Jack of Many Trades, Master of All – Tobia Repossi

By Margie T. Logarta

Tobia Repossi, Design Director, TR & PartnersTobia Repossi straddles Europe and Asia for work without batting an eyelash, as he does the many design portfolios he manages, heading TR & Partners.

Based for the most part in Shenzhen, China, Repossi describes his extensive professional record as covering the product conceptualisation of urban furnishings, furniture, kitchens and home appliances, fitness machines and medical appliances, as well as a wide range of electronic products for Chinese and international companies and startups. He says: “Some of my products were sold in Apple stores worldwide and in many important retail chains. Several were even awarded major design awards.

“I’ve also been working in the fields of interior design for luxury brands (single brand stores and shops in malls), hospitality and work places. Todate, my clients include international companies, luxury brands, small-to-medium enterprises and public institutions.”

As a young boy, Repossi dreamed of nothing else but to create unique spaces and items for good living. “I never thought of doing anything else. I’m what they call a ‘transversal’ person because I love to be updated on many related fields among which are also communication, graphics, video and exhibitions.”

After getting his degree in 1998, Repossi first worked freelance, moving on to take up positions as design director in companies in Italy and China. He also taught at the Politecnico di Milano and IED (European Institute of Design). In 2015, he established TR & Partners, now well known in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) for projects executed for major Chinese brands such as Tencent, ZTE, Huawei, TCL. In addition, the company also assists leading European and US outfits which have manufacturing and R&D arms in Asia. Says Repossi: “I work very closely with stakeholders, customers and suppliers, offering a return on investment approach.”

The designer believes creativity should transcend traditional boundaries of nationality and upbringing. “I’m a strong fan of cross cultural processes in building ideas. We work a lot through synesthestic processes to move ideas from one field to another one.

“I believe that if one wants to force the future of a field, it is very important to know about other related fields that are setting the trends, like automotive and fashion just to give an example. It is important to know about tools and screwdrivers if one wants to design a new videogame console.”

Does style matter in his creative process?

He ripostes: “I’m not a fan of style because of my experience in China, where the entire word ‘style’ has been mistaken and misunderstood in a mere superficial and aesthetic appearance. I also think that style is an easy shelter for designers without ideas, more concerned about their portfolio and their being recognizable, rather than solving problems or creating new needs.”

Fusion Restaurant Chengdu
Tobia Repossi and Freddy Curiel design this new Fusion Cuisine Restaurant in China. A blend of Italian and Asian recipes within an international and fashionable atmosphere, while the existing space has purposely left to its raw skin with the addition of simple – minimalistic furniture designed with very warm and cozy materials like wood, leather, ceramics and polished concrete. The decoration layer has been enriched with warm industrial feeling lighting fixtures. Pillars have been hidden in clusters of boxes and shelves containing Italian cuisine traditional elements and concrete walls enhanced with black and white pictures.

What then inspires his designs?

Repossi is not particularly hung up on the idea of inspiration to realise a project. Rather, he says: “There’s just a lot of work usually done with numbers, marketing researches and a lot of observation on the field. If we don’t find new solutions or a certain degree of innovation we prefer not to design anything.”

However, Repossi retains great admiration for the Italian masters of the Seventies “because they were part of an enthusiastic macro-system of industries, artisans and architects-designers,” he says. “I think they set the bar to such a high level that today it is difficult to keep the reputation of Italy as a design country.

“Today, there are colleagues whom I envy for their capability of easily designing iconic products or interiors. Some of them are friends, and one of them is definitely the British Hong Kong-based Michael Young.”

While working in Europe and today in Shenzhen, Repossi has had frequent work interaction with other designers. As a fledgling architect, he was fortunate to have crossed paths with Dino Gavina, considered one of the masters of Italian design. His TR & Partners Chinese team tries to entice worldclass foreign talents to collaborate. One such was Eduardo Alessi who helped out on a new e-cigarette for a big Chinese brand. With Freddy Curiel, it’s been a series of interiors and architectural projects across Asia.

In outlining his unique creative process, Repossi points to detailed market research used “to tell stories about our design and which distinguishes us from the standard Asian design studio”.

This philosophy infuses interiors that TR & Partners has drawn up for clients keen on adapting Western aesthetics, among them internet/telecoms conglomerate Tencent in their Nanchang, Harbin and Xian hubs, leading pharmaceutical Qi Lu and retailer Ritz Design for its furniture showroom and restaurants.

Repossi adds: “We designed the new bullet train entrance for the train stations around the country, keeping an eye for graphics and developing new systems for the behavior of passengers towards using the ticket. Recent works in product development include electronics for the Italian Maikii, a very young but internationally renowned company and some incursions in the world of VR (virtual reality) glasses for Chinese and Dutch companies.

“Companies in China want to shift from being factories to creating brands, and they love iconic products able to communicate or tell stories,” the design director of TR & Partners stresses.

In the form or function debate, Repossi casts a resounding vote for “function”. He explains: “Encyclopedias have been written about that, but I certainly vote for function. Form is just a consequence. Even function alone is not enough, and gives the idea of design just as a problem-solving activity.”

“Design must have a strong innovative and progressive attitude. So, if it’s not a ‘new’ function, it’s just pollution. We don’t need other garbage products to fulfill old functions, I think we have already plenty of those.”

The journey from Europe to Asia and now, the continuous toggling between two continents has naturally had undeniable impact on the enterprising designer. “Coming from Europe and setting up a company in China definitely changes your perceptions and attitude towards the job,” he reflects. “The quantities involved are bigger, both in terms of square meters for interior design or of numbers for products. This naturally opens space for the use of different technology and develops strong cost controlling skills.”

For clients like Tencent, an internet giant, TR & Partners imagined spaces between 30,000 and 50, 000 square meters all over China, while some of the products that have flown off the firm’s drawing boards are sold in big electronic chains worldwide.

In the road ahead, Repossi is optimistic of intense expansion. “Operating in the Chinese ecosystem means being close to a fertile background for trading and R&D. Of course, our goal is to build a brand using Chinese production capabilities and resources.

“On the other side, it is important for us to build products that don’t go to the garbage after use, so we try to provide for the lifecycle of the objects or spaces that we design. We do this when trying to select our clients and our topics as well.”

Virtual Reality is no longer in the future; it’s here and demanding to be used, Repossi declares. The company has been designing a raft of VRrelated products, as well as using it in client presentations to flesh out their suggested interiors. For a pharma in northern China, commissioning them to design their offices, the TR & Partners team took executives to the parking lot, equipping them with VR headsets to give them a sense of the actual product.

Says Repossi: “We work a lot in electronics but also in hospitality and working spaces. At the moment, we are involved in one of the biggest urban projects, not far from Shenzhen, called InUtopia. It will be a new tourist area, where we will build residential units, plus some light assembling factories and working facilities.

Due to the nature and size of the spaces, it will involve many design studios from other countries. These kinds of projects are considered a very hot topic in China, where the middle class is demanding for entertainment and where time off from work is the real new luxury.”

As a reward for his passion and commitment to producing high quality results, Repossi has landed several prestigious awards, including three Adi Design Indexes and a special mention at Compasso d’Oro Prize in 2004, the Mediastars Prize in 2010, the Modern Interior Decoration Award in 2014 for Best Product Design in China, three Medals at the A’Design Awards in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and the Red Dot Award in 2016. DAC ranks number 25 in the world for Electronic Product Design and Designer Rankings number 288 as most influential Designer in the world and WDR number 40 designer in China.

But after all is said and done, still the most fulfilling prize, Repossi says, “is to see your products on the shelf, and people happy to use them, or to see your spaces used in the proper way that makes people happier.”

He will not turn down, of course, the next accolade, should another come his way. After all, he says: “They are always a good way to give some color to the white walls of our office.”

This chair was originaly designed for a competition for Ikea, it has been produced for many interactive exhibitions and museums we designed for during years. It’a a very simple metal structure for a nordic design inspirated seat.

Injected plastic Lina chair is inspired by the traditional Taishi Chinese chair. The chair has been designed for both community and home use, it’s stackable, hangable to a common table and comes in a variety of colours.

This Bluetooth Speaker with Led lamp has been designed for Relaxment. Everything is controlled by an App for iOS and Android than can change the colour of the light and send music and audio contents. The lamp has an E27 attach for floor, pendant and table positioning. It comes in two sizes for 360 mm and 260 mm diameter, and in red, black and white colour and can be found in the all the Apple Stores in Asia.

The market of VR Glasses is full of cheap plastic headsets that consumers need to throw in the garbage when they change their smartphones. These artfully crafted VR Glasses, codename REVEL, are designed to hold almost every phone in the market thanks to a nanotechnology pad insert, they have NFC for anti-copy purposes and to connect to the software and they are based on the new Google Daydream technology, but can also shift to Windows Holographic or any other ecosystem upgrading the front module. Ergonomically designed from the bottom up to provide a comfortable experience with the patented head strap and face padding, the consumer is able to feel immersed for a longer time. REVEL is covered with premium Italian Primo Fiore leather and come in three different colours: Black, Red and Natural Brown. It’s a product to explore new worlds, engage in tense action designed with both utility and fashion in mind. This product is going to Kickstarter for crowdfunding and has been exhibited in the Shenzhen Design Week 2017.

In years of design for different Italian furniture companies we designed many pieces of furniture among which: Next, the first sofa that can become a Chaise Longue moving the lower part and not the armrests.

This Smartphone, among others, has been designed for one of the biggest phone manufacturer in Shenzhen and represents the conceptualization of the future market of smartphones. Strong accent on multimedia with double external camera and two selfie cameras, panoramic view, double screen for multitasking and lateral touch bar that changes status according to the Apps running, VR/ AR predisposition, due to the folding mechanism the space of the VR Headset is sensibly reduced. Part of this design will be used to develop a new market product during this year.

This Smart Bracelet has been developed for the Malaysian company Nxsense, and it’s a wearable life saver device for heart attacks. In case of a stroke it calls an emergency number and as well when the accelerometer detects a fall. Constant monitoring with no need of a connected smartphone, the data are crunched by artificial intelligence and sent to the app.

This Medical Products were designed for the French health and medical giant Visiomed Group SA. The group of three devices are intended to facilitate the work of doctors even in the remote parts of China. The client strongly wanted the first product on the market not designed as a ‘gun’ but more as a beauty care product. It has been thought for the Chinese market which has specific needs and tradition in terms of design for medical devices.

The inspiration for this product comes from a large quantity of surveys and personal interviews with Chinese doctors and patients. Today the Asian market is ready to accept a product that looks more like a perfume or a cosmetic appliance rather than in the typical all-white medical plastic devices.