Following the closure of a number of the traditional Italian design studios in recent years, the assumption was that the great tradition of Italian design was over, lost to a mature automotive industry that no longer needed its services.
Yet in the six years since its foundation, Icona, a studio based in Shanghai, has proven not just that there is an alternative marketplace, but that the traditions of the independent Italian design studio can actually flourish once more – albeit far beyond Turin.
In collaboration with its Italian-based partners Tecnocad Progetti and Cecomp, Icona offers an integrated design, engineering, modelling and prototyping service to its clients, who are primarily in China and include FAW, the SAIC Group and Geely. The Icona studio has a large team of designers of 13 nationalities, including studio engineers, CAD and clay modellers, on-site. It is based in the vibrant heart of Shanghai, the Lujiazui area, famous for its record-breaking skyscrapers.
For Icona’s design director Samuel Chuffart, a major factor in the company’s success is its close proximity to its clients.
“Coming to China was the thing that made the most sense. Because car design is involved at the very early stage of the development process, the daily activity of a design house requires smooth communication with its customers. Depending on the client’s needs, we cooperate to propose a design that may or may not have an in-house counter-proposal. These projects are for clients that are fast-growing and naturally have limited resources, and as such need to consolidate their strategy. Timing is important as the needs of the market are evolving quickly. To create relevant products, with the understanding of the culture through the eyes of a diverse pool of talents, is a key to objective global design.
“Part of the engineering is done in Italy, because it’s done at a later stage in the programme. Depending on the client’s needs, our engineers will collaborate with them at different locations. Familiar with all the other stages which follow after the design, Cecomp is making design models and prototypes as well as small production cars and master cubing. The Vulcano, for example, was designed here in Shanghai up to the 3D data, but all subsequent steps have been made in Italy, from the 2013 concept to today’s one-off Vulcano Titanium, engineered and built in Turin with permanent design support from Shanghai. This one-off illustrates our capability to cover together pretty much everything from concept to production, including prototypes.”
Six years in, the company is seeing a new trend in terms of its business. Increasingly, manufacturers – even very well-established OEMs – are coming to Icona to help develop models for the Chinese market.
“Our clients are using our experience and knowledge to help them as an additional design resource and to build long-term focused strategies,” says Chuffart. “Here, we’re much more involved in building a brand together. It’s building a relationship rather than one project here, one project there, which is better. It often starts by being the third eye, an extra point of view like working as a satellite studio, to become increasingly at the centre of the next generation of products.”
Icona has made such an impact with its concept cars – the 2011 Fuselage, the 2013 Vulcano hybrid supercar and its recent Neo city car concept shown at Auto Shanghai 2015 – that over the last 12 months it’s seen more and more customers coming for help with the design of cars for markets beyond China.
“Good cars are often global and if you ignore China you’re not going to have a global car,” Chuffart concludes. “This means we can help design something appropriate to the market as we are absorbing this very environment every day. This landscape is our visual food, and in permanent evolution it pushes our creativity to never stay still.”