Face to Face with Jiang Qiong’er of Shang Xia

A flick through the pages of Family, the latest coffee table magazine produced by Shang Xia, immediately draws the reader into the universe of the brand: one of discreet luxury and gentle timelessness.

Beautifully photographed by Paolo Roversi, the well-known Italian fashion photographer, the book features a multi-generational Chinese family at home living the Shang Xia lifestyle—enjoying a laugh around a mahjong table, taking in the late sun of an autumn afternoon cocooned into a cashmere shawl, or sipping tea from a monochrome porcelain tea set. Making this a very personal experience, Shang Xia’s founder and creative director, Jiang Qiong’er, roped in her entire family for the photo shoot, from her 3-year-old son to her 94-year-old grandma. “The brand’s passion is to bring back Chinese know-how. We want to build bridges between the past and the future; the generation of my grandma to that of my son,” she explains.

Heritage and time-honored craftsmanship are at the heart of the young Chinese luxury brand’s philosophy. Using premium materials such as lacquer, zitan wood, eggshell porcelain, and hand-felted cashmere, Jiang seeks to create contemporary design, or “cultural objects,” deeply rooted into her country’s rich history.

Eschewing the elaborate and colorful designs of the Qing Dynasty that in Western minds are often associated with Imperial China, the young designer favors the more restrained zen-like designs developed during the Han, Song, and Ming Dynasties. “For me, these three dynasties are very different, spread over hundreds of years, yet at the same time they are very much in harmony. You can put them together style-wise,” she explains.

“By contrast, the Qing and Tang Dynasties have a heavier, richer style. But I feel we are in the 21st Century, we’re not in a century of emperors. Life is already heavy, full of stress, and with Shang Xia we want to propose a moment of peace, the art of stillness. The brand is very contemporary in its simplicity. I really believe the purity of an object will stand the test of time,” the designer adds, while acknowledging she has nonetheless found inspiration in Qing dynasty shapes, such as the era’s flared vase forms that she reprised in her Wufu series of eggshell lacquer objects.

Jiang’s appreciation of Chinese heritage and culture was instilled in her at a young age. Her grandfather was the painter Jiang Xuanyi and her father is the well-known architect Xing Tonghe, who designed the striking Shanghai Museum and she studied under the famous painter Cheng Shi Far and calligrapher Han Tian Heng. After graduating in art and design from Tongji University, she went on to the National School of Decorative Arts in Paris to further her studies in furniture and interior design. Upon returning to Shanghai she set up her own successful design company, before starting Shang Xia in 2008 with the backing of global luxury brand Hermès.

Her main challenge, she admits, has been to find the master artisans willing to dedicate their skills and time to her dreams. “Finding them was quite a complicated process. I built a committee with experts from museums, historians, and professors who have helped me. But before we conquered their heads to work with us, we had to conquer their hearts,” she explains.

“These masters are already wealthy, they can choose their projects. So it’s really more about the emotional exchange, a sharing of dreams, a sharing of the same values,” she notes, adding the best way she could pay respect to these artisans was to spend some time with them learning their crafts. Today, the brand works with 30 different métiers, “and we keep on looking for more,” Jiang says.

Focusing on four categories of products—furniture, home objects, jewelry, and garments—Jiang’s latest collection includes the Da Tian Di series of walnut display shelves, which with their square exteriors and round interiors subvert the Ming concept of the round exterior and square center, while her Wufu series blends two Chinese traditions, lacquer and eggshell porcelain.

While many Western luxury brands are incorporating iconic Chinese elements in their design, Jiang believes in only embracing the “spirituality” of ancient Chinese designs and their timeless beauty. “It’s more about spiritual inspiration than physical representation. We would never use a dragon or a phoenix,” she muses. Because of the brand’s philosophy of timelessness, Jiang is less concerned about following fashion. Shang Xia, she says, “is about time and emotion, not about trends.”

As first published on Blouin Lifestyle Magazine.