Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For turning innovative designs into reality—and injecting a little whimsy into the world

Li Xiang doesn’t simply design interiors. She creates immersive experiences. To enter one of her spaces is to become wholly enveloped by it, whether it’s a mind-bending bookstore or a candy-colored playland. 

“When people encounter the spaces, I want them to remain curious,” she says. “Forget depression and sadness; embrace unknown surprises.”

While unknown surprises abound within Li’s work, it takes meticulous management behind the scenes—including overseeing a team of more than 100—to bring her vision to life. And that attention to detail has paid off: Since its founding in 2011, X+Living has racked up numerous accolades, including multiple A’Design and Frame awards.

Future 50 2021 ATP Banner Ad Training Available Tangerine Violet
Future 50 2021 WPS Banner Ad

Here’s a peek inside Li’s project portfolio:

Dujiangyan Zhongshuge, Chengdu, China

One of Li’s most fruitful partnerships has been with the Chinese bookseller Zhongshuge, for which she has designed 16 shops. The most undeniably eye-catching is Dujiangyan Zhongshuge: a two-story, 10,000-square-foot (929-square-meter) retail emporium with sky-high shelving, a mirrored ceiling and a serpentine staircase—which all combine to create the effect of an M.C. Escher drawing come to life. 

For Li, however, the inspiration was actually much closer to home: the Dujiangyan landscape. “We moved elements of the city into the bookstore and transformed them into practical functions,” she says. To wit, there’s a bamboo forest decorated with pandas in the kids’ reading area, while a faux dam serves as a “book wall” in the literature section. 

Other solutions might not be so functional but are still loads of fun. Case in point: Those books on the very top shelves where no customer could possibly reach? They’re actually images printed onto film—a fix cleverly executed by her studio to create the illusion of floor-to-ceiling books.  

F 50 2021 Honoree Li Xiang Dujiangyan Zhongshuge
F 50 2021 Honoree Li Xiang Meland Club
Meland Club, Shenzhen, China

Nature once again served as Li’s inspiration for this whimsical playground located within the confines of a shopping center. “In Shenzhen, there are few opportunities to see four distinct seasons,” she says. 

So Li and her team created a space where people could see winter, spring, summer and fall any time of year—and they did it with just two floors of space.

“We built a three-layer platform in the double-height space, which improves the utilization rate of vertical space, virtually magnifies the feeling of internal space and enhances the interest of exploration,” Li says. 

The team also got creative with how it married form and function in the 65,000-square-foot (6,039-square-meter) color-drenched space. Almost every detail in the design can flex functionality, from the storage cabinets and shelves camouflaged as plants to the sculptural bulbs that disguise sound and lighting equipment. 

Powerlong Creative Lab, Shanghai

In stark contrast to many of her other projects, Li took a more minimalist approach to this mixed-use office-retail space. The team created a more open, airy environment by demolishing the floor slab dividing the original two-story space and elevating the ceiling height to a full 30 feet (9 meters). A new partial second floor allows R&D employees to follow their next big ideas while end users wander below.   

The project also included a few master strokes of the utilitarian camouflage: “Energy delivery pipes are used to hide various wires, cables for air conditioning and even utilities pipelines,” says Li. In some parts of the space, such tubes are also used as tables and chairs. “This gives the space a rich look in spatial levels and also adds a sense of composition with different perspectives.”

F 50 2021 Honoree Li Xiang Powerlong Ideas Lab

Q&A: Li Xiang on team unity, her dream partner and the power of study abroad

What project most influenced you personally?

In 2008, during my study trip in Germany, our professor took us to visit some famous projects. It was the first time I encountered artwork by Anish Kapoor, and all the bad mood was suddenly swept away. I couldn’t help but get immersed in the infinite inspiration and possibilities of the artwork.

What’s the must-have to succeed in The Project Economy?

Management skills, especially how to unite team members. A united team can not only make the best of everyone’s talent and capacity, but also helps guarantee the quality of projects. 

What famous or historic person would you want on your project team?

Zaha Hadid. I love her work and indulging in her exquisite techniques. I always wonder what it would be like to work with her.

F 50 2021 Honoree Li Xiang Neobio Family Park
Hangzhou Neobio Family Park, Hangzhou, China

Boasting an eye-popping palette of 288 colors, this family-friendly fantasyland enchants the first floor of a shopping center. To nail the fairy-tale kingdom vibe, the team used the mall’s surroundings as a muse. “Since the family park is located at the riverside, we drew inspirations from natural views in the composition of the design,” says Li.

Chengdu Zhuyeqing Greentea Flagship Store, Chengdu, China

“Drinking tea requires both a favorable environment and a good mood,” says Li. So when it came to designing this flagship, Li and her team dreamed up a tranquil domain that pays homage to the tea’s origins with a cloud and mountain motif seen in the freehand brushwork of traditional Chinese artwork. Custom mountain-shaped counters extend around the store and transform into “clouds” when positioned vertically. The overall effect? “It not only meets the functional requirement of displaying goods, but also contributes to the richness of aesthetic composition in the space,” she says. 

F 50 2021 Li Xiang Zhuyeqing Greentea