A|L visits China's Guangzhou International Lighting Exhibition.
» A recent trip to China in June 2004 confirmed much of what I had heard about the country. Signs of an enormous population are everywhere: acres of monotonous high-rise apartment buildings; an excess of workers methodically grooming public gardens, city streets and subways; and the traffic. The essence of 'cheap' seemed to permeate everything-from clothing and accessories to building interiors, signage and packaging.

My destination was the Guangzhou International Lighting Exhibition. In its 592,000 square feet of booth space, this show encapsulated many of China's deficiencies as a producer (of lighting equipment, at least), as well as its great potential. The Guangya Exhibition & Trade Company, organizer of the Guangzhou exhibition since 1996, teamed with Messe Frankfurt, the exhibit organizer responsible for Light + Building, to produce the 2004 show. According to a Messe Frankfurt report, the fair has almost doubled its number of exhibitors in three years (from 512 in 2001, to 917 in 2004), with booth space in square meters increasing 41 percent over last year. Of the total exhibitor number, 159 were foreign exhibitors, including Martin Professional, Osram, General Electric and Trilux. The organizers logged about 35,000 attendees over the four-day show.

The biennial Light + Building event in Germany proves Messe Frankfurt knows how to put on a lighting trade show, and with its understanding of the Western marketplace, the organization will contribute much to the Guangzhou exhibition; but at this point, the event has a long road to travel before it is relevant from a design and innovation standpoint to the North American and European lighting community. A disproportionate number of pipe-and-drape booths in the five halls were showcasing the next thing in Christmas lights and illuminated kitsch. The hall featuring the 'name brand' manufacturers offered more architectural and decorative options, but much of it I had seen before-just under a different name. As one Messe Frankfurt employee explained, 'They see copying as a form of flattery.' Perhaps, but then why was I quickly discouraged from photographing a collection of Artemide look-alikes at one exhibitor's booth? In conversation, a German manufacturer's representative exhibiting at the show admitted the company does not bring its newer products, for fear of ideas theft. In some ways, the greatest obstacle to the event's relevance was the language barrier: if a sleeping technological innovation did exist, it would have been hard to find through normal modes of inquiry.

The potential of China's lighting industry lies in the numbers. Certainly there is a surplus of small companies producing redundant equipment, and much of it inspired by products designed in the United States and Europe; however, the number of Chinese exhibitors speaks to the capacity for production. The number of both exhibitors and attendees are evidence of the region's growing interest in lighting, and Messe Frankfurt's involvement signals Western interest in this emerging market. Concurrently, the construction boom in China-the one that caused the price of steel to rise 20 percent last spring-means there are a lot of buildings that need lighting. And where there is demand, it seems logical there will be industrial response: more products for less, and maybe even better quality and innovation. Maybe not this year or next, but soon.

With that on the horizon, what role should the U.S. and European lighting industry play in China? The expression 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' comes to mind. Rather than a 'closed-door' policy, perhaps U.S. and European manufacturers and designers should seize the opportunity to work with Chinese manufacturers and the nascent Chinese design community to assure product quality and integrity. It seems better to apply pressure before we start hemorrhaging and the only option is a tourniquet. Emilie W. Sommerhoff