wondering where these designs would go and concerning potential misuse of original designs leading to interest disputes. Foreign designers may not spend time delving deep into legal matters. Therefore, they tend to prefer collaborating with established Chinese brands to minimize risks, as these brands typically have professional consulting teams and lower associated risks.

When it comes to quality control, the experience of prototyping in other countries versus in China can vary significantly. Foreign designers and craftsmen work together to create structurally and aesthetically compelling products. Craftsmen provide professional advice based on their expertise; for example, a carpenter might suggest a more rational approach than yours. However, in China, especially during remote prototyping due to the pandemic, the focus leans more on convenience and efficiency, so the craftsmen were looking to resolve things rapidly. Their stance may not always align, as the designer aims for excellence while the craftsmen prioritize completion. This divergence can lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. In contrast, there is a shared commitment to achieving excellence for both from foreign countries. Craftsmen sometimes exhibit more patience and dedication in bringing a product to its best form than designers themselves.

Q9. How strong is the presence of Chinese furniture design brands currently in the Nordic market?

YING: I'd say in Finland, the market for furniture design brands is almost full. The most influential Chinese brands in the Nordic market are in the mobile phone sector. The entire Nordic market even in Europe, is highly competitive due to the continuous emergence of talented designers from local reputable design schools, and workshops and factories run by designers from the respective countries. I am also wondering about how Chinese design brands could penetrate such a market.

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