Designers to Watch

03/01/2017 By Jenna Lippin

An Liu Liu’s concept

An MFA Candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of the Arts, in Richmond, Va., An Liu came to America to complete the two-year VCUarts Interior Arts program and experience interior design from the American perspective. He calls himself “an independent interior designer who works with a concept-driven approach,” and has worked across the spectrum of design, including exhibitions, museums, environmental projects, retail, restaurants, and self-initiated art practices.

Liu graduated from Nanjing Normal University (NJNU) in Nanjing, China, in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in China Exhibition Design. “Before I came [to the United States], I practiced interior design in China for three years,” he said. “The reason I came here, as a designer, was to try to jump out of my ‘comfortable circle’ and try new things. I always wanted to come to America; it is one of my favorite countries. I wanted to see new things, refresh my mind, and make new friends. Nothing has stopped me here. I am graduating in May.”

During his time at VCUarts, Liu has interned at VCU MoB Studio and worked as an exhibition space modeler at the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art. He is currently a graduate teaching assistant in his program and an exhibition design intern, also at the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art. “I am really practical and artistic at the same time, and my professors in the VCU interior design program are very inspiring,” he explained. “The first year we had a lot of fundamental classes to develop our design minds and express the design concept in different ways.

During the second year, more realistic projects were brought into studios. Besides developing the essential concept, we also needed to think about how to make the design real. Sometimes a good design may not be the right design and you have to balance everything and figure out the best solution.”

One notable project Liu has completed during his MFA coursework was during the Spring 2016 semester for the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at the Markel Center, which brought conceptual design into the VCUarts Interior Design program. Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the VCU ICA building sought a flexible interior system to address the two main functions of the space: how the ICA receives visitors and how the forum meets the needs of a range of programs and events. “We were asked to design a flexible, durable, and elegant interior environment to satisfy different needs,” Liu explained. “We were trying hard to find a balance among existing conditions, then test our concepts in different ways. Whether our ideas will be used or not, the collaboration between ICA at VCU and VCUarts Interior Design brought us a great studying experience.” VCU ICA asked Liu to build gallery models for future exhibition programming.

A unique project Liu worked on recently was a design concept on which he was the team lead. While on a run through Belle Isle on the James River in Richmond, he stumbled upon an abandoned, dilapidated bridge, in which he saw beauty. “We thought about what the community needs, and how we can make use of this structure,” he reflected. “With a lot of design research, we found it would provide a nice space for visitors and people from surrounding communities to come by and relax, and have a cup of tea since Belle Isle is alcohol free.” In designing the idea for T House, Liu and his teammate, Thomas Kennedy, considered things like preserving the bridge’s history and respecting the surrounding area so the needs of people in the community would continue to be met. The T House concept also has a sustainable story, using reclaimed wood and other natural resources on Belle Isle to help build elements that, among other things, will keep the space warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  

When considering his future work in design after graduation, Liu’s goal is to stay in the U.S. and practice exhibition design. Farther down the line, he envisions himself becoming a college professor while continuing his own work. “I think it’s good to bring ideas from China to America and [introduce] American ideas to China as well. In combining them, maybe we can make the interior design market better.”

Liu’s portfolio can be found at