As South China's manufacturing base starts to see labor-intensive industries flee for the next low-wage location, a few foreign industrial designers are moving in and seeing advantages to settling down among the factories that make many of the world's TVs, toys and iPods.
Industrial designer Boukje Koch, for example, launched her small design consultancy in Guangzhou with her husband in 2007, and has seen the firm grow to a staff of 11 Dutch and Chinese designers who work mostly on designing for European clients that use local manufacturing.
Similarly, Danny Fang left his job as head of product development with Marcel Wanders studio in Amsterdam that same year, packed his laptop and a suitcase, and opened his own industrial design studio in Hong Kong.
Fang, by contrast with Koch, has worked more with Chinese manufacturers and partnered with one local to make a line of high-end, gas-assisted injection molded polycarbonate chairs, including one inspired by traditional Chinese Ming chairs.
The designers see locating among the tens of thousands of factories in South China as a good fit that gives them direct access to industry, either by helping overseas companies, or assisting smaller local firms that want to upgrade and chase more lucrative markets but don't really know how.
Fang said he's consulting with companies from mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as European clients, and he says the region is ripe for design advice.
As an industrial designer, where at this point in time I can make a big difference, is where there is a lot of industry but not necessarily a lot of guidance for industry, Fang said. I think in a country like China, where we make mass-produced products, I can have a big effect.
While corporate analysts in South China worry about labor strikes, worker suicides and companies leaving, governments from Hong Kong to Guangzhou have quietly tried to boost creative industries and push local manufacturers to upgrade.
For the designers, that seems to mean opportunities.
Koch's Ask 4 Me Group has its studio tucked away on the top floor of an old factory in downtown Guangzhou where until recently Chinese television maker TCL Corp. did metal stamping. Ask 4 Me has grown steadily through the economic crisis.
Both Koch and her husband, Jorg van den Hoven, came to China in 2005 to open a 1,000-employee factory near Shanghai for a Dutch greeting-card company. After that project was finished, the two industrial designers wanted to stay in China; so, being drawn to the region's consumer electronics manufacturing, they decided to open their own studio in Guangzhou.
The advantage is we are close to the manufacturers, she said. We can go to the suppliers in the early stage to ask what they can do and to make sure that what we design is something they can make.
For instance, in July she was working on a plastic part for a client's baby product and wanted to use in-mold labeling. Initially the Chinese factory said it couldn't be done. That might have been the end of it if the conversation had been limited to e-mails and phone calls from Europe. But Koch hopped in a car for a 21/2-hour drive and talked to the manufacturers face-to-face.
You just go there and ask 'why, why, why?' said Koch. After talking about why it is not possible, we came up with a good solution to change it.
It was a really, really good example of something from a distance you would just not be able to find out, she said. Of course you can find out by searching on the Internet, but then you don't have the security that the way you interpreted the information is really, really true.
Koch's company tends to help clients do complete manufacturing for a variety of products, including a child's clock for learning how to tell time, a solar-powered bicycle light, couture shoes and espresso machines.
Fang, for his part, was drawn to the massive size of China's manufacturing footprint, but was struck by how little companies knew about their targeted markets.
When I first came to China, I realized wow, there was so much misunderstanding and misperception of what they think a product should be for the European market, he said. They have the technology, so the quality doesn't have to be poor but it's a design issue.
While walking the aisles of China's largest trade show, the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, he met his manufacturing partner for the PC chairs, a local Chinese furniture maker and molder. Fang was impressed by the high quality of the manufacturer's work on display at the fair, and he advised him to invest in his own designs to escape price wars with competitors. A week later Fang visited the factory.
Fang doesn't speak Chinese and the chair maker doesn't speak English, but nonetheless, Fang said they were able to communicate.
It's a place where I feel comfortable, in factories, he said. I'm very comfortable working with people I can't communicate with, because I can work with my hands. I kind of enjoy that pioneering stage.
Fang said gas-assisted injection molding is ideal for making plastic versions of the Ming chairs, which traditionally are carved meticulously from wood and fitted together without screws or glue. The wood chair's rounded corners and edges and fluid transitions are what has drawn people to the design, he said.
In plastic it is all in one you can make these beautiful transitions without any effort, except for the effort you put in making the mold, he said. The gas actually wants the smooth transitions because it needs to flow.
Fang and his partner are making other chairs, and want to sell them to restaurants and interior designers. Also, Fang said he's working with clients on designing watches, wicker-style chairs using strips of polyethylene bags, and retail store interiors in China.
Of course, it's not always easy, said Fang, who has Chinese ancestry but grew up in the Netherlands. The local business culture asks a lot: Everybody you work with you have to marry. That means you have to give your business what you normally give at home.
Also, local firms have different ideas about the value of design. Chinese firms are interested in design, he said, but they are not used to paying much for consulting work: You have to prove to people your value.
Koch echoes a similar sentiment. Most of her firm's work has been with Western clients that don't do much of their own manufacturing. Most Chinese manufacturers, while they want to do more with design, are still reluctant or lack the money to make the investment, she said.
I think the potential [for innovation] can only be there if people are willing to invest, she said. That will happen, but so far it's mostly doing the fastest thing to get the most money possible. That's my idea of manufacturers' thinking.
People don't understand how much work goes into a design, said Koch, who wants to grow Ask 4 Me into the biggest foreign design-engineering firm in South China. They need to learn that, but it will come, I'm confident.