December 6, 2012Vol. 43, Issue 3

International Success: From Chico to China

Brian Kobe’s design for the Shanghai Tower dining room features the petals of the white magnolia on the ceiling.

Brian Kobe’s design for the Shanghai Tower dining room features the petals of the white magnolia on the ceiling.

Competing against professional designers at one of China’s largest interior design companies with your design for a senior center in Shanghai? Being asked to design the dining room for the new Shanghai Tower? These projects could overwhelm even a seasoned design professional, but Chico State interior design undergrads are handling them with aplomb while interning with Gold Mantis Corporation, based in Suzhou.

Since fall 2010, five interior design students have had the unique experience of serving for two to three months as design interns for one of China’s largest interior design companies. Gold Mantis, with offices all over China and design jobs all over the world, has designed such projects as the Beijing “Birdcage” for the 2008 summer Olympics, the luxury hotel chain Shangri-La, and the Shanghai Tower, which will be the world’s tallest building when completed in 2014.
Kijeong Jeon, professor and coordinator of the interior design (IDES) program at Chico State, has a friend and former colleague who is a design director at Gold Mantis, Chaoyi Gao. Jeon and Gao met for lunch one afternoon several years ago in Monterey Bay, and Jeon pitched the idea of an internship for IDES students, enabling them to gain hands-on experience in an international industry.

“I went straight to the point with Mr. Gao,” says Jeon. “I said, ‘This is a globalizing market, and your company is one of the best design firms in China. What do you think about taking some of our students for your internship?’ And, being the good friend he is, he said yes.” Gao saw this internship as a good opportunity for Gold Mantis as well.

Applicants for the Gold Mantis internship must have a portfolio, which means that most of the applicants are juniors and seniors. Jeon sends his students’ portfolios to Gold Mantis, and designers there choose a design student for the internship. Students typically go in the summer or fall, and they stay for two to three months.

“In the IDES program, we require students to have internship units to graduate. Each internship must be at least 144 hours,” says Jeon. “But our students at Gold Mantis work day and night during the two or three months they are there—they work many more hours than what is required. They can’t leave the office when everybody’s working.”

Heidi Gaeddert and Kijeong Jeon at the Gold Mantis office in Shanghai.

Heidi Gaeddert and Kijeong Jeon at the Gold Mantis office in Shanghai.

The experience that this internship has offered to each student has been impressive. All five design students have flown to China on their own and have been assigned their own design projects there. These aren’t just simple projects, either. Most students have designed and pitched ideas to the company for consideration, some even having their designs chosen.

“The results have been much more successful than I expected,” says Jeon. “Every student comes back with a different experience.”

Kristine Gonzalez and Andrea Neely went to China in summer 2011. They were assigned the task of designing a senior citizen center in Shanghai—a project that Gold Mantis also assigned to their professional designers. Gonzalez and Neely’s design was chosen over the professional designers’ designs, and they were even asked to present the design to the client themselves.

Bryan Kobe interned for Gold Mantis in summer 2012 and was assigned the task of designing the banquet room for the new Shanghai Tower.

“Representing the indigenous culture was the entire focus for this project,” says Kobe. “The final design was derived from a flower that held a special significance to the people of Shanghai and the psychological effect on people who witness the shadowy pattern on the ground from leaves in trees overhead. I tried to create a nirvana...in a banquet room. This set of results I achieved was derived from one meeting entirely in Chinese (Mandarin) where I learned what was wanted through only watching the hand gestures and hearing the fluctuations in the volume in conversations. It was an immensely enjoyable design problem to solve.”

The language barrier is one of the most challenging problems faced by students in China. Many designers at Gold Mantis can speak some English, but most business is conducted in Chinese. Some students learn how to communicate with their coworkers very quickly, like Bryan Kobe. Other students have prepared themselves by taking language courses prior to going abroad or by learning the language while there with resources like Rosetta Stone.
Since Jeon joined the IDES program seven years ago, he has completely restructured the curriculum to make it more current with industry standards and practices.

“Our curriculum is to train our students to work with other professionals,” says Jeon. “No one in interior design works alone—we work with architects, landscape architects, lighting engineers, contractors. We train our students to be compatible with other professionals. That way, no matter where they are, no matter who they work with, they can communicate with and deliver their ideas to other professionals. I am very happy with the way our program is going.”

“In meeting so many international designers, I realized how many opportunities there are in the world for someone with a strong vision, courage, and an adventurous soul,” says Heidi Gaeddert, the first IDES student to intern at Gold Mantis in fall 2010. 

Gaeddert was scared to go at first—she had never even left the United States before. But after much encouragement from Jeon, she went to Shanghai and had an incredible experience. Gaeddert currently works for a design firm in San Francisco. Recently, Gao contacted Jeon asking for her contact information—he has a friend in China who is starting his own design business and thinks Gaeddert might be a good fit and interested.

“The best advice I can give is the advice that allowed me to conquer my fears to go,” says Gaeddert. “Kijeong said to me, ‘There are always going to be a million reasons not to do something.’ My advice is take the chance, explore and embrace the unknown, and you will discover parts of yourself that you never knew were there.”

The internship program with Gold Mantis continues today and serves as an example of how the design skills students are developing in the classroom at Chico State translate into success abroad.

“The faculty at Chico State is diverse and emphasizes understanding various cultures, something that is imperative to working or traveling globally,” says Kobe.  “I would accept this internship any day.”

—Cassandra Jones, Public Affairs and Publications

—Photo Credits: Brian Kobe and Kijeong Jeon