Zhang Zhoujie is an independent designer and digital artist who founded his eponymous Digital Lab in 2014, and formally launched his furniture brand, EndlessForm, earlier this year. Creating products with new technology, with a focus on the digital possibilities of producing new forms, Zhang is one of China’s most promising designers.
his large-scale exhibition of 100 unique pieces from EndlessForm at Design Shanghai 2018.
You started exploring parametric design quite early in your career. What inspired you to use data in your design pieces?
Actually, it was a bit of a coincidence. In the beginning, I was quite interested in philosophy, the Chinese ancient philosophy of Taoism. Taoism has a view of how nature comes about: that things are constantly changing, and everything is unpredictable and isn’t fixed. At the time, it was a way of creating in a similar way to nature, creating something that is constantly changing. I found it very interesting.
For me, I didn’t want to design something, I wanted to find something, at that time. In 2008 and 2009, parametricism was a new movement. Computer programs were becoming more and more powerful and it was not only used as a tool, but also something used to create. I started using parametrics as a media, to express how things come out from a computer, endless and unpredictable. It’s the reason why I started with my design philosophy, when I finally found the right media to express it.
You just mentioned this, but there are basically unlimited iterations of using the data and mathematics to create pieces. Your recent show in Design Shanghai had 100 unique pieces. How do you limit yourself, when there are an unlimited number of possibilities stemming from one mathematical equation? How do you decide what designs you want to be using?
Actually the results are always open. My work is just to try to open the diversity of digital output, and let customers and people choose what they want. I have no personal aesthetic view on it. I just try to elaborate and try to make it functional and practical, then people can choose their favourite.
How difficult has it been to manufacture or produce your objects? Have you had any challenges in the process?
Yes, definitely. It took eight years to develop the technique, it’s has been a long-term development for the production process. This is because you need to fabricate different digital objects in very nice quality, which is a challenge. At the same time, you need to be efficient in finishing the piece. I need to think about the efficiency and the cost, and a lot of other things, to make it work. It takes time to learn everything together. Also with training workers and designers, it’s been a long time.
Do you produce mostly in China, or outside of China?
I produce only in my studio.
As a designer, would you consider yourself strongly rooted in Chinese culture and aesthetics? I know you mentioned Taoism earlier, but how do you think your roots have influenced your work?
On a deeper level, I have been tremendously influenced by our culture and tradition, but not in the appearance or outside look of my works. It’s deep inside, so I try to express myself. It kind of comes out naturally. I think the ideology comes from very basic points of view about nature, about what is a masterpiece, what is art, what is great art in our history.
In my case, I understand that masterpieces always come from very simple foundations, and look effortless. But behind that, there is tremendous practice. Like Chinese calligraphy — it looks like something that is very easy to do, but actually each work is a unique masterpiece; behind the one second of painting, there are 10 years of practice behind it. That’s why the masterpiece always looks so unique and difficult to copy.
In the digital context, I’m using a very simple, logical movement to generate something that looks like a complicated object, in just one second. In one second, there’s animation and it comes out naturally. I think this is very close to our ancestors’ way of doing things. This goes very deep within Chinese culture, there is a deep understanding of what is great art in China’s history.
We also have a way of being spontaneous, not like something handmade or man’s thinking too much. We always use this spontaneity to finish one thing, making it look very natural and self expressed. I try to keep myself away from creating things, making it more objective, making it happen more naturally.
That’s very different from most designers..
Yes, it’s a very different approach.
What’s your view of the Chinese design scene? It has progressed significantly in the past few years, and you see that with fairs like Design Shanghai coming up, and presenting all these international brands there. The Chinese scene still suffers from the stereotypes of imitation and reproductions, when viewed from the outside world. How have you seen the Chinese design scene progress in the past few years?
I think it has tremendously progressed in China. The design quality, and the young generation of designers is really qualified. Some of them have been educated in London and New York, all around the world, and they have very good qualifications like RCA, CSM, or AA, lots of top colleges. They have just returned to China. Other designers were educated in China, but they have very good learning abilities, and a strong sense of how to make good design. They don’t need to go outside, they still have energy to improve themselves. They have very good careers, and are professionals in the design field, and they are doing very well, too. Some designers, they are still working outside China, but they are thinking about coming back.
These three types of designers, I think are very strong at the moment and I can see the difference. 8 or 10 years ago, when I returned to China, there were not many independent designers, not many very high quality designers. But now, there are a lot. They even have the ability to compare with some Western or more mature markets. Now there are lots of Chinese designers going to Milan, to London, to exhibit their works. I think they have confidence. They are not afraid. In recent years, it’s gotten very good in the design arena.
It’s a good sign.
Yes, it’s a good time! And I’m very happy to see this.
You personally program and learn softwares that you then use in your works. Are there any new technologies you’re interested in or working in now?
I have always been interested in technology, and I always want to learn lots of things. But there’s a limitation of energy. I need to run the business, talk to people, manage. It takes a lot of energy for me. My deepest happiness is from learning. I’m always very curious and looking to advance in new technologies. For example, some advanced computer language, the more complicated interactive engineering part, and also fabrication technology. I really want to learn more and more things, but I’m limited in terms of time.
Would you consider yourself both a Designer or an Artist?
At the moment, yes. I combine design and art together, but not combined in one object or one product. My mind is always combined, I can switch to the artist mindset, and switch back to the designer’s mind. Each mindset is different. It’s impossible to combine them together, it’s a different approach, different direction.
I would say I’m quite clear on what is design and what is art, it’s much more clear to me now than previously. When I was doing design, I was using design as the methodology, design guidelines. But art is art. I do art pieces, and design pieces as well. But they are very kind of different. They look similar, but the inside it is different.
The inside being the concept behind it?
Yes, the purpose and the content is different.
What projects do you have coming up?
I have an exhibition in Switzerland coming up in June, around the time of Art Basel and Design Miami.
Are you presenting the same series of chairs or is it something new?
Something new! It’s going to make the project much more complete. I’m still working on it at the moment, but the timing is very close. We have a solo exhibition in Beijing in August, in a very big space — this will focus more on art. At the end of this year we have another exhibition, to exhibit new pieces, more focused on design. I’m doing art, design, art, switching back and forth. For me this year, has been quite busy and presents a new starting point. I have a team now, a process now, so I can consult the ideas I had many years ago, and bring them to realization.