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When Cecilia Xinyu Zhang was invited to study design in Sweden, the decision to leave her native China was easy. “I was attracted to something so exotic and different from what I was used to,” she says. Six years later, she’s a breakout talent on Scandinavia’s design scene. Here, Xinyu Zhang talks to MacKenzie Lewis Kassab about a lauded partnership with Norwegian brand Northern, and finding beauty in the quotidian.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Beijing, a city of 20 million people. It’s very dense. You’re surrounded by people speaking, walking too fast and pushing their way through the subway. I go back once in a while, just to experience something so different from Bergen, where I live now.

How did you end up in Norway?
I traveled twice to Bergen while I was a student in Sweden, and I was so in awe of the fjords, the mountains, the ocean. The weather was beautiful on both trips, so I was convinced this was the place I had to be. I didn’t know that it rains 300 days out of the year! One minute it’s sunny and the next it snows or hails. You grow to appreciate the extremes.

Your designs have a heavy focus on spatial relationships. Is that approach influenced by where you grew up?
Perhaps subconsciously, but you don’t notice the density while you’re there. In Norway, people keep a distance from each other. I really enjoy that emptiness, that void.

To what do you attribute your interest in the relationship between an object, space and the viewer?
I’ve always admired architects who create spatial sculptures on a large scale. If you look at a structure as an object, architects manipulate it with space and light. There is an enhanced reality that you can relate by creating a sense of space. [Laughs] I’m getting really abstract! I think that’s fascinating, so I approach product design in an architectural way.

How did the collaboration with Northern come to be?
The company’s founders liked an object called Nook that I exhibited at the Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair in 2016, and they asked if I could do another for them. I was given an interesting brief: to create a laundry dryer. They wanted something beautiful and functional that doesn’t have to be stowed away when not in use.

Why was that exciting to you?
I really believe that you can transform a trivial piece—something people don’t find particularly attractive—into something extraordinary. The result was Frame.

Were you surprised by the response to Frame?
Yes! There were tons of modifications to the project, especially when adapting it for mass production. I wasn’t sure it was going to work as I had imagined it. But in the end, I was really satisfied; people seem to appreciate the graphic expression of the piece and understand it just by looking at it. It was nominated for an Editor’s Choice Award at the 2018 Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair.

Do you have a dream project?
There are so many things I’d like to explore. I’ve become a huge fan of artificial intelligence. I don’t know how this will relate to design, but I don’t want to limit my imagination or stay in my comfort zone.

What would I find if I were to look in your purse?
Pencils, maybe a sketchpad and lipstick, and probably a napkin with some abstract idea written on it. I have to catch the ideas flowing in my mind or they’ll disappear. I also map them on my phone.

Do you rely heavily on your phone?
I’m trying to be less connected with the digital world, because there’s too much happening. You have to stay conscious about what’s going on, but too much information can feel overwhelming.

How do you quiet your thoughts?
I recently took up skiing and really like the feeling of being in control while being out of control. The sport grabs your attention enough that you get lost in nature. You forget everything else. For a moment, you lose yourself.

This story originally appeared on Skandiastyle.com

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