In an effort to explore the potential of Chinese product design, leading Italian kitchenware manufacturer Alessi partnered with the Beijing Industrial Design Center on the (Un)forbidden City project. Launched to coincide with Beijing Design Week in November 2011, the initiative involved inviting eight contemporary Chinese architects to design one of Alessi’s signature products, the humble tray. The idea harks back to the famous Alessi concept of nearly a decade ago, when Alberto Alessi invited 22 architects to design a teapot, some of which are now considered important objects of design.

The eight architectural talents involved in (Un)forbidden City were curated by Gary Chang – who himself designed one of the serving platters – and include local starchitect Ma Yansong of MAD, as well as Chang Yung Ho, Liu Jiakun, Urbanus, Wang Shu, Zhang Ke, and Zhang Lei. Working with proportions much smaller than their usual large-scale projects, the architects presented a varied range of platters, from the traditionally inspired rolling bamboo tray by Chang Yung Ho to avant garde creations such as the multi-layered Trayscape by design collective Urbanus. More than Alessi’s stated aim of discovering the state of local product design, (Un)forbidden City stylishly serves up a concise view of the names to know in Chinese architecture now.

Hong Kong-born Chang is the founder of Edge architects and has exhibited at both the Venice Biennale and the Hong Kong Arts Centre. He acted as the curator of (Un)forbidden City, choosing the seven other architects.

“Trick and Treat” is more than a tray: it’s a multi-purpose container. It follows us everywhere, and its functions change with our needs and desires. Its appearance and operation change with a mere rotating movement. The construction is a simple steel sheet, cut and folded to cover an internal melamine box.

One of the most important Chinese architects, Chang founded FCJZ (which translates as "unusual architecture") in 1993 and is also the Head Professor of MIT Architecture.

Lotus Leaf” reveals the designer’s intention to use the shapes of nature, keeping the "design" aspect to a minimum. The lotus leaf, taken from the ancient Summer Palace and then left to dry out for six months, was run through a three dimensional scanner and then slightly modified to obtain fi rmer geometric supports. It was then transformed into a mould to produce the steel “copy” that is the tray itself. The tray can be used on both sides, offering two different ways of holding and serving. The complex ribbing of the lotus leaf enhances the textured quality and reflections of the mirror polished 18/10 stainless steel, with a processing that fully matches the high standards of Alessi production.

As the founding partner of Chengdu-based Jiakun Architects, Liu Jiakun is responsible for structures including the Luyeyuan Stone Sculpture Art Museum, Human Settlement Project Of Anren Jianchuan Museum, Department of Sculpture of Sichuan Art Institute, and Guangzhou Time Rose Garden.

The “Jane” tray is formed of bars outlined in gold-coloured anodised aluminium, with a convex section. The slightly trapezoidal shape of the bar section, and the position of the hinges, give to the base of the tray a curved structure, producing a concave surface that’s ideal for serving, and a convex one that’s perfect as a table centrepiece. “Jane” is also a common western name, so when a "Miss Jane" is offering a cup or food from the “Jane” tray, she is offering an ancient memory of Chinese tradition as well.

Yan Song is a graduate of Yale’s University School of Architecture and worked at various renowned practices, including Zaha Hadid, before founding MAD Architects in 2004. The practice is now one of the most influential in China and has worked on projects including the Absolute Tower in Toronto, Solar Plaza in Guangzhou, and Shanghai Digital Art Center.

The “Floating Earth” tray is a metaphor for the earth. The earth cannot be seen as a single volume; we only see its surface, which gives life to everything. It’s a sort of tree that alters its appearance; the smooth, rotating levels are designed with changeable geometries to give a feeling of exceeding the space, and on which the items are reflected and come alive. Its height and sculpturesque shape suggest that it can be used not only as a tray but also as a cake stand or table centrepiece.

This Shenzhen-based architecture and design collective is committed to the Modernist believe that architecture is a pivotal force for a better life, and hence architects should push the boundary of their traditional role. Their most celebrated work includes the Futian Science & Technology Plaza and the Vanke experimental Center, Shenzhen.

Like other trays in this range, “Trayscape” can be used on both sides. When it’s empty, it looks like a table sculpture - a dark stone shaped to resemble a lake landscape surrounded
by the rolling hills typical of a traditional Chinese garden. When full, that is to say when it’s used as a tray, it’s turned over and the landscape relief becomes the support for it. The
smooth and slightly curved surface, which was previously resting on the table, now becomes the area for holding the food to be served. The two opposing essences of “Trayscape” - the contemplative waiting of the empty tray and the practical waiting of the full one - can only be seen individually, as one excludes the other.

A well known name amongst the new generation of experimental Chinese architects, Wang practices what he terms “critical regionalism”, defined as emphasizing the importance of “placeness” by considering contextual elements like scenery, historical references, and light, without falling into imitation and traditionalism.

Clouds Root” is a system of two trays, inspired by the elusiveness of the clouds. One is big and the other small; one male and the other female. They meet by chance in one point, leaving space between them. The material is mirror polished steel, to virtually represent the relationship between illusion and reality. The irregular shape is visually balanced by the straight edges and the use of solid steel, with a firm, rigid border profile.

A graduate of both the Nanjing Institute of Technology and the ETH in Zurich, Zhang Lei believes that his architecture is neither Chinese nor foreign. Having founded AZL Atelier Zhanglei in 2000, he has completed many projects within Nanjing where he continues to base his practice.

Opposition” is a tray that is actually a refined play of volumes more commonly found in architecture than in an item like this. The central part is circular and flat, while the outer edge is raised, square and flat. These two parts are joined together by a sloping section that blends evenly into each other, without any interruptions. This geometric virtuosity creates two stiffening ribs, one beginning at the lower level and “rising”, and the other “falling” from the upper level. The result is a gentle visual tale of opposing values, as the very name of the tray says.

A graduate of Harvard University and the Tsinghua School of Architecture, Zhang Ke founded his Standard Architecture practice in 2001, which is known for its intelligent buildings that are always rooted in their historic and cultural settings.

Ming”, like other trays in this collection, has a dual use. Its long, narrow shape is obtained with two faces - one perfectly flat and the other concave. The result is a geometrically simple form that brings to mind the stylistic characters of the Ming period, still popular today. The flat side of the tray is a good support for the pens and ink used in Chinese calligraphy, or for the tea ceremony, or for serving sushi. The concave part is an elegant fruit-bowl or general desk organizer.