Photos by Peter Cox
Alibaba is a breeding ground for the invention, imitation, and adaptation of products without intellectual property. These objects—many of them short-lived, niche, and trivial anomalies that pop up in the online platform to take advantage of a temporary production window, a passing trend, or an entrepreneurial gamble—may not seem inherently valuable as artefacts of design, technology, or craft. Certainly, they show little relation to a modern design ideology that praised minimal aesthetics as honest and middle-class household goods as functional. The absence of a clear, single designer role behind these new objects is taken as proof of their marginality.
This is especially true for 5D Diamond Painting, a popular DIY craft using plastic gemstones to fill in a pixelated canvas, creating a large-scale picture. The canvases are printed using repurposed machines for cross-stitch and embroidery templates, which were modified to incorporate photo-processing software. The “paintings” are usually sold as pre-assembled kits, traveling in 10 days from Zhejiang Province to Western homes, where the consumer—almost always a woman—completes the painting, often sharing the results of her handiwork in craft forums or YouTube demos. Some consumers prefer to buy the 5D Diamond Paintings in their finished state: in that case, the kits are first sent to “Taobao villages” in rural mainland China, where women are subcontracted to fill the canvas with diamonds, earning 6 RMB (about €0.75) per 1,000 gemstones. The finished paintings are then sent back to the market cities to be channeled into the logistics system.
Behind its kitsch, glittering surface, the 5D Diamond Painting constitutes a strategic innovation in terms of machine adaptation, robust network connections from manufacturer to consumer, extension of the assembly line from the factory into the home—both the home of the subcontractor and the home of the buyer—and flexible systems of meaning, in which the same object is both manufactured and crafted and the same action can be leisure or labour, depending on the context.
Field research with Yuhan Panand Jin Leiting in Hangzhou, Yiwu, Wenzhou, YanTou Village, Zhejiang Province (CN)
Read an interview with Martina Muzi on The Hidden Design of Hobby-Craft Link
Martina Muzi is a designer and researcher born in Rome. Her multidisciplinary practice develops between the private and the public, the physical and the virtual, the informal and the institutional, investigating how social relations are embedded in or affect contemporary or future design and architecture scenarios. She is the curator of the GEO—DESIGN exhibition platform and a mentor at Design Academy Eindhoven.