Shanghai-based product designer Zhili Liu has been focussing recent designs on the great outdoors, featuring shrubs and birds in his tables and lighting. Originally trained as a programmer in China and then as a car designer in the UK, Liu found neither to be interesting and turned to furniture, lighting and accessories while working for an architecture and interior design office, an area to which he is better suited.
How did you come to work with Quinze and Milan?
Last year I prepared prototypes of 2 projects for 100%design Shanghai in my leisure time. After the show and some online exposure, luckily I got approached by some European companies, and started working with all the nice and hard working people at Quinze & Milan on the Shrub series.
I just started to work on my own, and am still learning, thinking and adjusting my views on design. But generally, I’ve been trying to engineer simple products that naturally tell some stories with only an essential structure and minimal material usage. I perceive and think in the Chinese way, but never push results to be “visually Chinese”.
How did the Shrub tables develop?
For quite a long time I had been thinking about making a table with a tabletop and legs that reinforce each other, to minimize structure and material needed (usually they just stack together). But the actual sketch was only done 2 weeks before the 100%design show, when I realized I should have a light and big table to go underneath the lamp.
Then after few visits to the local material market and metal workshop, mixing the most basic materials and quickest production process, the Shrub was born. It was an experiment in a rush, but luckily the prototypes behaved well. The thin tabletop alone bends easily and leg wires flex a lot, but when assembled become a sturdy whole.
What part did the roadside workshop play in the production of the prototypes?
Besides some grinding and polishing work I did myself, they helped with all essential parts of the process — cutting the tabletop and leg wires, bending and welding the wires. They didn’t understand what they were building, but became very happy and excited to see the results, as the same tools used to make the tables had only produced familiar objects like steel cabinets or warehouse shelving.
What made you decide to change the angle on the Bakelite bulb sockets used in the Bird Lamps?
A lamp usually consists of basic parts like bulb, socket, and wiring that provide light, as well as decorative elements like shades or screens to make the lamps seem more interesting and comfortable. In the Bird Lamps design, I was trying to use only the basic parts, but provided a bit more than mere light.
I fiddled with the most commonly seen lamp in China — bare bulb+socket pendant, tied the pendant to its own, and noticed that only a little random angle would bring the boring and industrial looking fixture to life. Then the angle was kept and developed into a series of lighting representing familiar scenarios in our life with those lovely feathered creatures.
What is next on your agenda?
Quit my full-time work in April, set up a little workshop/studio, and push some of my previous designs from sketch to prototype. I may start with some leather wood sandals and a watch with only one hour hand but tells the exact minute.