How This Luxury Design Brand Is Keeping Ancient Chinese Crafts Alive

Erin Stewart — Social AdVentures

You’d never guess that the founder of Lala Curio, a Hong Kong-based home décor company inspired by traditional Chinese crafts, got her start designing mass-manufactured items for the likes of Walmart. But Laura Cheung’s early apprenticeship at her family’s manufacturing firm in China taught her precisely what she didn’t want, she says in an interview over WhatsApp.

With mass production, Cheung explains, “You’re not being honored for your design work. And once it gets to tens of thousands of these products, you’ve lost the handmade quality, and then it’s a competition on price as well.” Cheung had always been more drawn to traditional Chinese art, like her grandmother’s work in cloisonné—an ancient technique used to intricately decorate metal objects with materials like enamel, glass, and gems.

“Normally you would want to continue the family legacy in a Chinese family,” says Cheung, referring to her father’s manufacturing company, “but I think I reacted quite strongly against that.” At art schools in New York and London, Cheung soaked up Western design traditions but she couldn’t stop thinking about Chinese styles. She wrote her thesis on cloisonné. “I spent so much of my life living the Western way, but my roots, of course, are still Chinese … I really went back to Asia with a mission to make these forgotten crafts fashionable again.”

To do that, Cheung set about tackling the twin goals of producing handmade goods in sustainable quantities and keeping traditional Chinese artistic mediums alive through Lala Curio’s thoroughly modern products.

While Cheung oversees design, Lala Curio’s items are made in small batches by craftspeople in China, where their goods are typically considered unfashionable and demand for their skills is low. These artisans face paltry wages, poor facilities, and harsh working conditions, says Cheung. Through Lala Curio, she pays fair wages and works with craftspeople to help upgrade their facilities. Part of the reason why Cheung hopes to expand her business further is so she can employ more workers under better conditions, believing Lala Curio may one day even influence Chinese industry standards for pay and workplaces.

But first, Cheung needed to adapt traditional techniques to contemporary décor. For example, in China, cloisonné has historically been used to make lavish objects like 6-foot tall statues and vases for royalty. Cheung decided to adapt the process for interior decorative tiles that her clientele could afford. It took 18 months to figure out how to produce the tiles without warping them.

Lala Curio now offers a range of vibrant tiles, wallpaper, furniture, and other home items incorporating traditional embroidery, hand painting, ceramics, and, of course, cloisonné, both through its two Hong Kong retail boutiques and via bespoke interior design projects. The company recently partnered with Bergdorf Goodman to offer an exclusive line of intricately embellished, hand-painted silk boxes.

When Cheung first proposed her modern designs to the artisans, they were hesitant. Many are quite old, she says, and have been producing the same types of goods throughout their lives. But her appreciation for their skills helped persuade them: “We want people to understand that there is hope in their crafts, that it’s not a dying industry,” says Cheung. “They can be protectors of their craft.” She hopes that as these artisans see greater financial rewards for their work, they’ll pass on their knowledge to future generations, helping to prevent these traditional arts from dying out.

Cheung hopes Lala Curio’s handcrafted items will be treasured and passed down as well. “When you buy well-crafted items,” says Cheung, “you really, truly appreciate what is made for you … True luxury these days is to have something that’s completely made just for you, to have a story to tell about the object you own.”