From architecture to furniture, from utensils to jewellery, wood is the most common material used in Oriental daily life. It’s strong and upright; people trust it to support houses and structures. It’s warm and flexible and can easily be molded into various things. It is simple and accessible, and has quietly showcased the skills and talents of artisans for thousands of years.
As an architect, cultural enthusiast, and art collector, Tian Qi’s predestined bond with wood has been a strong inspiration in his entrepreneurial adventures. The name of his company, DUANMU, is short for Duanmu Liangjin, which means, literally, “Upright Wood, Exquisite Fabric.”
Qi originally founded his brand to create custom packaging boxes for top antiques and artworks before he started making handbags. It also expresses his entrepreneurial philosophy—an upright character and unparalleled quality are the foundation of prosperity.
An ancient instrument in a handbag
A few years ago, Qi came across an exhibition poster of the Nara Museum in Japan. It showed a pipa, the back of which was decorated with light-coloured square and round flower patterns on a dark wood background. Its simplicity and elegance immediately caught his attention. Qi discovered that this was a Tang Dynasty pipa collected by Emperor Shōmu of Japan. The patterns on its back weren’t painted or printed, but were done in a fine wood inlay technique that had almost been lost in China.
This type of fine wood inlay prevailed during the Sui and Tang dynasties in ancient China, but gradually waned in China due to material restrictions. It spread instead to Europe along the Silk Road and appeared on the furniture of royal families and nobles.
It’s a highly skilled craft and is extremely labour intensive. Craftsmen would first saw various types of wood into thin slices, draw patterns on them, and cut them accurately piece by piece. Then they would dig grooves on a larger piece of wood in the desired pattern, insert the small wood pieces, knock them in place with a hammer, polish the surface, and finally paint it.
The complexity of the patterns formed by various colours and textures of the wood demonstrates the level of the craftsman’s skill and artistry.
As an architect, Qi has a passion for wood and a natural instinct for woodcraft, and he decided to revive this lost craft. The production process was full of challenges. Procuring equipment, seeking craftsmen to collaborate, even designing a chip to enhance equipment precision, Qi embarked on a quest to recreate the lost craft of ancient Chinese wood inlay. After six months of research, trials, and perseverance, DUANMU finally recreated the pattern on the Tang Dynasty pipa using fine wood inlay techniques.
The pattern on the pipa is known as the baoxiang flower (寶相). It became popular in the Sui and Tang dynasties along with Buddhism, and has been seen on bronze mirrors from the Tang Dynasty and in the frescoes in the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. The flower pattern mostly comes from the lotus and peony, which signify purity, dignity, wealth, and auspiciousness.
One day, when Qi and his wife got dressed up to attend a party, his wife was disappointed because she didn’t have a nice evening bag. Inspired by his wife’s need, Qi started creating handbags using the cherished flower pattern and his newly mastered craft.
DUANMU’s popular Baoxiang Flower Clutch was made of a variety of precious woods from all over the world. A handbag with full intarsia usually requires hundreds or even close to a thousand small pieces of wood. Each piece must be precisely cut and well ground before being inserted into the dug groove. A total of 22 processes and 194 procedures are required to make the entire handbag.
Qi said that in recent years, some European luxury brands have also given new life to this craft. “The dials of famous watches, such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, have used the fine wood inlay process in their limited edition watches. Their materials and processes are basically the same as ours.”
Extensive details, quaint patterns, and rich colours make this DUANMU design classic and timeless. Using computers, precision machinery and human hands, Qi’s team is able to reduce the inlay error of the Tang baoxiang flower to be close to 0.1 mm. This means their level of refinement has surpassed the Tang Dynasty pipa in the Japanese museum, and their inlay gap is even finer than the pores and gaps in wood’s natural texture.
The architecture of a handbag
The biggest problem in making wooden handbags is that the wood deforms under different humidity and temperatures, which affects the structure of the entire bag. “If you remove the outer layer and look closely at the frame of our bag at the bottom, you will find that the direction of the wood layout is very complicated. It’s not just a piece of wood that is hollowed out, or a few pieces being glued together to form a bag. We rely on the characteristics of different wood to absorb and offset the deformation by laying different wood in different directions.”
Qi said this design requires a lot of experience and rigorous craftsmanship. It also requires the artisan to have a full understanding of each type of wood, its characteristics, and the best positions for each piece. If any error occurs, such as turning a piece of wood by 90 degrees, the quality of the bag will be compromised.
Last year, DUANMU launched a new series of handbags called Lingbo, which were inspired by Ode to the Nymph of the Luo River, a poem by Cao Zhi (192–232) from the Three Kingdoms period of China. This is the first time the brand has incorporated leather as a material in addition to wood and fabric. Qi said the theme of Ode of Luoshen was chosen because it’s one of the most beautiful poems in Chinese history, representing the sentiments and aesthetics of ancient Chinese elites.
“In ancient Chinese architecture, wood is the supporting structure, and walls are the enclosure. In our bags, the supporting structure is also wood, but the walls are replaced with leather. Introducing this soft material makes the bag more practical and comfortable. Meanwhile, it’s made differently from the stitched structure of western leather products. Although they are all leather bags, they give you a completely different feeling.”
When the idea first came out, Qi encountered a lot of opposition, suggesting that using leather might cause DUANMU to lose its uniqueness. “But I feel this is an expression of being not confident. Even if I introduce a material commonly used in the West, I can still achieve an ancient Chinese-style expression. So why not?”
“DUANMU’s goal is to use new designs and technologies to apply traditional aesthetics, spirits, and craftsmanship to contemporary lifestyle,” he says.
This ingenuity is reflected in all aspects of DUANMU. Qi’s command of architectural form and function is also evident in his handbag designs, for example, in the innovative opening methods of the wooden bags. With a flexible shutter-like cover and concealed tracks, the opening and closing of a DUANMU bag provides an unusual, smooth, and exceptionally satisfying feeling. Also full of surprises in form and function are DUANMU’s various mini cardholders that automatically pop, and the interlock-opening of jewellery boxes.
DUANMU has been operating for ten years. Qi says the biggest reward for him is knowing that at the very core of his business is altruism.
“During the process of running a business, we’ve improved our technology and craftsmanship, as well as the professionalism of our people, so it has become a virtuous, positive circle. We have many collaborating manufacturers. In the beginning, they were reluctant when asked to improve their craftsmanship to meet our product requirements. Later, they became very happy that they did it. Because making such high quality products has given them a sense of pride,” he says.
“Just like Hermès in France, it has supported many small workshops that provide materials and craftsmanship, and ultimately drives the prosperity of the French luxury industry.”
In this impetuous era, people rush to get on the fast track to move ahead. In order to catch up with the ever-changing trend and to turn business opportunities into profits as soon as possible, nearly every business is trying to shorten production cycles, reduce costs, and maximize profits.
But no matter how the times change, there will always be a group of entrepreneurs who choose to go upstream, stick to their principles, and insist on quality and excellence. In the end, time will prove that they’re the true producers of genuine luxuries, creating rare and precious crafts that can be passed on to future generations.
“DUANMU is not only a matter of one generation. We will make it a matter of many people and many generations.”