A conversation with pioneering design studio, Bentu.
Bentu is a Guangzhou-based design studio that’s setting a whole new direction for design in China. Formed in the spirit of experimentation, they have gained an international acclaim – and a prestigious Red Dot Award - for their beautifully resolved furniture and design objects crafted from recycled concrete and ceramics.
We caught up with the team at Bentu to find out more about their love of concrete, their commitment to sustainable design and what’s next for this pioneering design studio.
Let’s go back to the beginning - how was Bentu formed?
We were originally working as interior design studio and we took on a project in 2011 that required us to create an interior space made of concrete. We knew there was a lot of concrete architecture in the world but we wanted to do something different. We came up with the idea of creating everything – the lighting, furniture and accessories – from concrete.
There were a lot of challenges that came up during the process and we had to do a lot of research. The internet is strictly controlled by the Chinese government, so we don’t have access to Google and Facebook and Twitter is blocked. We have a limited ability to get information, so we were exploring a new thing in a new way and we still don’t really have a reference for what we’re doing.
Through our research we found that concrete was such a good material for making products, so we’ve been working with the material ever since and this is how Bentu was formed.
What does ‘Bentu’ mean in English?
Bentu means ‘local’, ‘earth’, ‘origins’, and also means ‘contemporary’. We want to use local materials, but also what is already available on the earth, to make our products.
Why have you continued to work with concrete?
We want to change people’s conventional ways of thinking and create something that is different. Concrete is used a lot in architecture but not so much for furniture and interior objects. It has a plasticity that enables it to be formed into almost anything and it has a unique texture and it also contrasts so well with other materials.
Tell us about the Bentu team.
We don’t think of ourselves as purely a design practice. Bentu is a place of experimentation. Some of our designers are from professional art schools and universities in China. We have 3-5 main designers but we have more than 10 others who collaborate in our office.
How would you describe the current design scene in China?
The Chinese economy is in rapid development, and our design skills in China are also growing and developing rapidly. There is also a growing appetite in China for design, mostly among young people.
A lot of expertise goes into manufacturing your products. What are some of the challenges of working with concrete?
We wouldn’t normally think about making products like lighting from concrete, so we had to overcome strong conventional thinking - this was the first challenge. The second challenge is more technical. We are doing all the research ourselves without a reference point and we’re technically starting from zero. Concrete can easily be affected by environmental factors, and the technique for creating moulds is complex. Each mould is crafted from a combination of machine and hand, but we also had to adapt machinery to enable the manufacturing simply because there was nothing that already existed that we could use.
Your designs bring new life to concrete and ceramic waste. What’s your motivation?
China is a changing and developing rapidly — everyday there are buildings going up and coming down and there is so much waste from demolition. If we can take some of this waste and make use for it through creating products, we can make a difference to the environment and the world. We also want to reveal the texture of the material through our products.
Ceramics is a huge industry in China, responsible for a lot of waste produced. By collecting some of the left-over ceramics and combining it with concrete to make a table, we are recycling and creating something useful. We don’t want to make limited edition products – we want to make them accessible to lots of people.
What’s next for Bentu?
We want to create more functional products and we want to continue exploring natural materials, such as through the work we are doing with lava stone. We also want to work more with raw local Chinese materials like bamboo. We have created a little sculpture of a house in a bamboo forest in Szechuan Province, using bamboo that is still growing in the earth – we didn’t need to cut it down. We want to keep experimenting.