Naihan Li’s Big Secret: Mobile Furniture that Surprises

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China delivered an athletic and cultural spectacle to the world during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, perhaps the best Olympics in recent memory. But for millions of people (make that billions) who live in China every day, what you see isn’t always what you get.

That reality is precisely what inspires artist Jing Jing Naihan Li’s one-of-a-kind furniture designs. Beneath each piece, a surprise lurks like a Jack-in-the-Box. The secret? Functionality.

Naihan Li's industrial-influenced Crates series in stainless steel

Naihan Li’s Crates series features industrial designed stainless steel.

Crates conceals mobile furniture objects.

Crates conceals mobile furniture objects that reveal true functions when unfolded.

Naihan Li’s home studio is an extension of her work as a designer, but life in Beijing means her studio could be confiscated or demolished at any time by government forces—which she admits is a reality faced by many Chinese artists in the Caochangdi Art District, where she resides.

Under the circumstances, one can understand Naihan Li’s dilemma—how can she express freely without risking her literal freedom and all she creates? Li met this challenge by reaching deeply into her creative bag of tricks to develop a new lifestyle product, “Crates”—mobile furniture objects that conceal their true functions like a state secret until unlocked or unfolded. The Crates series is made of black walnut or industrial-style stainless steel with a mirror finish (or both).

Tea set with hidden compartments.

A tea table from the Crates series, with hidden compartments for herbal enjoyment.

Couch from Crate series

Concealed couch from the Crate series.

Crates furniture was born in 2010 while Naihan Li was unpacking shipping crates full of exhibition artworks. She sketched and created efficient crated furniture which turned into a crated office, kitchen, and bedroom set series. The Crates series replicates metal shipping containers which, when opened, reveal essential household or office functions locked inside—a desk, a tea table, a chair, a bookshelf, a bar, an entertainment center, or a kitchen apparatus.

It’s hard for Americans to imagine why furniture must be concealed or evacuated quickly. After all, the clandestine microfilm days of the Cold War are over (…or are they?). We’ve all seen concealed office desks, whose purpose is to maximize small spaces, hide clutter, or conceal what may contradict the living space. Li’s furniture is multipurpose, designed for speed—with wheels ready to roll like an airliner preparing to take off.

According to Li’s website, her furniture is “created for Beijing’s shifting urban playground where industrial and artist spaces are quickly discovered and soon destroyed, the furniture is mobile so you can roll it right into your studio, loft or gallery.” The designer’s exqusite furniture is rolling in and out of showrooms and exhibitions worldwide with resounding success.

Foosball game table in stainless steel

Foosball game table in stainless steel

Wooden desk from the Crate series.

Concealed wooden desk made of black walnut

The furniture is literally a defense mechanism—fold and go… fast! The need for such furnishings illustrates the differences between the lifestyles in East and West. When freedom isn’t readily available, expression is hush-hush, even if it’s a cool concept. Naihan Li’s designs are exceptional in their own right, but they’re also societal statements which many westerners may take for granted—that is, aside from their creatively-carved beauty. She’s expanded her “crates” expression with concealed furniture replicating famous world landmarks throughout her collections.

Transport is a common theme in Naihan Li’s work. Her solutions to traveling with big furniture pieces inspired other series such as “Fold” (mobile and collapsable tables and display units created after Li saw Caochangdi’s residents using cheap, plastic-folding stools); and “Flammable” (to-scale artistic candle recreations of the world’s most recognizable landmarks).

Swirl table from the Fold series

Swirl table from the “Fold” series in rosewood, acrylic, brass and stainless steel.

Skyscrapers from the Flammable series

Skyscraper candles from the Flammable series, featuring famous landmarks.

Again, Eastern influences counter the West. For instance, Li says, “For someone who is not entirely comfortable with the intrusion of modern skyscrapers into their civic space, watching them burn down can be truly satisfying,” referring to her “Flammable” collection. For westerners, the sight of burning skyscrapers may recall 9/11 terrorism. Beauty, as always, is in the eye of the beholder. Such is art.

Li’s “I Am a Monument” series again shrinks monuments (including the New York Stock Exchange building, Pentagon, and U.N. headquarters) down to an acceptable size, in order to satisfy Chinese citizens’ desire for meticulously-sculpted architectural icons and art installations for the home. Among her most famous pieces is the OMA CCTV wood cabinet installation, which replicates the big media outlet’s headquarter towers in Beijing. Her “Beehive” series boasts an inexpensive design made of collapsible, three-dimensional cardboard boxes, whose modular functionality allows for use as pedestals, walls, and storage space.

 The OMA CCTV installation.

Naihan Li’s OMA CCTV wooden cabinet installation which replicates the famous contemporary headquarters of Beijing’s big media outlet. headquarter towers in Beijing


The modern OMA CCTV headquarters in Beijing, the city where Naihan Li resides.

Li was born in Harbin, China and moved to Beijing as a child in the mid-1980s amid the explosion of imported cultural concepts that defined the era. She later studied design and architecture at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture before returning to Beijing in 2004, only to find the city in a volatile state of rapid development and simultaneous decay. Among her finished constructions are the Keruo Space in Caochangdi and the Royal Kitchen Restaurant and Gift Shop inside the Forbidden City.

She’s worked on many exhibition designs, and as creative director on the NIKE Golden 08 Beijing Olympic Creative research project. In 2008, Naihan Li worked as the project coordinator and designer for the UBS Art Collection Show entitled “Memories for Tomorrow” at the Shanghai Art Museum; “Moving Horizons” at the Beijing National Art Museum; and the Guangdong Art Museum show, “Fact and Fiction.” Her installation “Brandenburg Gate” was also displayed in the Goethe Institute’s 20th Anniversary project in Beijing entitled “Goethe Night.”

Edinburgh Palm House

Meticulously-carved wooden framework of Edinburgh Palm House royal botanical garden conservatory.

The New York Stock Exchange

The New York Stock Exchange installation from the I Am a Monument series.

The Pentagon

Art installations like this representation of the Pentagon (I Am a Monument series) are highly regarded in the homes of China’s citizens.

In 2011, she worked as the exhibition designer for the Gwangju Design Biennale Un-Named section, curated by Branden McGetrick under the art direction of Ai Weiwei, and presented the “Fold” series of furniture. She was a featured designer at 2011 Beijing Design Week, and initiated Caochangdi’s participation as one of the three major design hub locations during 2012 Beijing Design Week.

It appears Beijing has more spectacles to behold post-Olympics: the furniture art works of Naihan Li. But one must observe swiftly, for much of her work is on wheels… here today, gone tomorrow. She’s not taking anything for granted, and neither should we westerners.

Naihan Li

Jing Jing Naihan Li

Concealed bar

Concealed bar

Photos and details courtesy of Dezeen

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