The “Made in China” label used to conjure up images of cheap and tacky mass-production; container-loads of plastic toys, plastic shoes, plastic kitchen utensils, plastic clutter. But the inexorable pace of Chinese growth has brought with it increasing manufacturing standards and ability, as well as a massive market of consumers increasingly clamorous for better design and quality.
Australian designer Ben McCarthy is based in Hong Kong to take advantage of China’s huge capacity – the legions of factories that produce everything from intricate electronics to high fashion. A broad of array of Australian goods are now made in China, including Ugg boots and iconic Dunlop Volley sneakers. Even the uniforms made for Australian athletes at the London Olympics opening ceremony were made in China. And then there are the knock-offs that have been produced by a nation famous for its fakes – phony Akubra hats and even “Benfolds” wine.
China’s manufacturing ability is legendary. “You can get anything done, at any quality,” McCarthy says with a grin. “But you have to be right on top of every detail.” Working with the well-known British designer Michael Young, McCarthy has designed a line of furniture made from recycled aluminium – light and durable, with a range of finishes.
Manufactured for EOQ, the line has recently been exhibited in Milan, with Young and McCarthy in attendance, and some of the designs are available at Living Edge in Australia. Lighting, chairs, stools and a variety of tables, some with marble tops – the range is spare and elegant. Chair 4a, for instance, is a modern reinterpretation of the a classic design, made from aluminium, either anodised or mirror polished, and with or without leather seats. Produced in a factory in southern China, the range is up to the best of world standards.
“It’s definitely an advantage to be here,” McCarthy says, adding it’s unfortunate that the ‘Made In China’ tag has had a bad reputation in the past. “But I’m under the impression that’s changing. People used to think about Japan like that. I’m hoping that perception changes.”
He has no plans to leave any time soon. “It seems like a very good time to be in China. It’s a great place to incubate ideas. When I go back to Australia it seems clunkier, slower. Hong Kong is open and optimistic and free and collaborative.”
Working in a different design field, the Australian interior designer Ben McCarthy has only lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years, but a lot of work seems to have fallen into his lap. Hong Kong consumers appreciate the quality of his design. No relation to the other Australian McCarthy, this Ben has set up a small company and he now specialises in creating the interiors of bars and restaurants.
With four projects currently in hand, he concedes he has never really had to look for work. He arrived in Hong Kong after a stint in the UK, where the economic slowdown was biting down hard and the design business was hibernating. His Hong Kong work began with a three to four month project, and these days he usually has at least two large projects in hand.
Starting his interior design business, Charlie & Rose (a combination of two of his grandparents’ first names) was made very easy by the business-friendly Hong Kong administration, and McCarthy has been busy with bar and restaurant design ever since. “The restaurant bar game – the turnover is nuts,” he says. “When rent review time comes around, a lot of them disappear. But there’s always someone to replace them.”
Amongst other things, McCarthy is now working on the design of a funky fried chicken joint in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town – “a bit tongue in cheek” – where he hopes to hold on to the original tiles and the atmospheric old windows.
Energised by the possibilities of Hong Kong, the gambling wonderland of Macau, and the eye-watering range of mainland China, McCarthy smiles. “And I really haven’t scratched the surface on the residential side. It’s a huge opportunity.” He could be earning a substantial salary in Australia or in the UK but, for the moment at least, he prefers to stick with Hong Kong and keep an eye cocked to the scope of mainland China.
With more than 1.3 billion people living in hundreds of towns and cities and conurbations, working and moving and entertaining and holidaying and dining and consuming, China is a nation where speed and size get things done.
Australian Fashion Week founder and well-known Australian fashion industry consultant Simon Lock has a base in Hong Kong to keep his fingers on the pulse of China. Hong Kong has been the gateway to China for decades, he says, and these days the Chinese fashion market is bounding ahead. Like many others, Lock believes the quality of high-end fashion manufacturing gets better and better in China but more important for Australian fashion designers is the massive Chinese market.
“I think quite frankly where Australian designers are lagging behind is their recognition and marketing to Chinese consumers,” he says. “Chinese consumers are a huge market for ready-to-wear fashion.” Some Australian designers, like Sass and Bide, and Ksubi, have dipped their toes in the giant ocean of Chinese retail, but others have yet to grapple with the enormous potential.
The sheer size of ever-growing China is a bonanza for Australian designers of all kinds. Kirsten Stanisich, interior design director at SJB Architects and NSW president of the Design Institute of Australia, says Australian design has had a focus on China and Hong Kong for some time, especially in the fields of architecture and interior design, and that will continue to grow as connections between universities and colleges in Australia and China expand.
The global perception of Chinese manufacturing has been changing for the better for years, she says, and the potential of 3D printing will be another catalyst. Sometimes called additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process whereby solid objects can be made, ultra-thin layer by ultra-thin layer, as the 3D printer follows a digital plan. “3D printing is going to change the whole idea of manufacturing, how that works and the intellectual property of designers,” Stanisich adds.
Her DIA colleague, DIA design ambassador Geoff Fitzpatrick, says China has effectively shed the negative connotations once attached to the “Made in China” brand, and Australia has taken full advantage of that, with Australian design companies operating in China for a decade or more. “I don’t think there’s any stigma attached to it any more,” he says of Chinese manufacture. Issues of copyright and intellectual property were once a big problem, but that has lessened over time, he adds.
Australian designer Graeme Mulcahy visited Hong Kong four times a year for ten years, and finally moved there to live 18 months ago. Known worldwide for his stylish Graz sunglasses, Mulcahy oversees much of the manufacture in Chinese factories. “China is a leading-edge manufacturer,” he says. “We make a little bit everywhere, but most of our stuff is made in China. As a broad-stroke comment I would say China is the best place in the world to create things.”
Chinese manufacture has been unfairly criticised, Mulcahy thinks: in decades past the western world demanded cheap goods, so China provided cheap goods. And then complained about the quality. But China’s manufacturing image has been changing, especially with those who are monitoring the standards of high-quality goods. “China is a megaforce in creating anything,” Mulcahy says. “The Iphone is manufactured here. That’s for a reason.”