This particular sofa, however, was not mass-produced in an Asian furniture factory, it was designed by a young Taiwanese designer, handcrafted by a Taiwanese master bamboo craftsman and upholstered by 5000 obliging – and, yes, Taiwanese – silkworms.

“Silk agriculture was once prosperous here,” explains Rock Wang, designer of the Cocoon Plan sofa and himself the son of a farmer. “But now times have changed and China has taken over. We have to find a new application for this agriculture or it will soon totally disappear from Taiwan.”

Finding new applications for traditional crafts is a theme throughout a collection of forty-five objects first presented by Taiwan’s Yii design during Milan’s 2010 Salone del Mobile.

Spearheaded by the National Taiwan Craft Research Institute (NTCRI), Yii is a project dedicated to protecting local crafts from possible extinction, by promoting them through the medium of contemporary design.

Their latest venture saw a collaboration between thirteen Taiwanese designers and nineteen Taiwanese craft artists, who worked together over the period of a year to create functional objects that fuse together modern design principles with traditional crafts.

One of Yii’s main goals is “to shape and communicate the cultural identity of contemporary Taiwan with the world,” explains Mr Jeng-yi Lin, director of NTCRI.

“There were many talented Taiwanese designers and craftsmen on the team but although they were able to delve deep into the roots and secrets of the traditional crafts, Yii needed someone outside of Taiwan to bring an interface, something globally understandable to communicate the ideas and concepts to the international audience and finally to make its way into the international market,” he says, referring to his decision to invite Gijs Bakker, co-founder of Droog Design, to become creative director of Yii.

“Gijs Bakker, in his particular way of founding and working with Droog Design, had done exactly this and had achieved many great things. He is good at handling such a heavily concept-driven design approach and has extensive experience with crafts, dating back to the start of his long career when he was a jewellery designer. Therefore, he was the ideal person to co-operate with.”

Bakker, it appears, was just as enthusiastic about joining the Yii project. Having previously collaborated with Taiwan’s National Palace Museum on products for their gift shop, he was keen to return to a country whose culture fascinated him.

Taiwan, having never experienced Communism’s stifling regime, is still a highly spiritual country, with as much as seventy-five per cent of the population referring to themselves as strongly religious. Their beliefs stem from a mixture of Buddhism, Daoism and local folk traditions; uniquely Taiwanese, highly superstitious and extremely visual, with elaborately decorated temples adorning most street corners.

The ever-popular custom of temple building is what has kept many local crafts alive, producing jobs for woodcarvers, silversmiths and stonemasons whose creations depict folk stories and symbols intrinsic to the very culture of Taiwan.

For Bakker, his challenge with the Yii project was to develop objects that carried the context of this local culture. In his words, “objects that really have something to offer, that mean something.”

The process of how some of Yii’s objects were made holds as much meaning as the finished pieces. Take the Cocoon Plan sofa as an example – its form was inspired by the very process that created it: the silkworm cocooning process.

Five thousand silkworms were placed upon a bamboo structure that was built by craftsman Kao-ming Chen and then left for five days to spin their silk.

The structure was hung from the ceiling and, because silkworms are attracted to light, lights were used to guide them in the right direction. Once finished, the cocoon surface was finished using rice glue, preventing the silk from fraying and making the sofa usable. The silkworms, having finished their job, became pupas before transforming themselves into moths to start their lives again.

The concept of transformation is the very essence of the Yii project. The name itself is derived from three Chinese characters, all pronounced ‘Yi’: one refers to the beauty of art, another to the essence of original design and the third to the Taiwanese philosophical belief in the changing and unchanging laws of nature.

In the context of the Cocoon Plan sofa, we see how nature (the silkworms) has the power to transform the design of an object, but conversely in Pili Wu’s IKEA+ series, we see how design has the power to transform the nature of an object.

For his collection, Wu chose five well-recognised IKEA products and transformed them with designs that incorporated the crafts of five different local craft artists. “I started with products that I’m personally using,” explains Wu.

“IKEA is just a platform. The reason I chose the IKEA brand for my designs is because of its fame around the world, it’s an easy way for people to understand my point on the juxtaposition of ‘industrial product’ and ‘craft work’, and the contrast between ‘international’ and ‘local’.”

One of Wu’s designs, IKEA + TERTIAL, shows a generic IKEA lamp that has been transformed by the addition of goldsmith Jian-an Su’s intricate filigree detailing. Su and his brother began as apprentices with gold and silversmiths and were then commissioned to make religious art. This is the first time that Su has ever worked with a designer.

“The experience has given me a whole new direction,” he says. “I realise that this is a new chance to keep traditional arts alive. I also realise that it is not easy to make simple, good design.

It takes a lot of thought and calculation to acquire the ‘simple’ in art works.” Here he is referring to what he found the most challenging part of the project: recreating by hand the simple IKEA lampshade that had originally been made in mass production.

In another design, Pili Wu chose to work with woodcarver Wei-wen Lan, who has dedicated his career to the creation of Buddhist art pieces. In IKEA + VIKA, a typical IKEA table leg is wrapped with a woodcarving of Guan Yin, the goddess of protection, riding a dragon. A disagreement that arose between Wu and Lan during the design of this object highlights the very different principles underpinning the creative thinking of the product designer and craft artist.

In his original design, Pili Wu depicted the dragon with a lowered head, but woodcarver Wei-wen Lan insisted that he could not possibly carve this image, for dragons in Taiwanese culture are a symbol of fortune and must always be shown with raised heads.

For the designer, form was the governing factor, but for the craftsman it was all about meaning and tradition. This lack of awareness about traditions and local culture is as much a problem among young Taiwanese designers as it is anywhere in the world where modern design education is based on an international language with a focus on Europe and North America.

“It’s a language that lacks individuality,” says Gijs Bakker, whose aim it is to find ways of developing a personal identity through crafts. Yii is one step towards this goal.

Local materials feature strongly among the products in the Yii collection. As well as promoting local industry, materials such as bamboo, silk and brick have a traditional and historical significance that adds meaning

to the products. In designer Rock Wang’s Brick Plan series, for example, craftsman Pei-tse Chen uses skills learnt from his days as a jade carving apprentice to carve large blocks of brick into trays, bowls and vases. Brick is culturally significant in that its represents the influence of the Dutch when they colonised Taiwan in the seventeenth century.

In these creations, designer and craftsman have together transformed a typically industrial material into beautiful household objects. Ceramics and pottery have long been important in Taiwanese culture, but in designer Chun-chieh Won’s Butterfly Lamp, they take on a new application.

This paper-thin porcelain lampshade, created by master ceramicist Tsun-jen Lee, reveals, when illuminated, intricate images of the butterflies, branches and falling leaves from an ancient Chinese love story.

And in Bentboo, a modern barstool designed by Chen-hsu Liu, bamboo craftsman Kao-ming Chen displays a new industrial technique for bending bamboo in a factory, a technique that might prove revolutionary for Taiwan’s bamboo industry.

Yet, no other objects in the Yii collection showcase the harmonious collaboration between designer and craftsman, between modern and traditional, more than Idee Liu’s World Cup series.

Liu worked with nine different craft artists to produce nine cups, each one a unique interpretation of the iconic Starbucks coffee cup. While Liu came up with the concept, creative input from each craft artist contributed to the decorative details integrated into the circular Starbucks logo on the front and, of course, to the materials used.

The result was a range of instantly recognisable iconic cups, each one reincarnated with a uniquely Taiwanese flavour.

“Everyone in the design world at the moment is speaking about sustainability,” says Gijs Bakker. “But what is that? In this case you have sustainability by using a craft that should maybe disappear.”

Indeed, what Yii design is showing through these collaborations between modern product designers and local craft artists is that sustainable design means a lot more than just being green.  

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