Beijing Design Week: Jeff Dayu Shi’s “Yin Xian” Bamboo Collection

Reviving a Chinese tradition while adding a contemporary twist

by Alessandro de Toni

Since 2009 Beijing Design Week has been a platform to spread design culture into a country whose aesthetics have been long trapped between faded echoes of past glories and mass-produced kitsch. While the discussion about a Chinese Renaissance, and how to revive traditions, takes place on TV, the path to shaping a contemporary Chinese style isn’t easy, as a fast-paced cash-hungry economy often represent an insurmountable obstacle for authentic craftsmanship.

During this year’s Beijing Design Week, Domus Tiandi Space is hosting an “Maverick,” which aims to take to the spotlight some of the most interesting examples of contemporary Chinese design. We met with Jeff Dayu Shi, a mastermind in shaping Chinese heritage into a slick design style. Born in Taiwan and settling in the capital a few years ago, Jeff is a “devotee of bamboo,” and as he tells us, “40% of bamboo comes from China, all everyday objects used to be made of bamboo until plastic swept it away, this is very sad.”

Since 2007, when he founded his bamboo furniture brand Dragonfly, Jeff has been focusing on production and design processes that could give a voice to the outstanding qualities of this long fiber. The theme of his latest collection showcased at Domus Tiandi is “Yin Xian” (Dematerialize/Rematerialize), where Yin means conceal and Xian manifest—a hint to ancient Chinese aesthetic sensibility. From this concept comes Jeff’s screen chair series, shaped like the emperor’s chairs in the Forbidden City, whose lateral bamboo screens can make you appear on your throne or conceal into a meditative cocoon.

Recurring vertical and horizontal bamboo slats appear in the collection, to play with light and to hide functional elements, like in the Flowing Shadow dining cart, where the motion blur effect created by horizontal bamboo slats is also meant to conceal the wheels. Behind every piece there is a story of reconnection with the past: the Tao Bed, a contemporary version of the classic essential of every scholar’s studio, which features overlapped slats to combine solidity with the springing quality of bamboo, or a contemporary twist on a traditional Chinese screen. Jeff says he was inspired by the weaving of the tea baskets from Wu Yi mountain, home of world-famous Oolong tea, and used to give the distinctive whirly shape to its leaves.

Different types of bamboo are used for different purposes: flexible natural slats, compressed bamboo and so-called ‘steel bamboo’ which requires the fiber to be highly compressed without getting broken and making it an essential structural material. Some pieces, like the Cabinet Hidden feature an outer frame which retains the original texture and beauty of bamboo outer skin and knots and require the raw material to be wrapped pole by pole in cloth and carefully transported down the mountain to avoid any scars.

As Jeff explains, the manufacturing process requires patience and attention to details and finding the right factories to work with can be challenging. “Bamboo has some unique characters, and is not as cheap as people think, because all depends on how you treat this material,” he says. “In some cases, the slats have to be carbonized and stored for two or three years before you can use them. I have to do this preparation work mostly in Taiwan because in China lots of factories, which have their own forest, are not willing to do the job because it is too time consuming.”

Yet some factories making Dragonfly’s prototypes in China have been using Jeff’s know-how to work with huge overseas buyers, and Jeff is happy to contribute to the growth of bamboo industry in China. He says, “With 27 years experience as a designer, furniture is what I can afford to do at the moment, but my goal would be to study and do a research about bamboo, and hopefully someday we can come up with something new that can replace plastic, that is my real goal.”

On now through 31 October, “The Maverick” exhibition, featuring Jeff Dayu Shi’s “Dematerialize/Rematerialize” is at Domus Tiandi Space, Jinbao Palace 3/F, 88 Jinbao St. Dongcheng District, Beijing.

Images by Alessandro de Toni