The Interview About Chinese Characters, moving to Portugal, and Two Cats

Kirill Rostovsky is a Senior Product Designer and Team Lead who has lived in the Netherlands, Bali, China, and currently resides in Portugal
9 min
June 12, 2023

Kirill Rostovsky is a Senior Product Designer and Team Lead who has lived in the Netherlands, Bali, and China and is now living in Portugal. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he designed masks with a unique filter. He has also developed a brand book for Alexei Navalny in the past. He is working with a team of designers to create a platform that aims to revolutionize the repair market in the US and Europe while helping interior designers save thousands of dollars.

Read an interview about the enigmatic Chinese culture, predictions found in books, and two cats.

Kirill, tell us more about what you are working on now.

My team is developing tools on a platform that will change the repair market. The project started in the U.S. in 19 as a B2B – Material Bank, and it is already in Japan and soon in Europe. And we are working on a B2C branch – Design Shop. There will be more tools there. For an interior designer to evaluate materials and approve with the client, he has to see "samples of finishing materials."  And you can wait up to two months for samples. And one day of downtime can cost tens of thousands of dollars if it is a significant project. But the platform allows you to choose what you need, and you'll have samples delivered in the morning. 

At Design Shop, I'm working on an interior configurator. There are designers on the platform who you can consult with and a database of specialists who can help implement the project. Can you imagine pictures of beautiful interiors from Pinterest? And now you can configure them with materials; in the interior, for example, you can change the wooden floor to concrete, turn the light on and off and see how it looks in different lighting, export it in good resolution, add it to the board, export a PDP where there are both pictures and materials. That's what we're working on.

I have made five repairs in my life. I remodeled rented apartments. This is the first time I've had this problem with samples. It was cosmetic repairs - you go to the store and get what you need. But that's different from how it works in the U.S. In big projects, even more so.

Five different renovations are in five other cities?

I lived in China, The Hague in the Netherlands, and Bali. Before Portugal, I was just in Bali; my colleague and I went to do a project about VR fashion, but because of the war, we were cut off from investments, all Russian startups. The project was closed. I went back to Moscow to close things up and leave, but they announced mobilization, so I decided to speed up my move to Portugal

And a friend of mine went to New York, where he got acquainted with the design directors of Material Bank, who invited us to work on their B2C project - Design Shop, which I had already mentioned earlier. Interestingly enough, while studying at Britannica in Moscow, I was fond of Vita and Oly's Flëve Studio (design directors). It came up during my interview - we talked about business for about fifteen minutes and then another hour just to talk about life.

I am from Tver myself (a city near Moscow in Russia). I went to the British Academy in Moscow and later to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts. I came to The Hague for an internship and had to choose between the two countries. I was in my third year then; I would have to zero in. I decided that I wouldn't. In general, I always chose in favor of Russia. The potential is excellent; there are a lot of talented people. 

After I worked and did my second degree at Strelka, I got the offer the chance to develop a Chinese startup, Thingyfy. There is a platform called Kickstarter, a site for raising investments for creative, scientific, and manufacturing projects by crowdfunding, and there are makers there. We wanted to produce, at their request, the parts they needed in small batches. I flew to Hong Kong and from there came over a massive bridge to Zhuhai, where our factory was, where we lived and worked. 

The design team consisted mainly of Moscow designers; the management was Chinese-Canadian, and the Chinese staff. And we started to launch our projects on Kickstarter and to tell about them on the site to promote the service. We successfully launched twelve projects. But the service project did not justify itself economically - we were stuck with a minimum order, which did not distinguish us from specialized factories. 

After that, my former CEO and our contractor decided to start another company. The most interesting one was UV-filtered masks, which were relevant during covid. The mask doesn't kill the virus but disrupts its DNA; even if it gets in, it can't reproduce. My CEO, Boz, was born in Wuhan; he went there at the beginning of the covid when it wasn't even on the news. And he sent me a message that there would be an epidemic. 

That project cost about seven million dollars, but then we spent it all on production and fixing joints. So we made zero. But the experience was excellent.

What surprised you about China? 

First of all, the infrastructure. The Chinese have a brilliant way of planning cities now. We lived in an industrial town with a lot of fabrics. Here you have a dummy cut out of metal, and across the street, they make chips. You can assemble a working device on this little patch on one road. You walk into an empty room, and a day later, there's already an assembly line doing production with machines, analytics, and people. They can turn the assembly line around amazingly fast in one day. 

I was surprised that their ideas of communism took root much better. Russia is a more individualistic country, and China is the opposite. You go down the street, and twenty or thirty grannies do synchronized gymnastics to music. There was even a gimmick; they usually did it to music from a vast loudspeaker, which annoyed the neighborhood residents. And for a while at the local AliExpress top were sales of remotes that knock out these speakers. People would just turn off the granny's music out the window to keep them quiet.

I heard from people who have lived in China for a long time that there is a different attitude to personal space and boundaries.

Yes, it's a collectivist society. There's no such thing as personal space, in principle. Although there probably is, not at work. At work, no one respects your boundaries. They can sit too close and barge in at any moment and start talking to you; they don't understand when you say, "Wait, I'm busy right now" – you have to decide now, and that's it. I learned a remarkable trait from them - they have a completely different attitude toward failure. To them, failure is just a stepping stone. And for many designers I work with, it blows self-esteem and depression for the next three days. 

It's different in China. At first, I communicated: sorry, guys, let's try again. That American approach – say that you did well, then that you did poorly, but at the end – "but you did well. They didn't understand it at all: let's get right to the point. What's wrong? They leave, and the next day brings something new. 

But you have to be very controlled in production. For them, 10 mm is not a difference; it's normal, a tolerance. 

But what cannot be taken away from the Chinese is the conviction not to give up, never, under any circumstances, to go to the last man. And more often than not, it gets results. 

I wrote an article comparing the Western and Eastern approaches to product development. China is now taking over the market; there is a trade war with America. There were jokes about "a version of something from AliExpress"; now no one laughs at China anymore; they make potent products, very high quality. 

I was surprised at the number of car brands, for example. They have a vast market; they only sometimes need to enter the global market. There are a lot of electric cars and local car brands. And what we see in Russia or worldwide is a tiny part of it. I drove a Porsche from Aliexpress for 20 or 30 thousand dollars.

They're amazing. You go down the highway and see a bridge on 300-meter pylons just between two mountains. You drive over it and can't imagine how it could have been built. I learned a lot from the Chinese.

Is the opposition to the West being felt? Or does it think that China wants to change?

The Chinese once had a cult of the West. They still do but to a lesser extent. Mao Zedong's fourth wife, Jiang Qing, when she became the Minister of Culture of China, started a process of elimination of Chinese traditional cultural values and persecution of the creative intelligentsia (Note: Jiang Qing was sentenced to death, which was replaced by life in prison; according to the official version, she hanged herself in hospital after her release for medical reasons). The European beauty standards remain, but the national self-consciousness movement will melt away.

I wanted to stay in Russia and develop everything there. I even bought land to build a house. When I lived in The Hague, I missed Russia's sloppiness. In the Netherlands, everything is transparent and rule-based; everything is in cells. I witnessed a thief snatch a bag from a girl and run; thirty seconds later, a police car appeared on one side and the mounted police on the other.

Why Portugal?

I always felt the country beforehand and understood that I would feel good there and not there. There was a feeling that I had to like it here. And the guys from MigRun helped me deal with the legalization. Then I had to act fast.

Did that feeling pay off?

The climate here is fantastic; it's all very private and free. Surprisingly, I have never once had a dialogue with the police, which I often dealt with in Russia.

You've participated in rallies, so you've had to deal with the police?

It all started when I was Alexei Navalny's designer for his campaign for mayor of Moscow in 2013; I designed his company's branding. There was a contest, and I only decided to participate because a classmate from Britain, who was annoying me at the time, was taking part. When the time came, they remembered it. They started calling me. They asked me what you were doing then and there, and we have data, you support extremist organizations, and you transferred money there and there. I was shocked at how much they knew about me. When I got the calls, I was in Bali. I came back, finished my business, and went to Portugal. And almost the next day, they came to my registration, looking for me - after theу announced mobilization.

Was it hard at first?

I flew in and went to see Porto. I rented an apartment for ten days on Airbnb. And then, suddenly, I got a strike from them; they canceled my rent and just closed my account, even though I had Balinese, not Russian, data.

At first, of course, it was hard. You don't know anyone. I also left two cats in Moscow, but they have already arrived, and all is well.


What kind of cats?

Street cats. Children found one on birch in the woods; the other was screaming under my window, and I took him away. Now the cats are with me and happy.

When you applied for a residence permit, you came to the migration service with a flower in a pot.

No one there expected that. Two girls took the documents. It happened so that I gave a flower only to one of them. The second one was a little upset. I, therefore, brought a second flower after filing. I left it under the door with a note; they were having lunch.

What helped you get through it?

As my psychologist says, I miss being without a state of struggle. There were always some obstacles in my life. When I calmed down, I felt sad. When the problems disappeared. Now I'm trying to reformat my mind.

What advice can you give to someone who is weighing whether or not to leave?

When I read "Oprichnik Day" by Vladimir Sorokin, I thought: he overreached too much. And now I look at it: he needed to go farther. Russia will make a U-turn toward the East, just like in The Day of Oprichnik. If Russia leaves, nothing good will happen there for a long time. Plus, this trauma will not heal for a very long time. 

"The Day of the Oprichnik" describes an anti-utopian Russia of the future; there is conditional nobility, oprichnina, who drive red Mercedes. Their sign is a broom and a severed dog's head. There's also a sequel, The Sugar Kremlin. It's all in such a grotesque neo-Russian style.

Do books help you find answers to your questions?

Yes, definitely. I'm reading Stanislaw Lem's "The Sum of Technology." He wrote the book in the sixties but describes things happening now, predicted with high accuracy, including artificial intelligence.

What surprised you in Portugal?

The narrow sidewalks with bollards it's a nightmare - you must always get out on the road. But coming from Bali, where there are no sidewalks at all and everyone is moving on scooters, these sidewalks are still bearable :)

Let's imagine a person who has just moved. What can you advise him?

To look for people. In my house, there's an immigrant from India store. I once got to talking to the salesman, and now I even go in just to talk to him. There is a large Russian-speaking community. You have to meet people because they are supportive. Of course, I miss my close friends; they all have gone away, but I will meet them soon – they come from Thailand, Germany, the south coast of France, and Canada.

And there was also a funny incident. One day my door slammed, and I was outside – the door goes right out, not into the entryway. And I was trying to get the keys through the mailbox, which were on the table in the apartment. A Portuguese guy came by, Antonio: "What happened?" Figured it out, went to a friend's house, and came over with a beer and a hanger. By then, I was able to pick up the key. We sat and chatted with him. He was born in Macau, a former Portuguese colony, now the territory of China. He's lived all over the world; he's a journalist. 

People are the same everywhere; they want the same things. However, I notice a conditional division: into the individualistic nature of the Western and collectivistic oriental, or somewhat even Asian. But this is shaped by the environment, not genetics. Take a person as an infant, raise him in a particular place, and he is likely to adopt the traditions of the society in which he was raised. One anime hero, like from Ninja Manuscript, was walking around the world, and people would ask him how it was and what it was like, and he'd say, "Everywhere is like the sky; people are like people." 

You can subscribe to Kirill Rostovsky on Instagram, text him on telegram, or visit his website.

Photo:Julia Vasyutenko

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