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Q&A: Zhuo Tan, Most Influential Female Figure in the Chinese Design World

Q&A: Zhuo Tan, Most Influential Female Figure in the Chinese Design World
Courtesy of Design Shanghai.

Learn about the woman behind Asia’s leading international design events, notably Design Shanghai which, after being postponed, is scheduled to take place October 13-15, 2022.

Zhuo Tan joined the massive group Clarion Events in 2013 as show director for Design Shanghai which was first launched the following year. When the group launched the sister edition Design China Beijing in 2018, our female protagonist took it under her wing. More recently, when Design Shenzhen entered the scene, she put this new addition under her belt as well. Each event represents the best of Chinese and international brands, working with over 30 countries and 400 brands each year thanks to a collaboration with global partners. 

The growth in design events in China has been linked to her expertise and passion for design; she is considered to be the most influential female figure in the Chinese design world. Her 15 years of experience in the creative industries—ranging from advertising and branding, design publication, industry design, design events and exhibitions—has helped her become instrumental in championing young designers and architects and pushing the sustainability agenda to the forefront. Despite the complications of the past two years, with Design Shenzhen’s debut in 2021 postponed to 2022, among other disruptions, Zhuo Tan continues to help the design world flourish in China.

In our interview with Zhuo Tan, we discuss her career journey, her 10 years of living in the UK, what it’s been like to work as a female show director, how she’s helped young designers and more.

Zhuo Tan prepares Design Shanghai, scheduled to take place October 13-15, 2022.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Can you tell us about your career path, where you began and how you entered the world of design events?

Zhuo Tan: While my educational background is based in business, with a degree and MBA in account management, in my personal life I have always held a love and passion for art and design and believe I have a very good eye for it; I do oil painting in my free time and while studying for my MBA in the UK I loved to visit exhibitions and events to surround myself with the plethora of creativity and culture that was available at my fingertips. My first job in the UK was working for a company called Ultima Media in the car design industry. This gave me insight into the design industry, travelling to vit designers, workshops and events. I was then headhunted by Design Shanghai and joined the company in 2013. My eight years in this role has led me to develop a strong knowledge and network in the design industry. My business background has proven very useful, I am able to approach our shows with both a creative and practical perspective.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Are there any fun or nostalgic anecdotes you recall during your journey that helped shape your talents?

Zhuo Tan: As a child, I wasn’t quiet, I had a group of kids I played well with but I was always the one thinking of creative ideas, and interesting things to do. I always had a different opinion from my teachers and always wanted to think of everything fun, things out of the box. As an independent thinker, in high school, I became very interested in journalism and actually wrote a novel that was 12 chapters long. I believe that my innovative, creative mindset has stayed with me and driven my creativity, a factor that definitely contributes to my work at Design Shanghai.

Visit the Design Shanghai website to learn more.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: How are women compared to men in this profession and how challenging was it for you to acquire your position? What advice would you give your fellow women?

Zhuo Tan: I have been very lucky throughout my career, in every job I have always had good mentors who happen to be men. Men are still dominating our industry, but I feel being a woman is an advantage as we are more compelling, we listen and are easy to approach. I have always been taught well by my mentors and haven’t had any challenges or difficulties in my position. I have a great team around me, all of whom are experienced industry leaders and have always been good to me and helped promote me. The advice I would give to fellow women is to act as your own person and always look at things in a positive way.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: How have you been instrumental in championing young designers and architects, and pushing the sustainability agenda? 

Zhuo Tan: Championing young designers has always been a passion of mine and the Design Shanghai team. Our mission was to pick out young designers in China and show them to the world. For young architects, it’s harder. If you are fresh out of school, the chance for you to get into a project is even harder. That’s why we introduced the Xin Tian Di Design Festival, to have young architects noticed by the public and the media. If you don’t have a big project to do you won’t get noticed and your talents will be wasted. We introduced this to give architects the opportunity to be involved in small scale projects to be noticed by the media and public. 

Visit the Design Shanghai website to learn more.

Design China Beijing was launched in 2018 with a sustainable agenda, we had already noticed the sustainable trends in the architecture, interior and product industry. We wanted to bring awareness to this with a sustainable angle to our show. Design China Beijing was a small show initially starting at 5,000 square metres and growing to 10,000 square metres. We have added on more conferences and workshops and have branched out to the fashion industry. With still a lot of progress to be made in terms of sustainable products, we aim to showcase existing sustainable products and the philosophy of the designers creating them. We are also putting in more effort this year to thought leadership, bringing in top experts and speakers to conferences who work in a more sustainable circular economy to drive people’s attention to the matter.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Tell us about the ten years you lived in the UK and how it helped you strengthen your skills?

Zhuo Tan: My experience in the UK was really amazing, I learnt how to be more open, adaptive, and flexible, especially when facing challenges in my life, which is essential for people like me running events. In 10 years I had two good jobs which taught me the skills for how to communicate with people but also built up my flexible approach to a lot of things. In China, we are used to living a very structured life, feeling panicked if the structure is changed. By living and working in a European environment, I was taught that people are more flexible and relaxed, open to things evolving when change is needed whilst always having an open mind to allow things to change, which also affected my personal lifestyle. Becoming more reasonable and more understandable to other people was a really good lesson I learned from my years of living in the UK.

Visit the Design Shanghai website to learn more.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: What sets the events in China apart from their international counterparts? Or would you say they follow a similar structure that allows them to appeal to a worldwide audience?

Zhuo Tan: Design Shanghai is definitely a very international event with the same logic as other international events. We have actually learnt from them and are following a very similar structure. The exhibitors at Design Shanghai are international and therefore appear to much bigger and worldwide audiences. However, we are physically in Shanghai and do have some differences. When we launched Design Shanghai we never thought of it as a local event, it’s an international event based in China but we, of course, have some different elements, for example, the visitors are different, they have different habits and behavior, and different ways of communicating. We also put a lot of effort into international business matchmaking to make sure our valued buyers and exhibitors have good customer service and an exquisite experience, high net worth individuals are definitely expected to be looked after at our shows.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: What should we know about the design industry in China that we might not know? What aspects of the market are booming?

Zhuo Tan: Chinese consumers particularly like round-shaped things. When you sell anything in China, whether it’s sofas or coffee tables, the majority of Chinese consumers don’t like sharp edges. We make sure to be well aware of what Chinese consumers want, doing enough research on the design market. Chinese consumers also like sets of products, they are not into the trend of mixing and matching which is why Italian furniture is doing so well in China. Two areas of marketing that are especially booming are the camping industry and the outdoor furniture industry. With Covid, people have developed a new way of life in which outdoor living is hugely popular, people are spending more time outside being closer to nature. This is proven by the fact that all camping brands are doing 500 times more business than they used to be doing. 

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Anything else you’d like to share about China’s growth of design events?

Zhuo Tan: We are growing 40% every year, which could be a reflection of the growth of design events in China, we have more competitors than before and therefore need to make sure we carry on our growth and high level of work. 

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