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As Humble As Concrete - An Interview with BENTU

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As Humble As Concrete - An Interview with BENTU
Zhong Ping-pong Table

Much like fashion brand Maison Margiela, BENTU's anonymity seems to reflect on their concrete design as Subtle and Clean (although not for long!), yet distinct regarding their purpose: to change the world and the goodwill towards the world. In the current heightened sense of commercialism and not to mention plagiarism in the Chinese design industry, BENTU has stood out as the alternative design studio/brand that's not only striving to challenge traditional concepts but to serve the public, which means we have to build an industry with innovative ideas first. With a recent "Best of the Best" win at the world-renowned RedDot award - a rare occurrence for a Chinese company -  BENTU's road to success was not without any challenges.

Founded in 2011, in a time when concrete leftovers from demolition were everywhere in China, BENTU has had a clear vision of the future: to transform concrete as a building material to a product in itself, and enter it into the traditional furniture manufacturing industry. However, for the first four years, they struggled and groped in the midst of reality. "In such a concrete-made society, almost no one believed in the future of the concrete furniture industry," they explained. "When one kind of traditional material firstly enters into another traditional industry, it needs to reverse the customary understanding that the industry has always maintained and let the market accept true texture and characters of such kind of material. In China, this is too difficult to achieve."

As we attempt to discover the secret behind their success, we've also rediscovered the beauty of the humble material: concrete, among other new and forgotten materials like terrazzo and volcano stones.

Shi modular Concrete Bench

Hui Bathroom Series

Who are you? What is BENTU about?

BENTU is a concrete furniture design brand from Guangzhou, China, founded by an older concrete aficionado with a youthful heart, and a group of young and energetic people with the authentic pursuit of original designs. Some of us graduated from professional art institutions, some of us came from the same universities. We all came from the design education system of China and eventually defected from it. Because of our devoted passion towards design, the endless vision towards the future and the open minds towards life -- these joint values brought us together and drove us to realise our value with dignity. 

What attracted BENTU to be based in Guangzhou? What's the advantage of setting up a studio here?

For one thing, most of the members went to colleges in Guangzhou. For another, as the south gate of China, Guangzhou is an open, diversified city that can easily and frequently receive and deliver information with the world, which is the free environment we need to pursue original design, self-worth and dignity.

New Collection from BENTU: Xi Plant Pot (L) & Cube outdoor floor lamp (R)

Heng - a concrete bathroom scales that won BENTU another iF Award this year.

Why the name BENTU?

BENTU means “local” in Chinese, or also means "origin". It hence has a more spiritual meaning. Ideology, material creation... Each country, region, nation has its own homegrown brands, but we are not limited in developing locally and try to actively integrate into the world. Since Bentu’s international debut in Milan Design Week 2012, we have actively participated in many international exhibitions such as 100% Design London 2014, IMM Cologne 2016 and so on before as well as the recent exhibition for Nouvelles Vies. There is no doubt that BENTU is an international design brand with the idea of no borders.

BENTU uses mostly natural material like concrete. What is the biggest challenge in using this material? Is it just about the weight?

The challenge in using concrete as a material is not just about weight. Taking the latest exhibition of BENTU SURFACE in Design Shanghai 2018 as an example: the integral moulding of Fair-faced Concrete requires superior techniques as it can be easily affected by temperature, humidity and other surrounding factors. But the profundity and elegance of Fair-faced Concrete are much more capable of conveying the emotion of architectures than any other general materials.

We persist in using this hard-to-control material to produce high-quality products with spotless flat surface and distinct edges and corners. This process requires us to pour and remove the concrete in and out of the mould for one time to get a product in one piece. Apart from techniques, the change of idea is another challenge.

Shadow decorative wall tiles - made with concrete & ceramic waste aggregates.

BENTU's recent REDDOT winning product is a tile made with concrete waste. How did this project come about, and what is the biggest challenge to commercialise it?

Wall tile “Shadow” had applied an integrated design and was moulded in a whole, using concrete and ceramic aggregates as material. This project is one of our experimental projects of recycling ceramic aggregates into space decorative surface. The starting point is environmental regeneration, followed by the desire to do something different. Wall tile “Shadow” stays in a planar form but presents different shades of shadow with grooves of different depths. The contrast between light and shade results in a visually three-dimensional effect. This is an innovative attempt, that comes with its own set of problems during the production process. But we arrived at a very good solution in the end. 

BENTU also created a brand called BUZAO, which literally means "Not Creating". How did this idea of a brand come about and why?

From creating to not create. BUZAO is a new experimental brand that we launched in 2017. Different from BENTU, BUZAO is no longer confined to the material itself, separate from the nature of materials and pays more attention to the self-expression of the individual spirit. BENTU tries to find a commonality of the physical world of the past, present and even in the future. But BUZAO wants something deeper inside every natural substance, every individual, and every soul.

Team BENTU.

What is the BENTU design style?

BENTU attaches great importance to de-territorialization in design. In innate character, BENTU reverts to demand, close to indigenous culture; in outer form, the so-called international design is, free from all the unnecessary, pursuing unrestrained styles and returning the emphasis on function. Hiding behind form and function is the equal care for all—all the raw materials, techniques and cultures that make things up. There is no disparity between nobleness and lowliness, costliness and cheapness, and treasures and trash. Devoting oneself to design will make the mud as priceless as the diamond. Everything asked for from the world should be cherished. There is no best, but only the fittest. Either a straw or a handful of mud will glow if designed.

Where will BENTU/BUZAO go in the next five years? What are your ambitions?

We want to build a normal brand, not just a designers' brand. The difference between the two is nothing about dedication towards design. Maybe we can say that we have a stronger desire for persistence and pursuit of design. But what's important is whether we can truly achieve industrial production so that we can radiate the value of beauty and goodwill and return it to the life of the masses. We're still exploring. In the coming five years, we will be devoted to optimisation of production process, the perfection of design, discovery and popularisation of material. BENTU ’s has been on this journey for seven years. Based on what BENTU has achieved, BUZAO is ready for the future.

 

BENTU's main creative and founding team included art director Xu Gang and designers Chen Xing Yu, Chen Xing Guang and Peng Zen. For more about BENTU and BUZAO, visit here.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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