Hangzhou, a city of 4 million, is a two-hour train ride from Shanghai and has long been a hub of Chinese artistic talent. Its famed West Lake dominates the city center and is a recurring theme in Chinese art, as well as a constant refrain in the country’s epic literary history. Today, the city’s hold on China’s creative life remains strong, as it is home to the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts, arguably the country’s most important arts school. That distinction is as surprising as it is unlikely, simply because of the school’s location outside the pseudo-Imperial orbit of Beijing, which likes to claim dominance over Chinese cultural life in much the same way Paris does over the French.
Bob Chen, a graphic designer with a small independent practice in Hangzhou, is an heir to this creative legacy. Chen says his early explorations in design began in textiles and fashion, and that he discovered graphic design by chance on his first job out of the academy in a local advertising firm. Today, working independently with the help of five dedicated assistants, he has established himself as one of China’s up-and-coming graphic artists.
Like the work of some of his countrymen in other creative fields—the architect Yung Ho Chang, for example, and the artist Ai Weiwei—Chen’s design reflects a particularly Chinese sensibility that evokes motifs synonymous with the country’s aesthetic, yet does so in a way that eschews provinciality—not an easy equilibrium to achieve.
“Of course my work is influenced by the traditions of my culture,” says Chen, who is inspired by his 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 look that unabashedly reinterprets the ancient arts framing his cultural education. Much of his work acutely reimagines the treatment of Chinese characters as larger-than-life iconography that is at once literal and symbolic. He is lucky to have inherited a written language rich in complexity and pictography; it is both a communicative vessel of meaning and a means of celebrating the purity of the abstract. “I have realized the character of Chinese design,” Chen declares.
From his signage to his print design, he carefully balances a seemingly incompatible duality long present in the Chinese creative arts and built environment. It bridges the gap between color and energy and the serene and subtle. An element of the textile designer is clearly visible in the deep appreciation of texture that one sees in Chen’s graphics. He fuses the modern with the ancient, and the result is a design portfolio that befits a sophisticated modern Chinese graphic artist—a cosmopolitan body of work, but one that is unafraid to embrace tradition.