Designed in Italy? No, in China

Behold Black & Decker's fleet of new irons. With their streamlined styling, you might imagine they sprang from some hip industrial design firm in Milan or London. But guess what: Their pleasing contours came from drafting boards in China's Guangdong province. The Chinese "are surprisingly in touch with design trends," says Steven Hecker, director of new-product development at Applica Consumer Products, which makes Black & Decker Corp. small appliances under license.

China is no longer content with being just the workbench of the world; it wants to become a force in industrial design, too. The country boasts no fewer than 200 design schools that churn out as many as 8,000 graduates a year. And hundreds of the top Chinese students are flocking to the best U.S. and European graduate programs in design. "It really blows my mind how dedicated they are," says Tim Parsey, director of consumer-experience design for Motorola Inc.'s Personal Communications division, which has an eight-person design team in Beijing. He's not the only one who's impressed. Executives at General Motors, LG Electronics, and Electrolux have all hired hundreds of hot young local designers to create products tailored to China's domestic market.

Of course, these are still the early days of Chinese product design. So far, most of the work has been limited to tweaking colors or shapes of existing products. Conceptual work for new appliances or electronic gadgets is usually done in Europe or the U.S. "They have good designers, but they don't know the U.S. market" in many products, says Jerry W. Edwards, executive vice-president of merchandising for retailer Home Depot Inc., which works closely with Chinese subcontractors to produce items such as faucets and ceiling fans. And most of the work is offered free of charge to international companies by Chinese contract manufacturers seeking to gain an edge on rivals as competition heats up. That's great news for people like Applica's Hecker, who can save $100,000 or more each time he wants to refine a product's design.

China's design push is a sign of its maturing economy. Even as it has become an export powerhouse, most products manufactured for the local market have been knockoffs of designs drawn up elsewhere. Now, like the Japanese in the 1970s and the Koreans in the 1990s, Chinese companies are keen to reap the higher margins and growing market share that often reward flashy, well-designed products. "Our goal is the transition from 'Made in China' to 'Designed in China,"' says He Renke, chairman of the industrial design department at Hunan University.

At the same time, mainland consumers are becoming more sophisticated. Chinese shoppers are developing their own tastes, often influenced by cultural needs. Computer-maker Legend Group Ltd., for instance, now makes a touch-screen computer aimed at elderly users uncomfortable with keyboards, which don't lend themselves to Chinese characters.

For a glimpse of China's design potential, take a look at Haier Group Co. The white-goods manufacturer established an industrial design unit back in 1994. Today the clean, cool lines of its refrigerators and washing machines have helped make Haier a global leader in household appliances. Haier "has a great reputation" for design, says Patrick Whitney, director of the Illinois Institute of Technology's design school. If those thousands of freshly-minted design grads have anything to say about it, it won't be long before other Chinese companies start building their reputations, too.

By Frederik Balfour in New York, with Dexter Roberts in Beijing

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