Although China’s factories reign supreme over the world’s manufacturing industry, homegrown industrial design has had a slower cultivation. Over the past several years, there has been a push to change this, with China’s first-tier cities like Shanghai and Beijing leading the charge. Changzhou hasn’t been left out, though, and boasts its own burgeoning design industry, catering its services to companies locally and nationally. SupCZ managed to catch up with one young entrepreneurial industrial designer, Israel-born Roy Grinfeld, to learn more about the challenges of cultivating an international design practice beyond Shanghai’s reach.
Designed in China | 设计在中国
Tucked amid the monolithic buildings of Changzhou’s massive China-Israel Innovation Park, the office at Propel Design and Engineering Lab is bright, modern, and compact. Its CEO and founder, Mr. Grinfeld, is tall, lanky and prone to expansive gestures when describing the minute intricacies of his more technical projects. Mr. Grinfeld makes an energetic and passionate cheerleader for the benefits of his field: industrial design.
Whenever I design something, I never take something and reshape it; I always add something new.Mr. Grinfeld | 格菲尔德先生
Industrial design is more of an afterthought in the traditional Chinese engineering process than is typically the case in modern US and European practices. This approach to industrial design can be loosely summarized as what you do to make your product attractive after you’ve already figured out how to make your product do what you want it to do. This makes someone like Mr. Grinfeld, who possesses duel degrees in industrial design and engineering, a special kind of novelty. “It’s very difficult for me to separate function from aesthetics,” he confides.
Journey to Changzhou | 常州之旅
Before arriving in China, Mr. Grinfeld spent 7 years studying in Italy, a country renowned for its design. Toward the end of his Master’s program, an opportunity for an internship with a Chinese company was offered, and he alone jumped at it. Ningbo was his first stop in China. An outdoorsy nature-lover, Mr. Grinfeld was taken with the city’s lakes and parks.
It was in Ningbo, that Mr. Grinfeld eventually met Ilan Maimon, a successful Israeli entrepreneur and engineer, heading up Elan Industries, maker of HeyCafe commercial coffee grinders for worldwide distribution. Mr. Grinfeld’s opinion of Mr. Maimon is high, “Ilan is a great businessman and great man, also.” Mr. Maimon was the one to encourage Mr. Grinfeld to start up a design studio in the first place. Changzhou, home to the largest concentration of Israeli companies in China was an ideal location to set up shop, and soon Mr. Grinfeld even had the chance to try his hand at redesigning some of HeyCafe’s bestselling grinders.
Fandom Comes in Many Forms | 艺术的形式多种多样
Mr. Grinfeld has been fortunate in his collection of clients. For each project, he has a story about the seriousness, engineering acumen, or appreciation for innovative design of the company behind it. “I think now we’re seeing the evolution of the Chinese market…” He says, “Chinese society as well.”
For all his optimism toward the future of China’s industrial design industry, Mr. Grinfeld has first-hand experience with copycats. At a recent toy expo, Mr. Grinfeld was surprised to run across numerous replicas of the folding trike he had designed for that Ningbo company. Some of the copies were so exact, they even included imperfections that Mr. Grinfeld acknowledges exist in his original design that he would have removed given more time. While it’s easy to grumble over this blatant disregard for intellectual property, Mr. Grinfeld has another take, “For me, it’s great that they copy… It shows that if they invest in new design, if they invest in new products, it will come back to them.” From his point of view, the copiers act like billboards advertising the integrity of the original idea.
Where the Designers Go | 设计师们该何去何从
To get a sense of how attitudes about Industrial Design are changing in Changzhou and Jiangsu province, we tracked down Bo Yan, Director of Hohai University’s Industrial Design Department. He agreed with Mr. Grinfeld’s assessment of the changing attitudes toward Industrial Design in China, although for someone charged with educating the next generation of designers in a country renowned for its rate of change, Mr. Yan finds the speed at which change is occurring in his industry to be relatively slow.
In Jiangsu Province, there is an emphasis on machine design. This makes sense given Jiangsu’s massive manufacturing industry. The government supports the province’s industrial design through expos and design competitions. The pull of nearby Shanghai, however, is great, and many designers-in-training flee to the megatropolis when they finish their studies. This poses a problem for companies like Propel. Mr. Grinfeld cited sourcing promising designers as the chief challenge for his company.
Acquiring clients locally can also be difficult for design studios operating out of Changzhou. With a dearth of big name design firms in town, many companies look to Shanghai, Beijing, or even abroad for their design needs, wooed by the allure of a famous name. “That’s a problem here,” he says, “A lot of companies look somewhere else.” Ironically, Mr. Grinfeld spends much of his time travelling to cities like Shanghai, Ningbo, and Tianjin for meetings with clients. Mr. Grinfeld has really enjoy the occasional opportunities he’s had to work for local clients, and waxes on whimsically about how nice it would be to have more clients that don’t require long hours logged on trains or planes for meetings.
Mr. Grinfeld would love to head up a major effort to increase local awareness of Changzhou’s designers. Not only would this benefit his company and others like it by encouraging designers to stick around, but it would have the potential to legitimize Changzhou designers in the eyes of potential clients in the city and beyond, hunting for someone capable of turning their product into the next trendsetter in its class.
Article & photos by Theresa Boersma
Translated by Rachel Ling