When Taipei is crowned World Design Capital in 2016 it will be the final recognition that “made in Taiwan” has successfully evolved into “designed in Taiwan”. While most factories became defunct years ago as the booming electronics industry lifted living standards, Taiwan’s image as a mass-market manufacturer has been harder to shift. In truth, the advent of fully fledged democracy in the 1990s, together with a vigorous economy, quickly produced a wave of designers, artists and architects, jewellers and musicians. But wave has now followed wave, demanding new cultural infrastructure, such as the massive Rem Koolhaas/David Gianotten-designed Performing Arts Centre, due to open this year in the shadow of Taipei’s soaring 101 tower. And Taiwan-born talent is returning to make its mark: designer Tony Chi authored three of the restaurants in Taipei’s Mandarin Oriental, the hotel opening of 2014; renowned jeweller Anna Hu just opened her first shop in the city; and chef André Chiang, of Singapore’s multilaurelled Restaurant André, has launched Raw, bringing groundbreaking “bistronomy” to the capital’s streets.
The place to start here, though, is the burgeoning contemporary art scene, finally holding its own against the greats across the Taiwan Straits. The Aki Gallery has been instrumental in supporting emerging local artists such as Lo Chan Peng and Kuo Chih-Hung, whose bold landscapes are currently on display. Likewise, the Tina Keng Gallery fosters Taiwanese presence on the international art scene, while exhibiting impressive works by Chinese painter Xiaobai Su and the latest “mirrored vignettes” from the highly talented local Lin Ju. The gallery has expanded in recent years into TKG+, creating a platform for installation art, video and photography.
Design-world achievements, on the other hand, are showcased in Taipei’s Red Dot Design Museum, one of only three worldwide, which opened in 2013. Exhibiting the work of Taiwanese winners of the Red Dot Award, it also profiles the faces behind the objects. It is part of the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, which the city transformed not long ago from an early-modernist 1930s tobacco factory built under Japanese rule into a creative hub. The Taiwan Design Museum can also be found here, as can the fascinating, contemporary glassware of Liuligongfang, which uses the pâte de verre method to enormous acclaim.
In a city keen to preserve its architectural heritage, Songshan is part of a larger initiative to create “necklace of cultural pearls”, with Huashan Creative Park another example. An old winery built in 1914, it now stages exhibitions in industrial-chic surroundings, with shops like VVG Thinking a great source of accessories, such as the local ÄiÄi Illum Lab candles with their evocative scents, or Ystudio pens made from copper.
More innovation amid preservation characterises the area around Dihua Street, one of the city’s oldest, with sections dating from the 17th century and Dutch rule. The Xiahai City God Temple is flanked by both new homeware centres, like the charming ArtYard, and Chinese-medicine shops. Tiny and brightly coloured, the 19th-century temple is renowned as a fortuitous place for matchmaking, which explains the crowds amid the swirling clouds of incense.
But blink in Taipei and you move from yesteryear to the skyscrapers of tomorrow in a thrilling maze of old and new. Fashion designers can be found in both. Try Jamei Chen, good for dresses and leather handbags; the concession is on the ground floor of the Eslite Songyan Store, a treasure trove for gifts, not least the million or so books that are its core business. Others to discover are Sophie Hong, whose innovative mud silk is sculpted into high collars and striking, simple shapes; and the more elaborate Shiatzy Chen (known as the Chanel of Taiwan), whose designs, including bejewelled and intricately embroidered dresses, are spread over six floors behind a Layan-designed façade.
Taipei’s big news in jewels is the arrival of Anna Hu Haute Joaillerie. Opened in December in the Mandarin Oriental shopping arcade, the boutique showcases Hu’s delicate creations – seen adorning the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah Winfrey, but only now available in Taipei. Similarly beautiful design characterises the hotel itself. The magnificent interiors are by a glittering array of talent, from Yabu Pushelberg, whose peaceful grey spa exudes calm, to Tony Chi’s highly original restaurants: Cantonese Ya Ge is replete with verdant bonsai and striking woodblock prints by the renowned Zhu Wei, while the Italian Bencotto feels more casual, with chandeliers wrought from empty wine bottles. Meanwhile Café Un, Deux, Trois is chic personified, with its mirrored ceiling, yellow orchids and a fantastical rhino head on the wall.
Indeed, art and design are as much part of Taipei’s hotels as bricks and mortar. The neighbouring Grand Hyatt has just undergone a massive renovation that took its 853 rooms back to their concrete bones. With design input from Didier Gomez, the result is light and contemporary, with corridors of burl wood and rooms filled with abstract art by Suyin Zhou. The newest kid on the block is the charming 104-room Eslite Hotel, designed by Toyo Ito. The vibe and aesthetic are the Taiwan of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, depicted in striking black-and-white photographs against a background of traditional architectural motifs (note the exposed red-brick walls in the bathrooms), and inevitably, given its affiliation with the aforementioned Eslite bookstore, a generously stocked library.
But while design might be Taipei’s buzzword of the moment, the Ancient Chinese proverb “to the people food is heaven” has remained top of mind. The city’s street-food markets – some of the most exalted in Asia, often referred to as the “stomach of Taipei” – overflow with deep-fried tofu, iron eggs, rice balls and more. For a high-end experience, try Qimin Organic Hotpot for shabu‑shabu – customers cook their own paper-thin meats, compressed fish or squid balls in a clear and spicy broth at the table. Ingredients here promote the “farm to table” philosophy. For one step further, head to the new Addiction Aquatic development, where visitors wander from sushi stalls to seafood bars for a meal on the move, choosing oysters, crabs or what the locals call pineapple fish at the live fish market, where it’s then prepared for eating at one of the alfresco dining tables.
For local colour – and noise – go to Ramen Nagi, voted Taipei’s best. The buckwheat flour is brought from Japan and the noodles are made fresh each day, while the aromatic, velvety pork stock bubbles away slowly – “slow food fast”, as it’s known here.
The new wave of Taipei food, however, is entirely more haute. Witness RyuGin, an outpost of Tokyo’s three-Michelin-star restaurant. The typically pared-down Japanese style allows no distraction from each dish’s essence, and seasonal local produce is served under evocative headings such as “taste of the wind that captures a moment”. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, dressed in its trademark red and black, delivers excellent fare with Gallic punch – think Hokkaido sea urchin with lobster jelly and imperial French caviar – and likewise atYannick Alléno’s Stay, in the 101 tower, where the deconstructed strawberry cheesecake is a local favourite.
Of late, such formal European cuisine is being challenged by chefs such as André Chiang, whose Raw is a completely casual affair (open a drawer in your table to find your knives, forks and menu), serving dishes that draw on local Taiwanese ingredients from abalone to aspargus. It’s an old-marries-new sensory experience, perfectly reflecting the dynamic character of the city around it.