Yifei Chai

Yifei Chai, Wine Vessel, 2012

Yifei talks about designing for modern China and what it’s like studying at CSM.

As a winner of the Design Museum’s Design Symposium in his first year, Yifei Chai’s experience at Central Saint Martins greatly contributed to his understanding of design and future ambitions. Especially interested in areas such as design thinking, branding and the luxury market, Yifei has taken noticeable steps towards realising his goal, to stimulate the Chinese design industry. After his theory of an independent Chinese design thinking came in zeitgeist with a New York Times article written by David Barboza ‘Moving China Up the Value Chain’, Yifei’s wine vessel project based on this format of thinking has attracted the attention of not only media but also the Chinese embassy. Now he looks forward to the refinement of such design thinking and its future implications.

Please tell us about your work

The Wine Vessel project seeks to address the issue of identity crisis that is happening in China today, especially for the ‘nouveau riche’. The project narrows down and focuses on the area of  wine dining, and from historical research and target observation, it is speculated that the identity crisis experienced by many Chinese people is due to fear, fear of being looked down upon, fear of traditional culture and fear of being lest behind. Fear triggers the loss in faith in the game of values, leading to the abandonment of culture and becoming a culture of the copy.

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By proposing a new yet familiar independent design thinking, this project hopes to reestablish the appreciation of culture by a new evolving definition. “Culture is how we think, objects are mere reflections of that thinking in specific contexts. As contexts change, design needs to evolve with it, yet our way of thinking defines who we are”. The final outcome as a wine vessel reflects Chinese culture in a contemporary context. 

How did you hear about CSM?

My route into Central Saint Martins may be slightly different from others. Studying as a science major in high school and taking on an industrial design course more focused on engineering at University of Science and Technology Beijing, I had little if any knowledge of the world’s leading art and design schools. 

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Suddenly one day in my second year on the course I received an email from UAL asking me if I would be interested in coming to study. In the beginning I though it was a scam, but after some research I realize what an amazing opportunity it was. I was then selected for CSM at the interview and now I’m here. Though I threw away 2 years to come here, I never regretted it for a moment. Even today I still don’t know how they got my email, fate I guess.

How would you describe your course? 

Ninety per cent of the time it’ll be you, in short we learn. But not just stuff to memorize for an exam. We learn to create, to build, to inspire and to change. We learn to be confident and persuasive. We learn to play in a team and share to achieve things one person may never accomplish. We learn to be different and persistent but at the same time listen to others. CSM teaches you how to be successful in the future, not how to get good grades today.

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To speak the truth there’s not a whole lot of lectures or hand in hand teaching. In order to simply stay in the game you’ll need to have all the necessary skills ready to spend you own time to patch things up.

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A typical week would be a short meeting on Monday or Tuesday to pass on important information and see if everyone is on the same page. The meeting may be followed by a lecture if any of the tutors are up to it. There might be a second lecture the next day or in the afternoon, then depending on your group you meet up with your associate lecturer on Thursday or Friday for a tutorial. It may not seem like a whole lot of school time, but most people spend days on end at uni, the pleasure and devotion you give yourself will determine the final result.

What sort of a person do you think you need to be to do well on your Course?

Personally I would say a thinker. If you’re someone that needs to be told what to do then you won’t learn anything. The same group of students goes through the same course, some end up having nothing, and some end up being famous. CSM is education in itself, there are things to be learned everywhere. Your year will be packed with the brightest minds from around the world; you are each other’s tutors. If you don’t keep your minds open and stay curious 24/7, you don’t belong here.

Why did you choose this particular course?

I love creating things. At CSM I learned that creating, designing and inventing mean totally different things. I would love to see someone using something I designed.

What do you love about CSM?

I love CSM for allowing me to do what I love to do and be seen accomplished for doing it. What I don’t like is this experience may only be true for a limited number of people.

How would you describe CSM?

There’s a saying among CSM students, it’s even printed on our bags, ‘Live CSM’. Central Saint Martins is definitely a lifestyle. You sleep, eat, laugh, shout, cry and bleed. And as a product design student I mean that literally. If you don’t love art and design you won’t survive here. The student and atmosphere at CSM is VERY competitive, but in a good way.

What have your highlights been?

Graduation results I guess. I started as one of the worst students on the course without any training in design or art. I finished among the top 2 students on the course, with final year projects on magazines and websites. If I can do it, anyone can, and CSM is the place to do it.

What are you doing now?

An MA course, and after I’m finished with that, I’ll change the world, starting with China.

Who inspired or motivated you?

I take inspiration from everywhere and everyone. So I can’t say I’ve  been constantly and deeply inspired by any individual. But as I study with my peers everyday, I would say having a  good bunch of people around you is very important. You inspire each other with knowledge and ambition, and CSM is never in short supply with witty ambitious people.

How did you find supporting yourself in London?

London is sooooooooo expensive compared to China, actually it’s expensive compared with anywhere. But I’ve got my parents behind me so I’m very lucky. Unfortunately there are some students that had to support themselves through their studies, in the end getting by taking too much energy and was forced to be held back.

What advice would you give others?

Make the most of it: the studio space, the workshops, the advice from your tutors (no matter how much you want to ignore it), the support from the technicians and the general chats (art related or not) with the guys and girls in your class. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll achieve if you grasp the opportunity with both hands.