Inspired by her love of Chinese culture and design, Sarah Armstrong founded her own label Pinyin Press in 2014. Since then, the Scottish textile designer has created a line of apparel, homeware and gift items featuring local cultural symbols such as lucky cats, baozi, dumplings, dandan noodles and more. Just before the brand celebrates its fifth anniversary next year, Armstrong reflects on some of her favorite designs and reveals her future plans for the label.
You came to Shanghai in 2009 and started Pinyin Press in 2014. What inspired you to start the brand?
When I was looking for gifts and designs to send to friends and family, I realized that there was an opportunity in the marketplace for localized Chinese design. After working for some luxury brands in China, I also wanted to create products that were at an accessible price point and available to all. Through Pinyin Press, I sought to create designs that would communicate my own personal experiences and appreciation of the culture and to tell a story of everyday life here.
Image via Pinyin Press.
Any special meaning behind the name Pinyin Press?
Zhou Youguang invented Pinyin in the late 1950s, and he described it as “a bridge between China and the rest of the world.” For foreigners living in China, Zhou offered a simple piece of wisdom, “Do something to help bridge understanding between China’s ancient civilization and the modern world.” I created Pinyin Press to tell my story of life in China and to help connect others to the culture.
Looking back, what have been the most challenging aspects about starting and running your own brand in China? What have been the most satisfying?
Manufacturing and quality control in China are often challenges and it’s something that I’m stringent about. One of the most satisfying aspects is bringing a product to fruition and discovering how customers relate to a particular motif or icon through shared experiences in China.
“I created Pinyin Press to tell my story of life in China and to help connect others to the culture”
What are some of your favorite designs?
The Cricket design is one of my all-time favorites – it was produced in a limited quantity on mugs, serving trays and children’s clothing. I liked it because it has a light touch and perhaps more subtle references to China. I also love the symbolism of the golden dumplings and the fun element of the lucky cat design.
Is there anything that you love about Chinese culture that you wanted to turn into a product but haven’t yet?
I’m often drawn to elements of good fortune, so I’d like to create some new products around auspicious cultural elements. I’d also like to create more localized designs, celebrating specialties of different regions or regional dishes. As a designer who specializes in textiles, there’s nothing more satisfying than designing a great new print pattern – I’d love to extend the collection to wallpapers, soft furnishings and cushions. I’m also looking to relaunch our baby and kids accessories collection next spring, too.
Pinyin Press will turn five in 2019. Any celebrations planned for the special occasion?
For the fifth anniversary, I’m looking to revisit some of the original designs from the first collection and create some new products that are as fun as my first Pinyin designs. I’ve recently created personalized wedding favors and VIP gifting services, so I’d like to expand in these areas, too. I’d also love to collaborate with other home accessories brands on a capsule collection. Pinyin Press now has retail partners in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Hong Kong and Singapore, and has customers in Nanjing, Tianjin, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. So I’m looking to continue to expand the business to new cities, too.
It’ll also be your 10th anniversary in Shanghai. What’s next for you?
I moved to Shanghai for a one-year adventure, and 10 years on, I’m still enjoying it, and this is where I consider home. Next year, I plan to visit rural parts of China and would love to work with local craftspeople in different regions on a personal design project.