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Dr Jennifer Altehenger
University of Oxford
Research Fellowship

Revolutionary designs: furnishing life in socialist China

Uncovering the stories of women and men who helped materialise modern China, Jennifer Altehenger's research will produce a major monograph on the socio-cultural and economic history of China’s furniture industry

Illustration of a fold-down desk built onto the side of a sofa – modelling modular living.
Jiaju yu shenghuo (Furniture and Life magazine), Issue 2, 1986, p. 18.

Mies van der Rohe, Hans Wegner, the Bauhaus, IKEA – these are a few examples of familiar people and institutions of twentieth-century modern design. Much has been written about how their work shaped the interiors people in Europe inhabit today. By contrast, few people in Europe have encountered Luo Wuyi, Lin Jianqing, the Beijing Industrial Design Institute, or the Shanghai Furniture Company. Luo and Lin designed furniture prototypes for mass production and helped build experimental furniture workshops in the cities of Beijing and Fuzhou where they tested new materials and designs in the 1950s and 1960s. During the same period, the Beijing Industrial Design Institute planned room layouts and furniture designs for small-space interiors, under conditions of severe material shortages. The Shanghai Furniture Company, meanwhile, was a major producer and exporter of timber furniture and, from the 1980s onwards, ready-to-assemble furniture. 

These were some of the people and institutions that advanced modern design in the People’s Republic of China after 1949. They also contributed to shaping the material lives of people in Europe and across the globe. These days, China is a leading producer and exporter of natural resources such as timber and bamboo, engineered materials such as plywood, fibreboard and plastics, and consumer goods such as furniture. The Chinese government invests millions into design annually. Yet, while China’s contemporary role in global design and industrial production is regularly acknowledged, its modern history is far less well-known. 

My project will result in the first book-length study of modern Chinese furniture design and material life between the 1940s and 1990s, uncovering the stories of Luo, Lin, and many others. Rather than focus on the history of singular famous objects and their designers, I reveal the experiences of many different people who experimented, made and lived design – often under arduous conditions across the country: from major coastal cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, to interior cities including Lanzhou and Xi’an. I explore the trajectories of experts working in light industry, material sciences and arts and crafts research; of workers and artisans who manufactured objects in factories, handicraft workshops and communes; of ordinary people who used and adapted objects, or made their own and furnished interiors in daily life; and of traders who exported Chinese furniture across political divides. Taken together, their stories help bring China into the global history of post-World War II furniture design and production – an important aspect of twentieth-century cultural and economic history which has already received extensive attention in scholarship on other countries.

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