China niche for California design firm

Updated: 2014-12-19 13:50

By Paul Welitzkin in New York(China Daily USA)

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China niche for California design firm

Above is a rendering of one of the lofts featured in the Shenyang development, a mixed-use project from California-based 5+design firm. Provided to China Daily

The California lifestyle has been good to Mike Ellis and Tim Magill. It's been so good that they have managed to create a thriving enterprise that receives half of its billings from China based in part on the Golden State's famous ethos of sun and a laid-back attitude toward life and people.

Ellis and Magill are the managing principals of the Hollywood-based architecture firm 5+design. They founded the firm in 2005 and four years later established a presence in China. This year, 50 percent of 5+design's business will come from China. In 2013, China accounted for 70 percent of revenue.

"China is evolving into a lifestyle society that in some ways is similar to California," Ellis told China Daily in an interview. "We bring a competence and attitude toward lifestyle that resonates with developers and end users."

5+design was recently featured in a New York Times article for its loft development in Shenyang; an industrial city with a population of over 8 million located about 390 miles north of Beijing. 5+design's project is a development of lofts similar to the ones that helped mark the rebirth of New York City's SoHo neighborhood in the 1990s.

"These Chinese 'SoHo lofts' are not just distinctive for their moniker. That they are live/work units suggests a shift in China, an acknowledgment by developers there that some of the younger generation are eschewing more traditional roles and venturing into entrepreneurialism and creative fields," said the Times' article.

"We bring something to our design work from California. Remember the lifestyle development was pioneered in California," said Ellis.

5+design has two offices in China, in Shanghai and Shenzhen, employing about 13. In California, the firm has about 80-90 people. Its very first client was Wide Horizon Development in Chengdu, where it did the design for 14 residential towers.

"We have a strong history in complex mixed-use design," Ellis said. Magill said the firm has expanded on a global scale. "We have done work in Turkey, Russia and in the Middle East. We have a wide range of experience in retail and mixed-use design and this has helped us serve clients all over the world."

5+design is among a number of US architectural firms that have managed to participate in China's urbanization drive. Jonathan Solomon is director of the department of architecture, interior architecture and designed objects at the Art Institute of Chicago. He said China has relied on US firms for certain types of design work for large or complex projects such as super-tall skyscrapers. US firms have experience in these areas and in working with global teams that are used on these projects.

"While China does not need to look to the US or other foreign firms for most of its architectural services, it is a good sign that it does. Architecture is increasingly a global profession, and it enriches China to be open to global expertise at both large and small scales. Architecture is also a cultural practice, and an open economy in architecture also allows for important cultural exchanges. For both these reasons, I hope that more Chinese architects will be given opportunities to practice in the US," he told China Daily in an e-mail.

5+design has gone beyond property to cruise ships. The firm provided designs for Royal Caribbean International's Quantum of the Seas cruise ship. Royal Caribbean took delivery of the $1 billion ship in October and next June it is scheduled debut at in Shanghai. It will be able to accommodate 4,500 passengers.