Sino-Surrealism: why the Chinese hospitality industry is opting for otherworldly interiors

In each issue we identify a key aesthetic trend evident in our archive of recent projects and challenge semiotics agency Axis Mundi to unpack its design codes. In Frame 131, we looked at why the Chinese hospitality industry is adopting increasingly surreal aesthetic and spatial dynamics.

China’s emergence as the world’s first truly digital society is written into its built environment. The skylines of top-tier cities like Shenzhen or Chongqing flicker like jungles of electrified circuit boards. Meanwhile, down at ‘user level’, each glowing smartphone screen is an invitation to augment our experience of the physical world with an adjacent digital one. In thematizing the vectors of this ‘mixed reality’, Sino-Surrealism reveals the shifting expectations of leisure and freedom in China. 

Header: Beauty Club on the National Border by Parallect Design. Read more here. Photo: Yixiang Wang | Top: Heytea Daydreamer café by A.A.N Architects. Photo: Zeng Zhe | Middle: Loong Swim Club by X+Living. Read more here. Photo: Shao Feng | Bottom: Fine-jewellery boutique Yin by Okamoto Deguchi Design. Read more here. Photo: Ruijing Photo

Throughout Sino-Surrealist spaces, particular objects or structures function as gateways, describing the user’s transition from routine physics into the disorienting territories of the digital. Unlocking a new sense of optimism, Escher-style staircases defy the conventions of geometry while infinity mirrors warp and multiply the user’s depth of field. Outsize vault doors, gratuitously positioned slides or narrow corridors perform as figurative ‘wormholes’, upending users from old paradigms into new ones. The crude motion of the carousel is transformed by the fantastical experience of the rider into a signifier of altered perception.

A sense of transcendence imbues Sino-Surrealism. Parades of ethereal balloons hang in suspension and cloud-like façades billow from ceilings or walls. Environmental mimicry in the form of sparkling ceilings of stars, undulating dunes and forests of evanescent tubing demarcate ‘clearings’ in which users can find respite. Occasional, absurd glitches in the matrix – co-working desks submerged in a ball pit or empty picture frames – remind users that they’re moving through the topsy-turvy dreamscape of an intelligent creator.

Top: Aranya Kids Restaurant by Wutopia Lab. Read more here. Photo: CreatAR | Middle: The Other Place hotel by Studio 10. Read more here. Photo: Chao Zhang | Bottom: Restaurant of the Loong Swim Club by X+Living. Photo: Shao Feng | Bottom: Shanghai Shangkwan Sheshan Villa by Benjai Architecture. Photo: Courtesy of Benjai Architecture

Outsize candlesticks, lanterns and looking glasses invite users to participate in the allegorical journey of a fairytale. Reflective surfaces multiply and abstract the self-image of the user, highlighting the freedoms of personal brands in China’s hyper-mediated age. The topographical outlines of the spaces and the glow of lighting (much like selfie rings) emanating from behind furnishings build the impression of a high-end photography studio. To help users create their own stories, Sino-Surrealism scatters wayfinding breadcrumbs. Corridors are often complex and rows of mysterious arched doorways invite users to participate in classic philosophical games, wherein choosing and opening a particular door alters an individual’s destiny.

Only four short decades ago, China had a predominantly agrarian economy. Sino-Surrealism can be seen as an attempt to resolve the incomprehensible transformation of the nation into a highly advanced digital economy. It aims to capture and suspend (before the pieces of the kaleidoscope have fully settled) this moment of transition. As disoriented users recover from the breakdown of old geometries and the introduction of new ones, unprecedented territories of myth-making emerge.

Get your copy of Frame 131 here.

More from this issue

Frame 131

As several key co-living players go global and numerous innovators open up in every conceivable niche – from family collectives to senior communities – Frame’s Nov/Dec issue takes another look at the form of urban organization that trades personal space for common amenities. The cofounders of Amsterdam- and Paris-based Cutwork discuss what’s missing in today’s shared spaces. Consultant Matt Lesniak suggests how co-living can become more conscious – and highlights five companies making the right moves. Three forward-facing concepts look to rectify some of co-living’s current issues, such as community, individuality and ownership.

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