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A word with David Hu

China

Our friends at EightSix recently caught up with industrial designer David Hu to talk about his life, his influences and Chinese design.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in the United States, but had spent some childhood years living in Taiwan. Growing up, I was extremely fortunate that my family is deeply rooted in Chinese traditions—my grandmother was a classical Chinese painter and my father an avid student of Chinese literature and history. At the same time, I was free to embrace the American culture and its sense of individualism and social equality. Although my father encouraged me to accept myself as a Chinese-American, that wasn’t always so easy. Now that I’m older, I see myself as 100% Chinese and 100% American.

When did you discover that you wanted to be/become an industrial designer?

Not until I was midway into my mechanical engineering degree. I followed my favorite subjects, math and physics, into the engineering field. What I hadn’t realised at the time was that my real love was in drawing and creating. I had spent so much time ignoring my true passions that I almost missed it completely. Of course, I don’t regret studying engineering because maths and physics do come in very handy in my line of work.

Where do your influences lie?

My influences are quite scattered, perhaps because my own identity is a bit of a mixed pot of cultures. Still, I am most often inspired by the masters: Charles and Ray Eames’ chemistry and energy, Philippe Starck’s emotional and humanistic vision, and Kenya Hara’s seeming ease in finding the subtle and the unseen. I would be happy to achieve a fraction of what they’ve accomplished in my lifetime. But by far my biggest creative influence is my family: my late grandmother has given me a deep appreciation of life, and my parents, a sense of empathy and decency. These things really form the central motivation for my designs.

How has your work evolved over the past few years – has it evolved in response to rapid growth in China and a burgeoning interest in Chinese design?

Although my work has now come to focus on Chinese design philosophy, its evolution actually had very little to do with China’s and its homegrown design scene. Not because I was disinterested, but because I had yet to find my own direction. Looking back, I think my work has been more of a reflection of the transitions in my professional and personal life. I was looking for more purpose in my work when, out of curiosity, I began reading the writings of ancient Chinese philosophers. In them I found a source of inspiration that I felt truly aligned with—and not in a religious context. Nevertheless, I’m only beginning to understand the teachings, but what’s surprising to me is the kind of correlation I found between philosophy and design. I hope my work will continue to evolve as I read more, experience more, and of course, design more.

What are your thoughts about design education in China, is it conducive to creativity and can you see it changing? What are your own experiences?

To be honest, I don’t know much about design education in China, although I’ve heard stories that seem to mirror my own educational experience in Taiwan more than 20 years ago. That being said, I think many people—non-Chinese and Chinese alike—jump too quickly to the conclusion that creativity can only stem from a Western style of teaching and learning. The Western culture is deeply rooted in the ideas of individual expression and fulfillment—the seeds of what we commonly define as “creativity”. But we must not forget that the Chinese culture is also strongly rooted in individual fulfillment, except that it is defined by social stability and filial piety. Which, by logic, should simply infer the possibility of a different kind of creativity. In light of the social and economic upheavals that we often attribute to a few taking advantage of the masses, I would actually argue that a new creativity motivated by a sense of duty to the common person and by a reverence to past and future generations can serve the world even better. The true challenge for Chinese designers and design education, then, is developing an understanding of “creativity” that is not simply a mirror image of the Western culture but rather one that is more authentic to the Chinese identity and worldview.

What do you have planned for the future?

Perhaps when I have found a strong enough voice of my own I will be confident enough to guide others, but I eventually hope to inspire others to find their own “Chinese design” voices, whether it’s through writing, teaching, or speaking. Design is a universal language, and if we stay true to ourselves as individuals and as communities, it will create more understanding and appreciation of the Chinese culture, in a way that sparks a genuine desire to shape a brighter future for China.