This is the first in a series of interviews with some of my favourite Chinese designers. I want to find out what makes them tick, what they think about Chinese design in general and how they came to be where they are today.
EIGHTSIX recently caught up with Li Han, one of my favourite architects/designers here in China. I went to his Beijing shop to talk about design, architecture and the future of design in China. Li Han owns SQY-T (Shanghai Quality Yarn Tee) with his wife Hu Yan, also a graphic designer. Li Hans’ work shows clarity, precision and a fantastic level of detail, giving his Beijing axonometric a distinctly Chinese feel. And because I love Architecture, Li Han goes first!
Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you end up owning a shop?
I am oringally from Beijing and did my Bachelor degree at CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing). I did this because I was primarily very interested in painting and drawings. In high school I studied towards this and then shifted to architecture later on. I then went to do my Architecture masters in Melbourne, Australia.
When did you first become interested in architecture and design?
In high school I decided to study architecture at about 17 or 18 years old. At the time whilst study painting and sculpture, I came across an architecture magazine and thought to myself ‘that could be interesting’, and so decided Architecture was the route for me.
What is your process for working?
The first thing I do is to walk around the streets in Beijing, and just find an interesting place. I will then go and shoot photos there and sketch plans of the area. I can get the basic building shapes from Google Earth but a lot of buildings I have to draw myself. For me the most important aspect is the interior, so I have to go inside these buildings and sketch out how they work so that I can animate them on my images. I then take this all into Sketchup and build a basic model.
I have to decide what perspectives are the most interesting which show the most information, and I find the good angles. I cut out walls which have no information on them so that we can see what is going on behind. At this stage we modify the model to get the best perspectives.
Then I will export this to AutoCAD for the line work, and hatch the image. Line work on its own can be a bit bland. Black/white/pale hatching can give the image depth. For my colour images I take it into Photoshop and add colour in then. I will also draw the difficult things by hand, and scan into Photoshop and add into the images (people etc).
How do you decide what happens within the buildings.
For the people I just draw what I think will look most interesting based upon my own experiences.
What sort of projects are you working on next?
At the moment I have just finished the drawing of 798 (Beijing’s Art District), and my next project will be a series of small books. Instead of doing big drawings which take around 2 months to do, we will find 10 interesting local shops and zoom into greater detail on a smaller scale and do the colourful drawings in the same style as previous drawings. I am also collaborating with a photographer, and the drawings will be fused together. This will be done within the next two months.
Do you think one day you will quit Architecture and work full time on SQY-T?
To some extent that is my ideal working situation, because when I work on this, there is no interruption from clients! But the architecture gives a different sort of satisfaction, even though this feeling is quite rare. I am contradictory, I like that there is no interruption from clients, but there is still something interesting and unpredictable in the Architecture.
Do you think that architects need to do more than one thing in the future to survive, be creative and broaden their scope?
I think so, just look at me, I am doing these drawings. Architects can do more things than just design architecture. In the olden days, [in China] all architects were originally painters and sculptors, even Le Corbusier painted a lot. But at a certain point in time, architects stopped drawing, and looked down upon drawings to some extent. Because I have a painting background, I want to find a way to rediscover this. Drawing can not only be sketches but can be developed into individual projects – it is whatever you make of it.
What’s the best thing about living in China right now?
For me, Beijing is my hometown, and all my work is about this city. This city is quite complicated and can give me a lot of inspiration. In Melbourne, it’s a nice city for living, second highest quality of living, but because I didn’t grow up there, I cannot find many interesting things about that city – I have little connection. Beijing is interesting because of the contrasts between the bad (traffic jams) and the good (life).
Do you see yourself capturing the real Beijing as a snapshot in time?
Yes, in 5 years everything can change. In my Sanlitun axonometric for example, a building which would have once been torn down, has now been converted to shops, but will probably not be there in 5 years. Its all very exciting!
Thank you Li Han for your time!