Zeng Jian

Born in Shanghai in 1925, Zeng later studied with some of China’s leading academics in interior design at St. John’s University, a hothouse for the ideas of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus.
Upon graduating in 1947, Zeng joined Richard Paulick, a German-Jewish refugee in Shanghai teaching at St. John’s, in designing contemporary furniture. Until 1949 he worked in Paulick’s Modern Homes office, designing custom-made furniture for Shanghai’s rich and famous. Rong Yiren, who later became known as China’s “Red Capitalist” and was much later vice president, was a client. “Our design in 1947 was high in quality and high in price,” Zeng said.

Two years later, when the Communist Party came to power, Zeng moved on to work in the state sector, becoming a member of the Huadong Institute, an interior design studio under the Ministry of Construction. With nationalization came a different style of furniture, and the functionalism of Bauhaus was replaced by the new Soviet style. “The Soviets taught us to do interior design with ornamentation and at that time we accepted such ideas,” Zeng said. “And we became conservative.”

In 1959, Zeng was asked to design the furniture for Mao Zedong’s private residences in Hangzhou, in southern Zhejiang province and in Zhongnanhai, the walled Beijing complex where the party and government are headquartered. It was a great challenge, he said. All the designs had to be submitted first to Mao’s advisory group, which ordered “big furniture.” Armchairs, for example, had to be 60 centimeters (23.5 inches) wide. Up until then the largest width had been 54 centimeters. “They said Chairman Mao was a big man, but I said that no human being could sit comfortably in a chair 60 centimeters wide,” he said, gesturing with his elbows the difficulties even a large person would have. “But they said it had to be big to show it was for a great man.”

As relations with the Soviet Union soured in 1960, China became increasingly closed off to the outside world. International interior design magazines could no longer be found and contacts with designers abroad were cut off.

When Mao died in 1976, Zeng’s services were again needed, for the furniture for Mao’s mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. It was a high-security job that lasted 10 months. He also designed the underground laboratory furniture for doctors who regularly work on restoring Mao’s body.

When the country finally opened its doors again to the outside world, in 1978, China’s interior design movement suffered a backlash from 20 years in isolation. “We were locked up for so long,” Zeng said. “We couldn’t know what was happening in the outside world.”

But the economic boom of the 1980s brought new developments in China’s design industry. Interior architects were absorbed into the construction frenzy. Design shops sprouted up around the country as Chinese with more money to spend sought to make their homes more comfortable. Today, China has an estimated 200,000 interior designers, of which only 10 percent have Zeng’s high level of training.

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