For thousands of years, Chinese emperors consulted with powerful mystics for guidance about how to rule. These men and their knowledge were kept secret, even as they helped shape the fate of dynasties and the landscape of an ancient empire. They were masters of “feng shui,” or “wind water,” a belief system grounded in the concept of living in harmony with one’s surroundings.
Feng shui practices have long been used to design buildings, from palaces and tombs long ago to skyscrapers and modern homes today. In the 13th century, feng shui masters chose a spot flanked by auspicious mountains as the site for a new imperial capital, which would one day become Beijing. The same concepts have dictated how Chinese build their houses, situate their desks and even where they place their potted plants. Essentially it’s about the flow of energy to maximize comfort and thus productivity.
When east meets west, feng shui is often in the middle. In 2005, Disney executives shifted the main gate of Hong Kong Disneyland by 12 degrees, after consulting with a feng shui master who said the change would ensure the then-under construction theme park’s success. Although the multinational banking and financial services company HSBC is based in London, its Hong Kong headquarters is practically a shrine to feng shui: a pair of lions guarding the entrance protect the building’s wealth, a square out front allows business opportunities to flow unobstructed and the building’s downtown location is judged to be supremely auspicious.
Whether or not you’re a believer, it’s clear that in Asia, feng shui is good for business. After all, nobody wants to alienate customers by ignoring their spiritual culture. That’s why the main office in Shaw’s new carpet tile plant in Nantong, China was designed with feng shui in mind.
When I arrive on a clear spring day in mid-March, the front lobby is cluttered with scaffolding, plaster and a huddle of workmen sanding and sawing. The first thing I notice is the lack of right angles, which Chinese believe blocks positive “qi” or energy.
Jason Bowling, Shaw Industries’ Director of Corporate Facilities, stands in the lobby taking mental notes. “There’s a lot of concern about corners in this culture, so we want to make sure everything looks right,” he tells me.
Bowling first came to the plant site in 2011, “when it was still a piece of ground.” As the force behind Shaw’s showrooms in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, he’s learned a lot about what works visually in Asia, and that’s vital. With several months to go before the plant opens, it’s his job to ensure the environment is, as a feng shui master would say, harmonious.
“Shaw is a design-forward organization,” he says, eyeing the smooth lines that swoop across the front entrance with a practiced eye. “We’re bringing that idea to the Chinese market, which is why we’re sharpshooting.”
Recently, the Shaw design team got a bit of homegrown help. When Anna Chu, Shaw China’s business development manager, took a run-through of the office, she noticed something was amiss. According to the principles of feng shui, the ideal seating position faces south to take the most advantage of natural light. But the office set for Shaw China director Nolan Howell faced north.
As a Chinese working for an American company, Anna was unsure whether her advice would be heeded – or laughed at. “I didn’t want people to think I’m superstitious,” she tells me. So she waited and then she mentioned it to the property management company, which agreed it was a strange decision, at least from a Chinese perspective. That convinced her to speak up. “In America it’s not an issue, but in China people really feel these decisions can impact your business,” she says. Howell agreed, and today his office, sure enough, faces south.
“If you think about design, it’s always functionality and comfort,” says Anna. “Feng shui is based on the same idea.”