The high risk of green designs

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At the pop-up retail shop Original Design Circle in Sanlitun Village, people can't help but scratch their heads when surrounded by its unique designs.

From Christmas tree lights made of used computers, huge stone lights comfortable for sitting, to UFO bamboo lamps and calabash chandeliers. The wide stylistic differences have one thing in common: an environmentally friendly concept.

The UFO bamboo lamp is made from hundreds of pieces of bamboo sticks. Bamboo, the fastest growing plant in the world, is considered more environmentally friendly to use as a material than oak or pine trees.

Yi Chunyou, designer of the lamp, said it usually takes a craftsman two days to construct it.

The designer founded Nature Bamboo in 2006 along with a partner to use only bamboo as a material. The company has five experienced craftsmen, all with decades of experience in making bird cages.

"At the beginning, we could only make simple stuff like candleholders. But the more we understood bamboo, the more complicated our designs have been and will be," he said. "I hope I can bring natural materials and traditional craftsmanship into our modern lifestyle."

Good designers think alike. Wang Ke, designer of the calabash chandelier, has a similar concept in her designs.

At first glance, the chandelier doesn't seem so different from a metal chandelier. But touching the chandelier lets consumers know the product's material is much lighter than metal.

"They are made from real calabashes," Wang said. "When I was a child, my family used calabashes in a lot of places. We used them as containers to contain water and powders."

The calabash is a gourd that resembles a rotund bottle. It grows as a vine fruit and can be eaten as a vegetable or dried and used as a container.

For Wang, who is inspired by nature, the gourd is a symbol of the traditional Chinese lifestyle.

She believes that an environmentally friendly design means not just using natural materials but also choosing simple production means.

The diameter and height of any chandelier, for example, can be adjusted according to any space requirement.

"I buy dried calabashes directly from farmers," Wang said. "Then we cut them and give them black spray-painted surfaces. The production process is quite simple. If you lose interest in them, throwing them away cannot pollute the environment."

"Since we don't have a chance to live in a natural environment, I hope I can bring more natural elements into people's homes," added Wang, who co-founded the Idee Interior Design company and runs it with her husband.

For her, the most difficult part in the original design industry is finding a production partner.

"Most factories in China are afraid to collaborate with designers like us because they don't want to risk failed investments," said Wang.

Factories in China tend to copy popular designs in Western countries to reap a profit from production.

"That's a big problem for us. Because we have to spend a lot on the research stage and we don't have a production line, so the number of our products is quite small," she said.

Her calabash chandelier is priced at 4,500 yuan because of the arduous process of going to the countryside to handpick the gourds. The entire production process is hand-driven.

Wang said it takes her up to three months to finish one calabash light. It mainly depends on the time spent finding the perfectly shaped calabash. She has sold two sets of calabash lights so far.

"All the original designers want to lower their cost, but it's very difficult to do that by ourselves," Wang said.

Yi is facing the same problem as Wang.

"It seems all good designers are bad at business," he joked.

The only selling medium for original designers like Yi and Wang is to exhibit their designs in a place like Original Design Circle and wait for customers to appreciate their work.

Due to the relatively high prices, one-third of the shop's customers are expats in Beijing; one-third are middle class, the rest are young people who prefer to show their individuality by adding original designs in their homes.

The two original designers believe they have an optimistic future. "It's still a long way to go, but we will get there sooner or later," Wang said.

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