Profile: Kibisi

Danish industrial design trio Kibisi aims to create products that are cool enough to be both commercial and ’culturally significant’. Two of the co-founders talk to Anna Richardson about the group’s idea-driven approach

A philosopher-turned-design-thinker, a visionary architect and a product designer with a penchant for hard graft are the triumvirate at the helm of Danish industrial design consultancy Kibisi. Jens Martin Skibsted, Bjarke Ingels and Lars Holme Larsen all had practical reasons for setting up a formal partnership. For Ingels (pictured middle) – whose architectural practice, Big Architects, works on many high-profile public projects, such as the National Library of Kazakhstan and the Danish Maritime Museum – teaming up with designers made sense, given that many architectural projects tie in with design.

Larsen (left), founder of Kilo Design, is an up-and-coming design star with an eye for simple solutions to complex design problems and was after a new partnership – Kibisi provided a welcome fast track. Skibsted (right), meanwhile, wanted to expand the design thinking and generation of new brand concepts that he had honed as creator of Biomega and Skibsted Ideation. Keen to take his conceptual approach around the world (this year, he attended the Davos Economic Forum, for example), he realised he also needed new partners.

After previous successful collaborations, they formed joint venture Kibisi last year. ’We’re very different and that’s what makes it great,’ says Skibsted. ’But what we have in common is the notion that the idea of a product or a brand should dictate how it is made.’

The word ’idea’ peppers Kibisi conversation liberally. Ideas are what drove Skibsted to set up bicycle manufacturer Biomega without any design background. Skibsted ’took part in all sorts of bike riots’ at the time. But the main driver was his vision that bikes should express users’ lifestyles – just as cars do. If the bike is to become as popular on city streets as the car, its design needs a different approach, says Skibsted, who approached designers such as Marc Newson and Ross Lovegrove to realise his vision. ’Cars against bikes is like a format war such as Linux versus Windows. You’d think it’s about the functional and rational, but that’s not what history tells us about how one typology wins over another.’

Kibisi now rests on three pillars of design, architecture and ideation – the production know-how of Larsen, the large-scale perspective of Big and the idea-driven innovation and brand awareness of Skibsted.

Kibisi concentrates on products (despite designing a bar for this year’s Milan furniture fair). Projects range from the Shanghai chair for the Danish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, which is being created by Big, and the Tripart chair for Quinze & Milan at this year’s Milan furniture fair, to headphones for Aiaiai and a series of bicycles for Puma. When rating the viability of future projects, Kibisi looks at potential sources of revenue as well as whether the product would be ’culturally significant’, says Skibsted. ’Those are the two [criteria] that really count, but we also add a point if it diversifies what we do.’ The founders seem to have no pretension of eyeing each other’s specialisms. ’I have no ambitions to become a designer and no plans of giving up architecture,’ says Ingels for example. Lars is ’very much the machine room’, adds Skibsted, ’I’m more of a philosophical nature’.

The trio also has a clear focus of where they want to position the consultancy. When it comes to product design consultancies, there are two economies, believes Skibsted. One is the economy of the process (a good sales tool and great for big groups), the other is that of the ’artsy design stars, or auteurs’. The former can mean products are commercially viable, but not very significant culturally, while the latter is great for designers and design businesses, but not so much for big corporations, explains Skibsted. ’You cannot have a Coca-Cola bottle expressing Karim Rashid, for example.’

Kibisi aims to follow a third economy, says Skibsted, that of a medium-sized company, which is not about the designer, but about the idea (and still retains a sexiness and makes a cool product). Usually this type of designer flies under the radar, ’but a trend is starting – which I hope Kibisi is part of – that these can also be stars’, says Skibsted, citing Yves Bé har as a perfect example.

Ingels also sees the possibility of a return to modern architecture’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Through Big Architects, there are plenty of opportunities for Kibisi to invent new products for public project interiors. ’The notion of Gesamtkunstwerk has been ridiculed or made impossible by current production apparatus, but with our collaboration within Kibisi we could slowly move in that direction,’ says Ingels, but adds, ’So far, the most significant thing is that we have ridiculous amounts of fun.’

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