When Algorithms Become the Designer

Computers take the lead in Chinese designer Zhang Zhoujie's world.

Computers take the lead in Chinese designer Zhang Zhoujie's world.

On a weekday morning this past October, two weeks before the start of Shanghai’s West Bund Art and Design Fair, the district’s streets were blissfully empty. A few construction workers were making last-minute renovations, some joggers were logging their step counts, and designer Zhang Zhoujie was working his way past shuttered coffee shops and Shanghai’s distinctive plane trees toward the gleaming glass-walled Fab-Union Space. The West Bund, a government-planned cultural district populated by brand-new museums and a few half-occupied apartment blocks, still has the feeling of a great idea breathing itself into life. As Zhoujie strode across the sunlit courtyard of the gallery, he looked like nothing so much as one of the human figures that architects place in the renderings of their not-yet-built projects, in the calm autumn of the future.

One of China’s most exciting young designers, Zhoujie, 35, got people talking at last year’s Design Miami/ Basel with his fleet of strikingly skeletal metal chairs, all designed using digital technology. What makes Zhoujie’s work so intriguing is that, unlike most of his peers, he doesn’t design his furniture using AutoCAD, Revit, or any of the other popular software on the market. He uses software and algorithms by Grasshopper and lets his computer do the work; he then selects his favorite designs from the thousands that his programs churn out. “The computer is the author,” he says. “I am the curator.”

(From left) Titanium Chair, 2018; STATUS # PIS3-3, 2018.

In a country where cash is near-obsolete and most people log several a day on WeChat, the integration of technology into everyday life already outpaces the West. In many ways, China can seem like a society run by algorithms. Zhoujie, who has a warm, open face with laugh lines around his eyes, appears primed to be the human designer whose work best foretells the world of computer-driven design. “True creativity is to invent a new way of thinking and using,” he says. He’s sitting in a Shanghai cafe, on a break from installing his show of new tables at Fab-Union. “It’s radical newness.”

Originally from Ningbo, a port city across the Hangzhou Bay to the south of Shanghai, Zhoujie studied at China Academy of Art and earned a masters in industrial design from Central Saint Martins in London. He opened his Shanghai studio, Zhoujie Zhang Digital Lab, in 2010. He credits his time in London for shaping his attitude toward creativity and process. “I think that Chinese people are outcome-oriented, while Western people are process-oriented, with a way of doing things that is more objective and logical,” he says. “Western people are brave in exploring what is unknown.”

Aric Chen, the former design and architecture curator at in Hong Kong’s forthcoming M+, is an avid admirer of Zhang’s work. “I’ve watched him take his early ideas about the relationship between digital algorithms and the laws of nature, and between the digitally fabricated and the handmade, and almost relentlessly push them from iteration to iteration to iteration,” he says. “It’s a real seriousness.”

STATUS # PIS2-3-2 (2018)

Chineseness is not present in his design in clichéd motifs—you’ll find no terra-cotta warriors here—but as a deep, guiding design philosophy, influenced from his decades of reading Taoist philosophy. After all, tables and chairs make up the fabric of everyday life. And Zhoujie, whose work has become popular among design connoisseurs as well as Chinese real estate developers, steadily continues to push beyond the known. For his Shanghai tables, he used a single software program to create multiple unpredictable designs and selected his favorites. This allows the pieces to, as he puts it, “contend in dialogue with each other.”

“Computers can design something better than humans,” Zhoujie says. As technology continues its rapid development, his design process will evolve as well, giving him the potential to birth a new type of digital design we cannot yet foresee, in which the computer is the author.

(Photos courtesy Zhang Zhoujie Digital Lab)

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