In Shenzhen, this co-working space by X+Living is a professional playground

Shenzhen, China – Assuming an attitude more reminiscent of a design hotel than the shoestring ‘office factory’ of yesteryear, X+Living’s flamboyant Unova Co-Working Space marks the coming of age of co-working in China. With its playful and design-led scheme, the 8,800-sq-m facility, located in the business hotspot of Shenzhen, reflects China’s desire to transform itself from the factory of the world into a global centre for creative innovation. It’s an ambition that dates from 2015, when the Chinese government called for ‘mass entrepreneurship’. An unprecedented surge in start-ups followed: over six million were registered in 2017 alone. Naturally, the demand for flexible mini-office spaces boomed along with them.

‘Co-working is extremely popular in China right now,’ said design office X+Living’s Li Xiang. The new Unova space, she says, is occupied mainly by ‘advertising agencies, art firms, start-ups and freelancers’. One of its four floors is reserved for larger companies in search of a more creative environment. This was the suggestion of the designers, who pointed out that ‘relatively mature companies will be helpful to our brand owners as more stable tenants’.

With many tenants working in the creative industries that China aims to excel in, the design of Unova incorporates the unexpected, including art-world references and surreally humorous details. ‘We wanted to use an interesting concept to make a stylistic breakthrough,’ said Li Xiang. ‘We used famous art works, sports equipment and others elements as design highlights, integrating them into the functional parts of the space.’ In the washrooms, for example, are details culled from paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Van Gogh; elsewhere, a frying pan becomes a mirror, and a plunge pool is transformed into a meeting space.

The quirkiness of the design expresses the changing aspirations of workers, said Li Xiang: ‘More and more, people are beginning to value the spiritual satisfaction the office environment can bring to their employees and customers,’ she says. ‘The concept of “sharing” has become very popular, too; we also see it in shared bicycles and shared battery chargers.’

Younger generations tend to have their own ideas and to prefer new things, so interesting working environments can really attract their attention

Whereas Chinese workers were once motivated by money, now they are likely to be looking for fun and ‘family’ – elements that co-working spaces like Unova promise to provide. ‘The younger generations tend to have their own ideas and to prefer new things, so interesting working environments can really attract their attention,’ said Li Xiang. Many of them are highly present on the internet, too, and need ‘good-looking designs’ to be Instagram-ready – especially in their own offices.

China is already home to the highest concentration (and total valuation) of start-ups globally. According to a report by China Money Network, more venture capital was invested in Chinese businesses in 2018 than in American ones.

The Global Coworking Unconference Conference reckons that there are now 14,411 co-working spaces worldwide, with the market expected to triple to 30,432 locations by 2022. Competition is intensifying – especially in China, where the international brands who pioneered the trend are being replaced by homegrown rivals. Global leader WeWork was recently acquired by Shanghai-based Naked Hub, for example. Chinese players see expansion as a chance to play a leading role in the forthcoming consolidation of the global market.           

So it’s not surprising that branding was an important aspect of the Unova project. ‘In terms of the colour scheme, we hoped to distinguish Unova from the wood look of several mature co-working brands,’ explained Li Xiang.

‘We wanted the colours here to be lively and artistic. As for materials, we chose the most simple: tile and concrete.’ Adding to Unova’s strong identity is the use of customized furniture, which underpins the concept of fitness equipment. ‘We wanted to create interesting furniture that can actually be used for the function of fitness or massage, as well as to meet our expectations for the project,’ said Li Xiang.

This article is part of Frame 127, our current print issue. You can order your copy here. Li Xiang of X+Living was also a part of Frame Lab 2019, where she gave a talk about the changing Chinese market. You can watch it here.

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