“Italian Icons of China”, Aldo Cibic
This article was originally published in Italian in Panorama on 8th May 2023.
Please note that this is a courtesy translation of the Italian language article originally published in the Panorama Magazine Issue at: https://www.panorama.it/economia/italian-icons-of-china-aldo-cibic
“Italian Icons of China” series: A collection of internationally acclaimed Italian brands chosen to share their unique experiences and market insights in China.
In order to provide our readers with an in-depth examination of how Italian companies have fared in the Chinese marketplace, we have begun our ‘Italian Icons of China Series’ of articles by conducting interviews with some of the top CEOs of premier Italian companies based in the Chinese market. We will discuss their success stories, detailing the specificities of how to succeed in the Chinese marketplace based on their company’s background, the history of their brands, and how they managed the business expansion based on their specific strengths and market conditions. Our Icons will also provide their suggestions for the China market, for MNCs, small & medium enterprises, entrepreneurs, and all business leaders in between, based on their own investment experiences, the differences between Italy and China as well as the future projections for both China and their industry.
Our Icon: Aldo Cibic
For our third article in the series, we have an exclusive interview with Aldo Cibic. In 1989 he founded Cibicworkshop, not only a design studio but also a multidisciplinary research center, and began to focus more heavily on alternative sustainable project types aimed at enhancing whole local areas and defining new cultural, emotional, and environmental awarenesses of public space. Aldo Cibic is a professor of practice at the College of Design and Innovation, Tongji University, Shanghai. In 2019 he has been selected as High-End Foreign Expert by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs of China.
His design pieces and drawings are exhibited in the permanent collections of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Groninger Museum, the CCA (Canadian Center for Architecture) in Montreal, the Triennale Museum of Italian Design in Milan, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Q: How many years has Cibic Workshop been active in China? Why focus on this market in particular?
I have a long and happy relationship with China, which began as an honorary professor at Tongji University in Shanghai in 2004.
Since 2018, I have become a professor in the Department of Design and Innovation at Tongji University. Where my research work has focused on social issues related to urban regeneration.
The first project I tackled involved the art direction of the revitalization of a working-class neighborhood near the university, in which we were going to include various activities run by or for the use of young students and graduates, these being workshops for 3d modeling, spaces for co-working, for recreational activities for the use of the inhabitants of the new mixed community, communal kitchen and more.
At one point, I proposed to my dean, Professor Lou Yongqi, that if he could find me a manager for a coffee shop with great espresso, I would move in, the only foreigner, to live in the neighborhood.
This is how the project of a tiny 34-square-meter apartment was born, which I took care of down to the smallest detail and with a very small budget, and which, in a short time, turned into a kind of manifesto for a new collective well-being.
My tiny house quickly became an unprecedented media phenomenon, a case history featured in articles, TV reports, and online videos that received millions of views.
From a professional point of view in China I am currently moving between high-quality projects. Among the most important interventions are two major exhibitions at the Map in Shanghai, a museum designed by Jean Nouvel, which opened two years ago and to date is the most important in the country.
As for me, I try to choose carefully the projects I devote myself to and work on those that make sense and have meaning, with interesting interlocutors.
Q: Considering the immense cultural gap between China and Italy, what in your experience are the opportunities and pitfalls of such a factor?
Does this affect how you design projects in the Chinese marketplace?
Or can it be used as a tool to find a more diverse and creative space for your projects?
I love China and its culture gives me great space to work on projects I believe in. It is a country that offers a lot, is interested in research, and able to materialize new ideas with creativity. In my life I have traveled a lot and lived in very different contexts: in this reality, I am completely at ease.
I have the feeling that my work is increasingly influenced by Chinese culture, and I honestly feel less and less the cultural distance between East and West. China for me is the place that offers me a diverse and stimulating creative space.
We have had for a long time a distrustful attitude about the issue of intellectual property. What is happening, however, is that there is more and more demand for the original product (not just the copy), which, given the size of the market, is always a great opportunity for us.
Having a privileged observatory from the university, I have to say that the new generations of entrepreneurs and designers are increasingly oriented toward creating an original product.
Q: Based on this year IDI’s topic, what is the role that new technologies play within the overall design of your studio’s projects?
Technology has been an indispensable content in any project for years. Both in the ideation work and in the development part of new research and production models. Obviously, innovation runs, in China more than in other places, but I believe that in certain contexts this is useful for generating as yet unexpressed possibilities and solutions focused on the ecological transition. The Design Institute of Innovation in Shanghai, a new institute of which I am part of, is working to bridge the gap between academia and new models of work.
In my case, the work is focused on new materials, specifically on the production and industrial scalability of materials in the context of regenerative design. In other words, we do research on new products that reduce emissions, to be meaningfully integrated into industry to create a real difference, so that we can offer sustainable alternatives to polluting materials.
The Design Institute of Innovation can be described as a start-up platform, and at the same time a research space, connecting academia and business.
Q: Has your studio implemented certain characteristics within your projects which are unique to the Chinese marketplace? Specifically tailored and different from those within other marketplaces? If so, why?
The main reason for my presence in China is my passion for its culture. I cultivate the most artistic part of my work in personal projects, which invariably mutate their contents into architectural projects. My work in China is in fact increasingly influenced by the genius loci.
Q: In 2023, what are the design trends that you think need the most consideration in China?
Speaking of trends, Shanghai is one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, and fashion brands are well aware of this; China, more than other countries is looking for the most special and sophisticated things and has a spontaneous curiosity for Western design and fashion. It recognizes their value, their design intelligence, and their beauty. Trends are not really my job; I am a mature researcher and architect, and I am not interested in following passing fads. At this moment in history, I think our attention should be on other things. Knowing and hanging in Shanghai for many years and being in daily contact with academia and different business circles, I very often feel that in the West it is difficult to understand the sophistication and possibilities that this place can offer.
From our interview with our icon Aldo Cibic, it is clear that China has plenty to offer, but we need first to recognize its value in order for China to recognize ours and embrace each other’s culture.
Our series on Italian companies in China will continue to bring our readers the experiences and knowledge of the main Italian players in the Chinese market, in different industries and sizes, keep following us!
Curated by: Atty. Carlo D'Andrea, Vice President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China