Tobia Repossi, architect and designer, has lived and worked in Shenzhen for five years, where he opened his professional studio in 2015. Since then, he has designed products and interior design, collaborating with giants such as Tencent (the company behind the app WeChat), Huawei and others.

Shenzhen is considered one of the world capitals of design. How did the long presence in China affect the way you worked?
The work I have done in China has been quantitative, but this does not necessarily have a negative meaning. With my office, I have developed projects of large sizes for work and hospitality spaces, shops, and a long line of items for furniture and consumer electronics.
In general, these are projects and investments on a scale that it is difficult to imagine in Europe, working at a speed unknown to us, and with a unique organisational and support system for the project.
It is clear to everyone that today China is not only the factory of the world, but also a hotbed of ideas and projects. Shenzhen is today one of the world capitals of design and has built up an international reputation; a record number of accelerators and incubators help create a framework suitable for the growth of ideas and startups. All this is like a large playground for architects and designers who want to compare with projects that no longer exist in the old continent. I am referring to the entire project chain at any scale.

Led Bluetooth Speaker with lighting Led, for Relaxement.

The other side of the coin is that all this has not been the result of a spontaneous process, but of a political imposition that comes from above, therefore a great investment of money, but without a cultural apparatus that supports it: we are far from the virtuous designer/entrepreneur relationship and from self-generated innovative processes. All this will last as long as there is government funding to keep the system alive or as long as it feeds itself (which today still seems far away), as per Chinese political tradition. The market is not yet ready for a revolution that focuses on design, still perceived as the aesthetics of beauty, in a superficial way.

There are huge but fragile companies, which sell and earn money, but in an immature market. The quality of fairs and events is still poor, museums and serious schools are almost non-existent. The market is still monopolised by companies that copy and are still struggling to detach themselves from the malpractice of living on the projects of others. My personal impression is that on the one hand there is a great bombardment of images and information, a continuous stimulus to growth and doing, on the other a sort of toxicity of this information and the difficulty of discerning the good from the bad, the copied from the original, the good project from the replica.

Next sofa, by Tobia Repossi.

Is it different to work with Chinese or Italian companies? What are the main differences?I would extend the geography of this question to the whole of Europe: it is extremely different to work with companies from the old continent and from China. It must be taken into account that China was and still is a closed country, an oligarchic system in which decisions are taken from above and imposed through coercion or through material prizes. Shenzhen is the Silicon Valley of Asia, the cradle of hardware and software but without Google and YouTube. Information comes in poorly, Chinese copies of software replicate the appearance but don’t work, trendsetters don’t have access to information.

Chinese entrepreneurs are in most cases guided by a system of values that focuses on profit and money. The design is therefore reduced to a system of embellishment which is preparatory to making more money, without any real will to improve things or create new systems or services. It is not that it never happens, sometimes it happens and there are some virtuous cases, but still too little compared to the solid framework of the Western countries that has all the credentials to do more and innovate, and that enjoys very generous funding. I personally find that entrepreneurs who are enthusiastic about their work are even more so in Europe, despite the economic crisis; not that they are all, of course.

VR Headset Revel Twisted Reality.jpg
Revel VR googles designed for the Netherlands-based Twisted Reality company.

Then there is the inevitable cultural clash that offers convenient excuses both for Europe and for China, when things are not going as they should. Cultural difference is a barricade behind which Chinese and Europeans hide when the product does not have the desired success, when offices do not sell, or when the store does not meet the tastes of the public. But this has little to do with geography, the project requires analysis and research, if you do not understand the market the failure is around the corner, and this can happen anywhere. I’ve seen so many Italian companies land in China perched on their positions, and fail due to market misunderstanding, but Jack Ma also initially failed when he tried to internationalize Alibaba, and even Tencent with WeChat will fail if he is not able to innovate as he did in the Chinese market – which however was virgin.

Personally, I always say to Italian companies that they must deepen their knowledge of the market before they can land in China. In this sense I have seen everything: door companies selling products without knowing the regulations regarding minimum heights, refrigerator companies selling built-in products that instead end up in the living room, disproportionate and not declined for ergonomics and different habits. To Chinese entrepreneurs, I try to explain that scalability and seriality are not everything. Producing so many pieces does not necessarily mean earning more or gaining more market power.