A desire to escape corporate drudgery as well as their tiny one-bedroom apartment prompted Jonas Merian and Nina Chen to search for a warehouse that they could call their own.
“We were both kind of tired of working for a company, so we quit our jobs at the same time, more or less,” Mr. Merian, 38, said. “I wanted to become more creative again — that’s why I wanted to have a workshop where I could build something. She just wanted to become a freelance photographer instead of working for a boss.”
Ms. Chen grew up in Hubei Province, in central China, and moved to Shanghai as an adult. The couple met five and a half years ago when Mr. Merian, a Swiss citizen, came to Shanghai after spending two years in Beijing.
Now they, along with their 20-month-old daughter, Anna, rent a warehouse in the Wu Wei Creative Park, a government-owned space in the northern district of Yangpu.
Parks such as Wu Wei, collections of unused warehouses and former industrial centers, are common in China’s big cities. Creative enterprises generally use them for office space, but in recent years some in the country’s artistic community have complained that the enclaves are becoming too commercial.
Wu Wei is no exception. An art museum and several artists’ studios are on site, but the path between the street and Mr. Merian and Ms. Chen’s home is often dotted with young couples posing for pictures outside the park’s many wedding photography studios.
Ms. Chen, 34, considers the businesses, which now occupy about 80 percent of the park’s space, to be a threat to the less-commercial creative people living and working here.
“I think long-term, they will kick us out,” she said. “Those wedding studios earn a lot of money. They can pay the rent, even if the price is increased quite high.”
It was a different story four years ago, when the couple first saw the Creative Park.
“When we came here, it was just beginning and we got a good price for one big empty hall and we could basically do whatever we wanted,” Mr. Merian said. “There was nothing fixed and it was very exciting to basically be able to decide: Should we make a wall here, or there? How should we arrange it?”
The couple set to work on renovations, but before long they realized that they needed help and called in contractors.
Over a six-week period, plaster was removed from the interior walls to reveal the original brickwork and a staircase and mezzanine level were added to serve as a living room and home office. Also, the entire interior and the warehouse’s concrete facade were repainted.
In the end, they had a 3,230-square-foot space with three bedrooms and one bathroom.
“To save money,” Mr. Merian said, “we used secondhand bricks and the wooden floor is from a demolished house.”
Though these changes were enough to make the place livable, Anna’s imminent arrival two years ago prompted some additional renovations to make the place a safer and more comfortable family home. They included enclosing the mezzanine with bricks and glass, adding a handrail to the staircase and installing air-conditioning and heating.
Mr. Merian estimates that they have invested 100,000 renminbi, or about $16,000, in renovations. But for the near future, he said, “my plan is to not have any more renovations — I am tired of renovations by now.”
When the initial three-year lease expired last summer, Mr. Merian and Ms. Chen signed on for an additional two years, at 7,500 renminbi a month.
Theirs is an unusual living situation in Shanghai, where the vast majority of the city’s more than 20 million residents live in high-rise apartments in the city center and a significant minority in colonial-era lane houses and low-rise apartments.
Adjusting to life outside the center was easy, according to Ms. Chen, who says she enjoys their location. The warehouse is a five-minute walk from Gongqing Forest Park — 324 acres of green space, fir trees and lakes, where the family often takes walks on quiet weekday mornings.
However, Ms. Chen is quick to note that the warehouse living arrangement is not for everyone.
“Because it’s a space mixed between work and living, we have people coming in all the time,” she said. “It’s not as private as a normal apartment would be. It’s more open, so your lifestyle is different.”
The warehouse residence also led Mr. Merian to his new career.
The initial renovations included the workshop that Mr. Merian wanted, but he wasn’t sure what to do in the space. Then, as he started making furniture for the warehouse, inspiration hit. He now turns discarded and antique items — including biscuit tins, suitcases and bottles — into furniture and housewares.
“I started to build the first pieces of furniture for us and it gave me all these ideas about how I could turn old pieces of furniture into something different,” he said. “I slipped into doing this upcycling thing and haven’t stopped since.”
The influence of this passion is evident throughout the house, from the bathroom sink stand made from an antique Chinese dressing table to the old kettles fitted with light bulbs that hang above the kitchen table, which Mr. Merian also made from recycled wood.
“For living, this is the center,” Ms. Chen said of the table. “This is my favorite place.”
Mr. Merian agreed: “Our living room is upstairs, but we actually spend most of our time here. This table is the most central and social area in our place.”