Global Economics

Asian Design Comes of Age


From architecture to lingerie to digital cameras, the products created by this year's Design for Asia award-winners represent the region's growing focus on style

Five years ago most Asians probably thought design meant the latest cell phone or the season's hottest fashions. That's changing fast. Just look at the Design for Asia Awards, which were handed out onDec. 12 in Hong Kong. The competition, now in its fifth yearisthe premier design contest in Asia and this year attracted nearly 600 entries from 20 countries. The winning designs for 2007 reflect how innovative design can touch every aspect of our modern experience—studying, shopping, listening to music, vacationing, and just about everything else.

The winners include a revolutionary design for a kindergarten (by Japan's Takaharu + Yui Tezuka architects), a project for a stone and wood footbridge in China's Gansu province that can be easily reassembled after floods (by Edward Ng, a professor of architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong), and a remote eco-retreat in the Indian Himalayas (by Studio Mumbai Architects).

The awards competition, organized by the government-backed Hong Kong Design Center and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, coincides with the annual Business of Design Week exhibition with its more than 40,000 exhibitors. The show is part of a much broader effort by the city to establish Hong Kong as Asia's design hub.

Award-Winning Architects

Those design aspirations will be getting a bold new affirmation in the Hong Kong Polytechnic's Innovation Tower designed by Pritzker architecture award winner Zaha Hadid, whose design was unveiled on Dec. 12.

Known internationally for her fluid, innovative creations, such as the 2012 London Olympics Aquatics Center and the BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Hadid says she has long found Hong Kong's "density and intensity wonderful." She did her first design in Hong Kong for a spa on the Peak in the early 1980s. Like many of her highly conceptual designs at the time, it never got built. Hadid says the compactness of the Innovation Tower site provided special challenges "to make a lot of [academic] programs that fit in an interesting organizational way."

Having a high-profile international architect build her first structure at the school will undoubtedly raise awareness of design and the importance of building a strong educational foundation in Hong Kong. Adds Lorraine Justice, director of the School of Design: "This will provide a visual symbol of creativity."

A Design Boom in Business

The Polytechnic's push to develop its design program is one of many efforts around Asia. Design is among the most popular majors at Chinese universities today, and hundreds of design consulting firms have sprung up in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. In China and beyond, Singapore-based Raffles Education now boasts some 54,000 students a year in 28 different colleges located in some of the hottest economies in the region, including Indonesia, India, and Vietnam. The students are keen on developing a distinct sense of Asian design (BusinessWeek.com, 11/20/07).

Design is winning recognition not just in the classroom but in corporate boardrooms.. Already there's plenty of evidence throughout Asia that design is becoming an integral part of corporate strategy, whether in the choice of company headquarters, such as the CCTV tower being built by Rem Koolhaas in Beijing, or in the importance of design in branding for Korean's Samsung. The best Chinese companies, such as Lenovo and Haier, are building their own design staffs. Or they're hiring outsiders to help them make more products of their own.

The 17 Design for Asia awards reflect the changing face of design in Asia today. For instance, Hong Kong's Tommy Li Design Workshop earned a Best Asian Design citation for its fresh approach to marketing. Li's cheeky Bla Bla Bra retail shops peddle garments that at first glance look like cartoon characters.

Classic Clothing for Men

Two-year-old firm Mumbai Architects won a citation for the Leti 360 resort in northern India. Intrepid tourists willing to make the two-hour trek to the hotel are rewarded with stunning views and understated luxury built of local materials and with an environmentally friendly design. Another architecture award went to Banyan Tree Resort in the Unesco heritage town of Lijiang in southwestern China's Yunnan province. The hotel, which opened its doors in 2006 and was designed by Singapore architect Ho Kwoncjan, incorporates indigenous Naxi ethnic architectural elements such as traditional courtyards, gates, and sloping tile roofs and combines them with contemporary use of glass and exposed steel.

In fashion, designer Wallace Chan, creative director of men's clothing brand Chocoolate, won an award for his creations aimed at thirtysomethings that lean away from trendy fashion in favor of classic styles, and for his campaign based on plastic models of the boy band The Coctails.

Architects Rossanu Hu and Lyndon Neri were cited for Design Republic, an ultra-luxury retail shop that aims to teach China's nouveaux riches about global design luminaries such as Tom Dixon and Marcel Wanders. Their shop, in a refitted colonial building on Shanghai's Bund, also publishes its own quarterly magazine called Design Manifesto, which ranges from the annual Salone de Mobile in Milan to in-depth interviews with designers. "We try to bring the best of the world's design to China and in return, hopefully in a number of years, bring the best of what China has to offer to the rest of the world."

Sophistication of Affluent Customers

Across town in Shanghai another sign of the growing sophistication of China's affluent consumers is the combination of a wine retail shop and bar called Just Grapes. It blends contemporary lines with traditional materials including a rammed earth wall, earning Shanghai-based Asentio Design's Jonathan Li a design award.

In technology the team at Philips Design Hong Kong earned an award for headphones that filter out background noise—a big plus in Asia's teeming cities. Samsung's NV 10 digital camera, by Sung Kyun Bai from the company's future concepts lab in Seoul, harks back to the days when cameras lasted a generation with a retro look. And Sony won an award for its handheld digital recorder. The $1,850 unit has received rave reviews from professionals for its ability to capture exceptionally high-quality stereo sound outdoors.

For a look at the winners in this year's Design for Asia Awards, click through BusinessWeek.com's slide show.


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