REVIEW: ‘The Misused’ Highlights Taiwan’s Special Knack for Upcycling

REVIEW: ‘The Misused’ Highlights Taiwan’s Special Knack for Upcycling
Credit: Courtesy Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan
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Two young Taiwanese designers plundered hardware stores to create contemporary homewares inspired by the predilection for grass-roots improvisation abundant in rural Taiwan.

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Heading down the steps into the basement of an old secondhand bookstore in historic Tainan, visitors to Taiwanese designers Chen Liang-jung (陳亮融) and Yang Shuei-yuan (楊水源)’s exhibition, “The Misused”, are greeted with what appeared to be yet another showcase of sleek and sultry contemporary homewares.

But as visitors wandered around the space, looking closely at the exhibited objects and the accompanying concept drawings adorning the walls, they began to spot little touches of the familiar. Does that mirror have a plastic doorstop attached to the back of it? Is the top of that vase actually a drain cover? And that notebook… is it made of a steel BBQ grill?

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Credit: Courtesy Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan
Exhibition view of 'The Misused 'by Taiwanese designers Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan.

Chen, originally from Tainan, and Chiayi-born Yang are former classmates who first met when they were studying industrial product design at Taipei’s Shih Chien University. Following graduation, Chen moved back to Tainan and began working as a design contractor for a number of traditional manufacturers in central and southern Taiwan who were looking to start their own brand. Yang moved to Taichung, taking a position at Studio Kenyon Yeh. With their combined experience – Yang’s in producing concepts as an in-house designer and Chen’s in product fabrication in both Taiwan and China – they began to discuss ways they could collaborate.

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Credit: Courtesy Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan
Yang Shuei-yuan and Chen Liang-jung.

“It really begins with the relationship between my partner and me,” says Chen. “We’re good friends, and after we left school, we were both working in the furniture design industry, so we had a lot to talk about. We were talking about this idea of products moving from the conceptual stage to a mass produced object, and that inspired us to work on some kind of project that explored the combination of craft and industrial mass production, natural materials and hard steel.”

At the time, Chen lived with her family in rural Tainan, a landscaped dotted with red brick villages bordered by glistening aquaculture ponds and orderly fields of rice or sugar cane. She noticed that all around her, people were up-cycling discarded or cheap items into useable products. An old fan cover was turned into a clothesline or used to protect a fishpond from hungry cats; worn mahjong tiles protected the soil in a plant pot; a scratched-up chopping board spanned a gutter as a stepping stone; a dingy trash can became a shopping trolley; and in the traditional market, plastic funnels were used as light shades, and plastic stools propped up tabletops bursting with vegetables. Chen and Yang dubbed these innovations “misused objects”.

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Credit: Kao Yi-chi (高禕騏)
Worn mahjong tiles protecting the soil in a plant pot are just one example of the 'misused objects' that inspired Taiwanese designers Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan.

While at university, both designers were trained to create new concepts from the perspective of user experience, refining existing products like cellphones to best suit people’s needs. But what they observed during their research into these “misused objects” was the polar opposite of this approach. “The older generations in the countryside of Taiwan improvise with a lot of ready-made stuff to create something useful. They don’t really care if what they make works perfectly or not. And because they don’t want to spend money on buying something new, they work on a very limited budget.” Limitation, Chen reflects, seems to be very good for creativity.

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Credit: Courtesy Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan
The imprint of the bead chain on these ceramic pen holders is reminiscent of the patterns found on ancient Taiwanese corded ware pottery.

What their research had uncovered was a generational juxtaposition between the refined, often luxurious items coveted by the younger, city-dwelling sectors of Taiwanese society and the functional, mundane objects favored by the elderly. What tied these different generations together, Chen and Yang realized, was the hardware – the nuts and bolts – that held all these products together. Says Chen: “Hardware is so charming. It’s an anonymous, collective design that people around the world refine over and over across generations. It’s linked to local culture because the kinds of objects people use reflect how they live their lives.”

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Credit: Courtesy Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan
These vases combine handblown glass with the stainless steel drain covers commonly found in Taiwanese homes.

Chen and Yang began visiting hardware stores across Taiwan, from the most rural – “the really small, old, and dusty ones” – to the most urban – “the hardware malls that sell shiny new imports from Japan, Germany, and America,” selecting implements that caught their eye or piqued their curiosity. At the same time, the duo researched material suppliers and makers across Taiwan, from glassmiths in Hsinchu to stone factories in Hualien. “We wanted to make sure the contrast between industry and craft was clear, and we had a lot of conversations about how we could make our point very sharp,” says Chen.

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Credit: Courtesy Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan
A selection of the hardware used in products featured in 'The Misused' project.

The duo set about furiously refining hundreds of design concepts until they settled on the 11 objects that would become their Misused collection: a range of stylish homewares that combine universal and local, manmade and organic. Keeping the philosophy of “misusing” in mind, Chen and Yang paired different metal fixtures – a magnetic door holder, drain cover, door hinge, hose clamp, s-hook, mesh grill, braided hose, coil spring, bead chain, corner bracket, and steel cable tie–with a range of craft materials important to Taiwanese culture: marble from Hualien; glass handblown by a craftsman in Hsinchu, a long-time hub of glass production; rattan, a material once popular for furniture in tropical Taiwan; patterns inspired by ancient Taiwanese corded ware pottery; and leather.

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Credit: Courtesy Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan
Rattan furniture was commonly found in Taiwanese homes decades ago. In this contemporary take, rattan is fixed to a steel frame using cable ties.

The resulting exhibition, “The Misused”, ran from Sept. 1 to 30 at Caoji Book Inn in Tainan and was well received. “We wanted to turn hardware into a luxury material,” says Chen, bringing the grass-roots creativity of traditional and rural Taiwan to contemporary city living.

Inspired by the success of The Misued project, Chen and Yang have now headed overseas to further their design careers. Yang, inspired by the process of putting together the collection, is studying in the Department of Contextual Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Chen, hopeful to build her experience in more mature markets, is currently working in the design industry in London.

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Credit: Courtesy Chen Liang-jung and Yang Shuei-yuan
This table mirror is made from Hualien marble and mirror glass connected with a swiveling magnetic door holder.

Despite earlier frustrations working in Taiwan, Chen remains hopeful for the future of design on the island. “I think I’ll definitely come back to Taiwan,” Chen says, “but I’m not sure when.” Although people are still complaining about the prospects for designers in Taiwan, she continues, unlike in other countries with more established design sectors, there is still space here to grow. “I’m staying open minded to any possibility.”

Those interested in learning more about the exhibition and the products involved can direct enquiries to themisused2018@gmail.com.

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TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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