With love, from life

Life has a funny way of righting itself when decisions you make toss you into the unknown. Ningbo designer Zhou Zhenghui talks about design in a time when no one in China cared for it.

It may or may not have been a coincidence that Zhou Zhenghui became a furniture designer. After all, his father was a carpenter. His family owns Ningbo Hamn Furniture, a wood processing business.

Zhou Zhenghui, an interior designer turned furniture designer from Ningbo. 

Zhou studied interior design and did just that right after graduating from school in 2003. He was 21 then.

“My family never influenced my career decisions. But after a while, I thought: why not apply what I know to my father’s company?”

He joined the family business when he was 26. Then, furniture designers were rare. Almost no one in China did it fresh out of school, and for a living. Many, like Zhou, were interior designers or architects who switched paths halfway in their career.

“The difficulty was not knowing how to translate drawings into production,” Zhou recalled. “Say for instance, the zhuan chair, I would never have considered such a design because I wouldn’t know how to make it.”

The zhuan chair was so called because it was inspired by zhuan shu (篆書), an ancient seal script in Chinese calligraphy. It was a labour of love that required a lot of thought.

The zhuan chair was inspired by an ancient seal script

“I had a lot of ideas for it but couldn’t visualise how I wanted the final product to look like,” Zhou says. “It took about six months from prototype to product. It still can be perfected, of course.”

Under the skilled hands of a craftsman, the zhuan chair was awarded Best Dining Furniture at the 2018 International Furniture Fair Singapore.


From pixels to products

With per household disposable income climbing, the Chinese consumer market has become one of myriad personalities eager to spend, and businesses are responding with brands that combine quality and style, with a story to match.

Furthermore, with the government on a campaign to eradicate heavy-polluting industries (including furniture manufacturing), some are at a loss. But most have taken steps to overcome, such as developing new marketing strategies for different market segments as costs on all sides go up.

“Traditional furniture companies that did not think much about design before are thinking about it now, yet most of them fall into the trap of ‘designing for the sake of designing’,” Zhou stressed.

“It’s like, ‘here’s three months to complete the project.’ Such an approach is not sustainable… I find it hard to design for the sake of designing. I get no inspiration from that.

“Design is part and parcel of life, it comes from the everyday,” Zhou said.

In one children’s collection, the lady bird stool was inspired by his daughter’s drawings. The prototype took six months to develop. By that time, his daughter had already outgrown it. Still, the spotted bugs found homes around the world.

Furniture companies may also jump into smart, technology-enabled products without first understanding what Chinese consumers want. Zhou thinks the most important aspects of furniture are still function and style.

Hanm furniture designed by Zhou

“A chair or table needs to serve its purpose, but at the same time you can be creative about it. Yet its form cannot compromise function because you bought it to fulfill a need in the first place.”

The biggest problem designers like Zhou face today is copying. “After we launch a new product, you may find the exact same thing on Taobao two days later… I hope the situation will improve in future.”

Reimagining Chinese design

When asked about the design scene in China, Zhou says it is still quite a niche profession but will soon leapfrog into prominence very quickly. Events such as Shanghai Design Week, and FMC, held every September in Shanghai, are propelling Chinese talent onto the global stage.

“There are many outstanding Chinese designers and many of them have won prestigious accolades such the Red Dot Design Awards,” Zhou shared. “I’d say this means the world is beginning to pay attention to what we can do. Hopefully this will give the design eco-system its much needed push.”

Zhou describes his own design philosophy as ‘Chinese’. He does justice to the beautiful grain and colour of American white oak and black walnut. He maximises their unique properties such that a piece of furniture that comes out of Hanm’s workshop is distinctively oriental, yet contemporary enough to sit in any living room around the world. Other hardwoods such as German beech also feature strongly in Hanm’s collections.

It took Zhou 10 years of factory work before learning how to turn designs into feasible, fashionable products.

At 36 years old today, designing for his own business may have been one of the more fortunate events in life.


This article was first published in Panels & Furniture Asia (May/Jun Issue 2018).