Faced with the daily stresses of fast-paced urban life in modern China, many high net-worth individuals are filling up their spare time with hobbies that enrich and relax their lives. While many are turning to more conventional pursuits such as fitness or travel, some are learning to design sophisticated flower arrangements and table settings — also known as the art of tablescaping.
Leading this budding new industry is Zeng Yanbing, former Managing Editor of Vogue China. In 2016, Zeng left Vogue to launch her own business, Set with Love (置爱), whose mission is to promote beautiful living.
More specifically, her company does this through hosting table-setting and flower-arranging master classes taught by international industry leaders, luxury travel packages, brand-sponsored events, art exhibitions, event space design, a carefully curated online boutique, and more.
Tablescaping – the art of creatively and intentionally arranging a tabletop so that it conveys a specific theme, mood, or experience – has been a tradition in Europe and North America for hundreds of years and, for many, is an essential part of holiday gatherings, wedding planning, and dinner parties. But not so much in China.
Back in her early 20s, Zeng Yanbing discovered tablescaping while visiting the home of an elderly German woman for afternoon tea. Although the woman was over eighty years-old, she had taken the energy to set the table with fresh flowers and a variety of fine china and delicate utensils and serving platters. This scene left a deep impression on Zeng. As someone who worked in the media industry, she often attended a lot of brand events and galas and had seen numerous beautifully decorated tables, but she had never considered that this could be done in the home. She started to think, what if we could bring this beauty into our everyday lives?
Around 2005 she began experimenting on her own, using flowers and decorative objects to start designing her own tablescapes. She also started collecting fine china and began learning how to bake. As she experimented, she would photograph her projects and share them online. Over time, her work started attracting a following.
When asked how she made the leap into starting her own business, Zeng explained, “From 2007-2016 I was the managing editor at Vogue China. It was a wonderful, very high-level position and I loved my job. But in 2014, after publishing my first book on tablescapes, titled “Table Setting: A Time for Love,” I recognized that my heart was more in table setting and writing books than in my job. Then in 2016, with the launch of my second book, I had the ambition of holding China’s first ever tablescape exhibition. It was then that I realized it was time to make a choice, go all in on my passion or continue working at Vogue. Of course, I chose to follow my dream. At that point, I had already worked in the media industry for nearly 20 years and it was time to pivot and tackle a fresh, exciting challenge. “
While this was no doubt a huge transition, Zeng had already started developing the brand and its fan base long before she officially launched the company. Since 2005 she had been developing her own personal social channels and in 2014 when her first book came out she launched an official WeChat account and a Weibo account for the Set with Love brand. The accounts grew rapidly and allowed her to offer value and start creating a connection with her customers long before she would start to monetize.
Today, the Set with Love WeChat account is still an integral part of the brand. On the account, she and her team share a wide variety of content which all centers around her core thesis of beautiful living, including table setting, home décor and interior design, food and wine, travel, arts and culture, as well as some thoughts on life and core principles to live by.
“The account has amassed a large following because there is a growing number of people in China who are seeking a higher quality of living, to understand the finer things in life, and our content is exactly what they are looking for.” Zeng explains.
“While our main focus is on providing excellent content, at the same time, the account is a gateway to our brand, and we use it to promote our events and classes. In addition, there is an online boutique linked to our WeChat account where we sell a curated selection of home decor, art, tableware and books.”
Exclusive, luxury tours designed especially for her audience
While they have executed numerous events in China, this year Zeng and her team went out a limb with a completely new project, designing an eleven-day trip to Northern Europe.
“My business partner and I have taken several extended trips to Northern Europe. I have interviewed a number of people there and been to many places. I am captivated by Scandinavian design and lifestyle and I wanted to give my followers the chance to experience it too.” Zeng explained. However, a simple trip to Europe wouldn’t suffice, “Our followers are generally high-income, well-educated people who have traveled to many countries. The location alone is not enough to attract them, it’s the opportunity to have special, unique experiences that would be hard to have otherwise.”
Keeping this in mind, they designed an itinerary exclusively for their followers. During the trip, they visited local artists and specially selected gardens, shops, and restaurants. They enjoyed traditional fika tea on the private island of Swedes and had private tours of several designers’ homes. They also arranged two full-day courses, one with world-renowned tablescape artist Catharina Lindeberg held at her summer villa, and the other with Gunnar Kaj, a floral artist who is famous for designing the flower arrangements for the Nobel Dinner for the past 14 years. As a bonus, the entire trip was photographed by a professional photographer and images were shared with the participants.
Even with a hefty price tag of 59,800 rmb (9,151) not including airfare, the trip, which was limited to ten participants, sold out. This first foray into tourism was such a success that Set with Love is already planning a similar trip to the UK in 2018.
A little closer to home, Set with Love has also started offering offline master classes teaching the art of floral arranging and table setting. For those who couldn’t attend the trip to Europe, Set with Love brought the experts to them.
In November, Set with Love held a two-day event with Catharina Lindeberg, with the theme “Christmas in Northern Europe” where she taught attendees about Christmas cultural traditions and ran hands-on workshops on Christmas floral arrangements and decorations. In the evening, they held a mulled wine party.
“This type of event is extremely popular among our followers because it combines learning with social activities” said Zeng.
In December, Set with Love invited Gunnar Kaj to Beijing for an exclusive flower arranging class, which was extremely popular despite the steep price tag of 5,280 rmb/808 USD.
It is obvious from their success that there is growing market for these types of high-end lifestyle and cultural education events in China. When asked about her customers’ demographics, Zeng said, “We have held several offline events and classes and have had students attend from all over the country. Our students and customers are primarily women and come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, from finance and academics to designers and housewives. What they have in common is that they are wealthy individuals with high expectations who want more from life, they enjoy studying and learning and are seeking to improve their aesthetics and taste.”
In addition to holding their own events, Set with Love often partners with brands, helping them plan VIP events, high-end private courses, and to design event spaces ranging from small dinner parties to galas and large-scale exhibitions.
“Working with brands has helped us become better at executing events and has given us the opportunity to be innovative and exercise our creativity. Our clients include high-end hotels, luxury brands, premium car companies and many other types of organizations.”
While the majority of brand collaborations are through Set with Love, Zeng Yanbing herself is also an influencer. Earlier this year she was invited to star in a mini travel documentary sponsored by Sweden Tourism and Volvo. In the documentary, she travels around Sweden meeting with craftsman, designers and culinary experts
There’s no doubt that Chinese HNWIs’ interest in tablescaping will continue to grow. As Chinese consumers achieve greater wealth and stability, they are not only seeking to improve their physical surroundings, but also focusing inward, seeking more meaningful life experiences that allow them to improve themselves as an individual while also introducing them to community of likeminded people.
Set with Love is providing just that.