By Design: Will Expo Help New Taipei City Emerge From the Smog?

Once synonymous with industrial pollution, New Taipei City undergoes a design-led transformation as it hosts the Taiwan Design Expo ’23, reflecting the city’s efforts to build a vibrant urban environment.

Design is not the first thing most people would associate with New Taipei City. Some of the districts in this special municipality, which was formed in 2010 from the contiguous townships and cities surrounding Taipei, are among the most densely populated places in the world. These localities have long been synonymous with the factories that drew in industrial workers and created overcrowding in the late 1960s and the accompanying levels of pollution, clamor, and grime.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Like many built-up areas of Taiwan, these districts are on the cusp of beautiful countryside – networks of paths that hug the courses of resplendent rivers and lush mountain vistas.

There is also the human element: a patchwork of cultures, cuisines, and crafts emerged during the post-WWII era, creating some of the most vibrant communities in Taiwan. With these features in mind, New Taipei City was chosen as the site for the Taiwan Design Expo ’23, which is open to the public on October 6-22.

This year’s Taiwan Design Expo is held at New Taipei City Art Museum.

“Though New Taipei City was seen as an industrial zone in the past, this stereotypical view has gradually changed,” says Chang Chi-yi, president of the Taiwan Design Research Institute, which is responsible for overseeing the expo. “In recent years, the city government has initiated programs to integrate design into urban governance, to create a livable urban environment.”

Chang further points out that the authorities have “actively invested in design-related infrastructure” and made a concerted attempt to encourage design firms to set up shop in the city. He believes that these efforts are helping to turn New Taipei City into “a pivotal hub” for the design industry in Taiwan.

The main venue for the expo is a case in point. The New Taipei City Arts Museum (NTCAM), which opened earlier this year, is certainly an eye-catching design. Architect Kris Yao and his KRIS YAO/ART-TECH firm have been responsible for other acclaimed projects, such as the Lanyang Museum in Yilan’s Toucheng Township, which was cited as among the world’s top 80 buildings in the 2012 International Architecture Awards. The shimmering, blurry effect of the steel spindles bunched around the perimeter of the NTCAM’s facade was realized according to the concept of “a contemporary art museum among the reeds.”

In addition to the museum, Chang cites the New Taipei City Arts Festival, which was also launched this year, as proof of the city government’s determination to “enhance public awareness of New Taipei’s cultural scenes via design as a medium.” The city is thus “repositioning itself and demonstrating its diversity, inclusivity, and unique urban charm,” says Chang.

As with previous design expos, a curatorial theme has been woven from seemingly disparate elements to capture the essence of the city. A circular motif has been used, which – based on the expo website – is open to multiple interpretations. Some of these readings, such as the motif representing the way the city encircles Taipei, are obvious. Others, like the aim to reveal the city’s personality as “practically grounded yet tirelessly aspiring for transcendence,” are rather harder to grasp.

According to Chang, the circular symbol “zeroes in on the dance between people and the urban environment.” Emphasizing that it is about “connecting, embracing, and fusing design with local flair to encompass every sphere of influence,” he believes that the symbol embodies “the spirit of collaborative design, the city’s vigor, and the notion of envelopment and convergence.”

Furthermore, as a core goal of the expo is to integrate design into urban governance, Chang says the theme “eloquently captures the ethos of the design expo and New Taipei City’s unique character.”

The “○” symbol and the accompanying “○ Up (○起來)” slogan feature prominently in the design of the expo website, which wasn’t up and running until late September. At first glance, it’s an attractive and engaging experience. However, the functionality leaves a lot to be desired.

Meanwhile, switching from Chinese to English does not seem to get you much content in the latter language, and information about the venues, which also include Yingge Ceramics Museum and the nearby civic sports center, is rather confusing. In the Circular Line section, for example, zones based around the MRT line of the same name are shown on a map, with accompanying descriptions of what can be found in them. The problem is that in several cases, it’s unclear what the displays or activities involve.

The same is true of the Public Line section, which appears to have only one component – a series of walking tours around 129 routes in the city, under the Taiwanese-English dual-language heading “Sin Pak Li Ho! (Hello, NEW TAIPEI CITY!)” Details of the tours are minimal and explanation of their connection to the city’s design environment is non-existent.

As for the Echo Event section, which features art and music happenings, the links to design again seem loose. Moreover, some of the items listed began months ago and ended before the official opening of the expo proper, giving the impression they have been shoehorned in with little regard for coherence.

It’s all rather disappointing for a website and event dedicated to showcasing Taiwan’s design capabilities. A frequent response to this is that the expo targets a domestic audience, most of whom will already know about the event.

“They don’t really need to work on the publicity because almost every designer and design school student will visit anyway,” a former local government employee with experience in communications says. Still, he notes the irony of lackluster digital design in promoting such an event. “They never really focus on information design,” he says.

Others are less critical and point to government support of the industry through grants, awards, and institutions. “I think the government sees the importance of good design,” says David Pan, a creative entrepreneur and founder of Tainan-based brand design company Gidea Group. “Case in point – the current administration engages the most famous graphic designer in Taiwan [Aaron Nieh] for many of its communications.”

Lanyang Museum in Yilan’s Toucheng Township was cited as among the world’s top 80 buildings in the 2012 International Architecture Awards.

Marketing aside, the exhibitions themselves are encouraging. The curators and design teams, who were assembled through both direct invitation and open call, are an eclectic mix, though Chang says many have “deep local connections” and familiarity with the environs. This is evident through exhibitions such as “Mixing City,” which celebrates a “rich tapestry of communities” and their lifestyles, values, and cuisine through multimedia displays fronted by 16 local guides.

“Before getting into the nitty-gritty of curation, we organized a field research tour with the teams, helping them explore various facets of the city,” says Chang. “While learning about the success stories of design-oriented renovations, we were also on the lookout for the next opportunity of urban transformation through designs.”

But it’s not just through the citizens that the exhibitions are brought to life. “There are more than four million people in New Taipei City and many industries, but also many kinds of geographical landscapes,” says a spokesperson for one of the government agencies co-organizing the expo. . “This is an important part of the expo.”

One of the main exhibitions at NTCAM examines the intersection of the geological, ecological, and anthropological realms in the region’s development. Titled “When Rivers and Mountains Start,” the exhibition is split into two distinct displays, one of which features a series of imposing megaliths onto which video art is projected.

Other works include “Ceramic Stones,” fashioned from the clay for which Yingge’s pottery industry is renowned, and “Indigo Stones,” created with local traditional dyeing experts. This latter industry, which in the region was centered around Sanxia District, perfectly captures the man-made symbiosis of river and mountain, where fabrics were washed and dried and where the mayflower glory berries used for the dye thrived in the subtropical moisture.

In the other section, the overlap between city and country is made more express. A rich network representing New Taipei’s natural diversity, culinary styles, religious cultures, artisanal craftsmanship, and local cultures is created by thematic axes and the objects they represent, according to the website. Through interactive activities, visitors can “formulate their own New Taipei lifestyles.”

In “artistically transforming the power of the land and river,” curator Tseng Ling-li came to appreciate the mutually reinforcing interplay of nature with urban design. “During the preparation process, we gained a deeper understanding of Taiwan’s geological history,” says Tseng, cofounder of the Hsinchu-based Serendipity Studio, one of the curatorial units for the exhibition. “The appreciation generated for this land was a precious experience, and through that understanding, we can know more clearly how to innovate.”

And innovate Taiwan’s designers have, as illustrated by their success in international competition over the past couple of decades. In 2015, the Red Dot Award cited Taiwan as consistently among its top five winners.

“Taiwan’s design industry has flourished for decades, fueled by a wealth of talents and creative resources,” says Chang. Whereas the focus was typically on manufacturing and technical skills, Chang says it has now shifted to “transnational collaborations through which Taiwan’s unique design features are brought to the forefront globally.”

Another transition has seen designers bringing their talents to bear in non-design-related ventures, says Pan. “Instead of working for a design company, many are branching out and using their expertise to start their own companies in e-commerce, food and beverage, and crafts,” he says.

While the Taiwan Design Expo ’23 may be geared mainly toward a domestic audience, it would be a shame if inadequate promotion for showcase events like this prevented Taiwan’s innovators from communicating their visions to the international community. Likewise, if the purpose is to reimagine New Taipei City as a design hub, a clearer, more cohesive approach might be required.

Running the Gamut: Taiwanese Design Prowess in Three Items

Tatung electric rice cooker and steamer

A mainstay of any self-respecting Taiwanese kitchen, with a functionalist aesthetic for a product that gets the job done. You can have any color, as long as it’s green – or sometimes, red. Interestingly, these original hues were not available in the U.S. market until last year, when gourmet condiments supplier Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry collaborated with Tatung on a relaunch.

Calling them “a Taiwanese design and lifestyle icon,” Yun Hai founder Lisa Cheng Smith notes they were “once hand-carried over in droves from Taiwan” and “have defined Taiwanese households for generations.”

HeySong Sarsaparilla drink

It may look ever-so-slightly like a Coke rip-off, but this flagship product from beverage manufacturer HeySong has been quenching thirst in Taiwan since 1925 and is still going strong. The soft maroon background, spliced by a golden caramel-vanilla swirl, makes for a simple but instantly identifiable classic of Taiwanese design.

Lien Cheng saxophones

Under every second riverside bridge in Taiwan, you’re likely to find a guy in shades giving his best John Coltrane impression. It’s highly likely his weapon of choice came from the Houli District of Taichung County, which at one time produced a third of all saxophones in the world.

While most manufacturers stayed with OEM operations, some progressed to creating in-house brands. Established in the 1940s, Lien Cheng is the best-known. Once treated with scorn by professional musicians, the company’s models are now praised for combining quality and value.