Martina Muzi – DIAMOND MODEL




Alibaba is a breeding ground for the invention, imitation, and adaptation of products without intellectual property. These objects—many of them short-lived, niche, and trivial anomalies that pop up in the online platform to take advantage of a temporary production window, a passing trend, or an entrepreneurial gamble—may not seem inherently valuable as artefacts of design, technology, or craft. Certainly, they show little relation to a modern design ideology that praised minimal aesthetics as honest and middle-class household goods as functional. The absence of a clear, single designer role behind these new objects is taken as proof of their marginality.

This is especially true for 5D Diamond Painting, a popular DIY craft using plastic gemstones to fill in a pixelated canvas, creating a large-scale picture. The canvases are printed using repurposed machines for cross-stitch and embroidery templates, which were modified to incorporate photo-processing software. The “paintings” are usually sold as pre-assembled kits, traveling in 10 days from Zhejiang Province to Western homes, where the consumer—almost always a woman—completes the painting, often sharing the results of her handiwork in craft forums or YouTube demos. Some consumers prefer to buy the 5D Diamond Paintings in their finished state: in that case, the kits are first sent to “Taobao villages” in rural mainland China, where women are subcontracted to fill the canvas with diamonds, earning 6 RMB (about €0.75) per 1,000 gemstones. The finished paintings are then sent back to the market cities to be channeled into the logistics system.

Behind its kitsch, glittering surface, the 5D Diamond Painting constitutes a strategic innovation in terms of machine adaptation, robust network connections from manufacturer to consumer, extension of the assembly line from the factory into the home—both the home of the subcontractor and the home of the buyer—and flexible systems of meaning, in which the same object is both manufactured and crafted and the same action can be leisure or labour, depending on the context.



Why are you interested in a product like 5D Diamond Painting as a design artefact?

The 5D Diamond Painting is not an obvious case study for design. It does not offer a clear function or technological innovation, and its visuals are not iconic or radical. In fact, it is a highly gendered product associated with feminine aesthetics and a female audience—and thus it is easily dismissed as a hobby with no value. It is an insignificant, cheap-looking, and IP-free object oriented towards a niche customer base, developing through ad hoc circumstances rather than long-term intention and vision. The complexity of the 5D Diamond Painting lies not in its design but its adaptation to networks of production, sales, and shipment largely shaped by Alibaba. Products that appear almost identical may have very different production processes, and one product may be the result of collaboration, exchange, and diverse forms of expertise.

How do you use this craft as a tool for design research?

Without intellectual property or branding, searching for 5D Diamond Paintings on Alibaba yields thousands of almost identical results. This outcome may be confusing to the consumer, but as a design researcher, I used this approach to generate a geographic map of factories, shops, and resellers, all related to the same product archetype and accessible through the chat function. The only way to understand such products is through online identifiers, from keywords and factory profiles to market segments—together, they turn 5D Diamond Paintings into a brand that simultaneously has no owner and millions of owners (e.g. inventor, image editor, manufacturer, worker, seller, reseller, and consumer). The online marketplace is not determined only by digital algorithms, but rooted in a geography of market towns, factory villages, port facilities, and social structures that have made Chinese design and manufacture the most prolific in the world.

How has this product influenced the development of rural villages in their evolution to manufacturing?

The combination of Alibaba, the road network, and the logistics infrastructure has extended China’s factory network to its furthest points in the “Taobao villages”, where cheap labour and less advanced manufacturing technology can absorb some or all of the production process for certain kinds of objects. Places like YanTou Village in Zhejiang Province play a key role in making 5D Diamond Paintings that are bought as pre-assembled products rather than DIY kits. What is viewed as a leisure activity in the West becomes a labour activity in YanTou, where women (who comprise most of the inhabitants) take orders for craft labour to finish in their free time between childcare and housework. For both Western buyers and Chinese workers, the production of 5D Diamond Paintings traces a long process that unites factories, markets, and ports with domestic spaces.







Taobao is Alibaba’s e-commerce website for Chinese users. It is the most popular platform for shops and factories to sell their goods directly to domestic customers over the internet. Reflecting the latest habits of young Chinese entrepreneurs and consumers, Taobao has become an adjective used to describe the influence of the e-commerce system. The online platform enables small factories, in villages far from market cities, to adapt and grow in response to producer and consumer demands. From rural areas, they are able to sell their products online due to the efficiency of logistics companies, state infrastructure such as roads, and Internet coverage, particularly through mobile apps. The Taobao Village has become synonymous with remote rural settlements which have opened their gates to capitalism through e-commerce.

252 two-wheel, 13 three-wheel and 168 four-wheel vehicles, 107 vans, 4 buses and 17 people went through the gates of Shuikou between 1 pm and 1:35 pm on 7 September 2018.

Project Images

Copyright Design Academy Eindhoven. Photographs by Nicole Marnati.