“Taiwanese designers have a big challenge ahead of them. As most manufacturing has recently relocated offshore, industrial design has needed to move away from traditional low-cost production…. Perhaps success is to be found in design hybridity: a peculiarly Taiwanese remix of high-tech and hand-made, high-class and mass-produced, old and new.” In the very first page of her “Taiwan by Design” book, the author precisely pointed out the current challenges and opportunities that Taiwan has.
The author continues and commented on Taipei’s architecture, saying “A futuristic-style metropolis, Taiwan’s capital is an artifice of creation. All its modern structures are built in accordance with seismic building standards and prepared to withstand years of torrential rain and humidity. They are solid and safe but rarely aesthetically pleasing.” As readers we can’t help but ask, who is the author who shows such a thorough understanding of Taiwan?
“I made it my mission to produce the resource in English to introduce Taiwanese design to the world.”
She is Annie Ivanova, an experienced international curator who has curated more than eighty international exhibitions. She is also the first and only foreign curator to travel across Taiwan to work with the Taiwanese aborigines, reaching artists from various tribes. Vibrant Vision, the pioneering work she undertook in 2013, was a finalist in the inaugural Australian Arts in Asia Awards, competing against more than 100 projects from across Asia.
Despite having considerable experience in collaborating with all sectors of Taiwan’s culture and creative industries, Annie still spent two years to complete the unprecedented book “Taiwan By Design,” the first comprehensive publication that introduces the elements and influences of Taiwanese design. With 350 companies visited and 120 interviews undertaken, she selected 88 objects that shape the design aesthetic from Taiwan. (The number 88 has the meaning of prosperity and blessing in Chinese.)
“‘Taiwan By Design’ is not my first book, but it is my first book written in a foreign country. It is also my first book without any funding support,” said Annie, recalling all the challenges she faced in the past two years.
What inspired you to give birth to this book in such tough conditions? “Honestly, the curatorial brief for the book came out of that sense of frustration,” replied Annie.
In 2011, she was planning to introduce Taiwanese designers at IdeasOnDesign, a major design festival in Melbourne. What she found extremely challenging was that there was a lack of reliable resources in English—besides travel guides of course—that talk about Taiwan’s cultural industries. Translating texts were just not sufficient, but as an outsider she needed to understand the cultural context of design. Annie said, “As there was no such resource in English, I made it my mission to produce one. The book will be of value to both: Taiwanese designers and international readers!”
88 products selected to reveal the feature of Taiwanese design: convenience and space efficiency.
To start with, Annie researched year books and magazine articles at the Design Centre’s library. She also attended every design expo, trade fair and exhibition she could afford the time to visit, and kept a record of objects that could potentially be included in the book. She then started visiting companies and speaking with designers directly, which allowed her to gain an “insider’s” perspective.
Although she didn’t have a good command of Chinese, language barriers were not the biggest challenge for her. “The most difficult part was finding enough diversity of products. I didn’t want the book to end up with just electronic goods or pottery.” She hoped that the themes and ideas that her book covers could present different ideas, and also be connected with the way people live.
Her selection criteria is to highlight innovation, culture and history, excellence, sustainable design and the local way of living. Her high standard reflects in the 88 products she selected, including Gogoro’s electric scooter, Tatung’s rice cooker, Allrover’s 8 wheeled skateboard, and so on. Each design illustrates the common lifestyle shared among Taiwanese people. If you are Taiwanese, you might find the 88 products very familiar in your daily life!
When reviewing these designs from Annie’s perspective, what came to her mind were “convenience” and “space efficiency.” In Taiwan, products often are designed to be foldable, stackable, transportable or adaptable. From the “FlexibleLove” couch to Giant’s Halfway Folding Bike, the function-oriented feature of Taiwanese design is self-apparent.
“What I focus on is ‘place’. This is what we can relate to better.”
In recent years, Taiwan’s identity issue has been a hot topic. Taiwanese are trying to find a statement that could define Taiwan from the cultural aspects of art, design, and even cuisine. Naturally it is difficult to find an absolute answer. What does Annie think about the relationship between Taiwanese design and identity?
“Well, you can ask me the same question about Australia! We are such a diverse multicultural society, and identity is such an elusive term. What I focus on is ‘place’. This is what we can relate to better,” said Annie. “Place” is about how people live together, get connected with each other, and make it a better place. Instead of identity, “place” seems to be an easier angle for designers to get started with.
Annie explained with examples: In Taiwan, designers have very particular challenges to deal with, such as typhoons, earthquakes, population density, and pollution. In comparison, in Australia designers have to grapple with extreme heat and bushfires. These common life experiences in each place reflect in the designs created by local designers.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan there are the historical cultural influences, of indigenous heritage and periods of colonialism, of the West and the Chinese traditions. There are hybrids between high-tech and hand-made, between high-class and mass-production. “All of these factors make up the rather hybrid nature of Taiwanese design thinking, which is really interesting!” said Annie.
“Taiwan needs the ability to communicate its story in a way that it is appreciated by outsiders.”
“One of the missing links is being able to communicate to an international market,” said Annie frankly. The Taiwanese designers, from 24 to 64 years old, she met in the past two years are all recognized as “best of the best” amongst their peers. Many have been trained overseas or have won major awards. They are working hard to build their own business and reputation. However, they lack the access to connect themselves with the international market.
“Being able to promote in foreign markets requires resources, and it also requires the ability to communicate Taiwan’s story in a way that it is appreciated by outsiders. Taiwan has an authentic story as a place, and designers need to be able to express it through their messages and products.” Annie further suggested, “Being professional in using English is also important. Don’t just settle with Google translation and a friend’s help. Seek professional translators and copywriters.”
As an international curator and entrepreneur, Annie undertook the mission of completing the book, aiming to have Taiwanese design be seen worldwide. “When I first printed it and saw the whole book, I cried. My God, I did this?” said Annie emotionally in the promotional video on the crowdfunding platform, ZecZec. As Taiwanese, we are deeply touched. Her efforts, her understanding and appreciation for Taiwanese culture and design, have deeply touched us.
About Annie Ivanova
Annie is an international curator, author, entrepreneur and world adventurer. After years as director of Novamedia and working with extraordinary clients, in 2011 she relocated her practice to the heart of Asia in Taiwan. She now has studios in Sydney and Taipei, where her highly experienced teams service clients in the Asia-Pacific. Primarily she curate, develop and produce strategies for advancing cultural diplomacy & trade in the creative industries.