Hangzhou, a city of 4 million, is a two-hourtrain ride from Shanghai and has long been a hub of Chinese artistictalent. Its famed West Lake dominates the city center and is a recurringtheme in Chinese art, as well as a constant refrain in thecountry’s epic literary history. Today, the city’s hold onChina’s creative life remains strong, as it is home to the ChineseAcademy of Fine Arts, arguably the country’s most important artsschool. That distinction is as surprising as it is unlikely, simplybecause of the school’s location outside the pseudo-Imperial orbitof Beijing, which likes to claim dominance over Chinese cultural life inmuch the same way Paris does over the French.
Bob Chen, a graphicdesigner with a small independent practice in Hangzhou, is an heir tothis creative legacy. Chen says his early explorations in design beganin textiles and fashion, and that he discovered graphic design by chanceon his first job out of the academy in a local advertising firm. Today,working independently with the help of five dedicated assistants, he hasestablished himself as one of China’s up-and-coming graphicartists.
Like the work of some of his countrymen in other creativefields—the architect Yung Ho Chang, for example, and the artist AiWeiwei—Chen’s design reflects a particularly Chinesesensibility that evokes motifs synonymous with the country’saesthetic, yet does so in a way that eschews provinciality—not aneasy equilibrium to achieve.
“Of course my work is influencedby the traditions of my culture,” says Chen, who is inspired byhis observations of the quotidian, unremarkable life in Hangzhou:“I live in an environment that is Chinese, that is Asian.”It is this environment that drives Chen to embrace a vernacular lookthat unabashedly reinterprets the ancient arts framing his culturaleducation. Much of his work acutely reimagines the treatment of Chinesecharacters as larger-than-life iconography that is at once literal andsymbolic. He is lucky to have inherited a written language rich incomplexity and pictography; it is both a communicative vessel of meaningand a means of celebrating the purity of the abstract. “I haverealized the character of Chinese design,” Chen declares.
Fromhis signage to his print design, he carefully balances a seeminglyincompatible duality long present in the Chinese creative arts and builtenvironment. It bridges the gap between color and energy and the sereneand subtle. An element of the textile designer is clearly visible in thedeep appreciation of texture that one sees in Chen’s graphics. Hefuses the modern with the ancient, and the result is a design portfoliothat befits a sophisticated modern Chinese graphic artist—acosmopolitan body of work, but one that is unafraid to embracetradition.