Li Kebei is an industrial designer from Chengdu. He was born and raised in China and later came to the U.S. for schooling. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, he moved to San Francisco to join the design firm New Deal Design. Recently, Kebei has left his consulting job to pursue a master’s degree in design at Stanford University.
From his pressure-sensitive lamp, which adjusts the lamp’s brightness based on the weight of objects placed on top of it, to a tin sake cup that can hold different amounts of liquid from different sides of the cup, Kebei’s designs often strike a beautiful balance between innovation and practicality.
李科贝是一位来自四川成都的工业设计师，高中毕业之前都一直在成都这座城市生活、学习。大学学习他选择远赴美国罗德岛设计学院，本科毕业之后他加入了位于旧金山的New Deal Design设计工作室。最近李科贝辞去这份工作，进入斯坦福大学攻读设计硕士学位。
Neocha: How does industrial design influence the way you view things around you, whether it is products or buildings or even modes of thinking? At the same time, how does your own personality or personal quirks influence your design work?
Li Kebei: If I see something that I love – and it doesn’t even need to be a design object, I just can’t move. My friends know how long it can take me to finish a good design store or gallery. I can meditate in front of some good pieces for hours. At the same time, I can finish a mediocre store in just a few seconds. I am very selective.
A large part of my work is about questioning: why people use certain things in certain ways, and what defines certain objects; for example, I once designed a pressure-sensitive lamp. The brightness and intensity of the light is controlled by the amount of pressure that is applied. I like to use whimsical and disarming ways to raise basic fundamental questions. The results can be quite interesting.
Neocha: Your design style appears to carry with it subtle details and nods to different cultures. What do you think is the importance of subtlety and cultural referencing in design?
Li Kebei: Cultural reference can be a dangerous thing. There are too many poor executions that lack deeper thinking. That’s not to say using cultural references is a bad way to design. It’s just not usually done well.
Young designers tend to overvalue how much they know about their own culture. When I grew up in Chengdu in the late 90’s, there was an urban development agenda that was trying to make it into just another homogenous Chinese city. In this sense, my childhood was rather culturally deprived. It’s kind of a harsh thing to say but I think it is accurate. It isn’t that my childhood wasn’t fun or anything. It was just a bit bland culturally, not very special. I picked up my interest in Chinese culture and tradition only later in college, when I was living in the U.S. ironically.
Neocha: Do you see significant differences in the way industrial design works in a place like Shanghai versus in San Francisco, or other places in the United States?
Li Kebei: The design industry in the macro sense is very broad and can actually mean very different things. The more commercial, technology-driven design field that I have experience in is less tied to the specific locality of the company, so a tech design firm in London might not differ very much from one in Shenzhen. Phones, wearable products, consumer electronics, these types of products are less grounded in a local “culture” in the traditional sense. They are true to their own nature as electronic products, but the nature of their development is interestingly almost the same globally.
Neocha: Where are you headed intellectually and artistically with your design work at the moment? Do you have a sense of the direction you would like your work to take, or the effect you’d like it to have on those who will see and use it?
Li Kebei: At the moment things are pretty messy. I have lots of raw materials I need to piece together, literally and metaphorically. I suppose that that is what the master’s degree is for. I would like to have more technical understanding of and autonomy in the process.
Artistically, I have always had an appreciation for austere and monolithic things, daily objects that are basic yet fundamental. I curate a Tumblr called Geometric Rationale which collects the works of people like Brancusi, Noguchi, Judd, De Wain Valentine, you name it. I have a great respect for people who really push the boundaries of manufacturing and materiality; for example, Jony Ive, Marc Newson, Ross Lovegrove, to name a few.
艺术方面来说，我一直以来都很喜欢质朴、整体感强的事物，那些生活中基础的必需品。我有一个Tumblr账号叫做Geometric Rationale，会放Brancusi，Noguchi，Judd，De Wain Valentine等人的作品。我也非常佩服那些制造和材料方面不断寻求突破的人们，像Jony Ive, Marc Newson, Ross Lovegrove这些人。