Zenta Tanaka

CIBI is the love and life of Meg and Zenta Tanaka.

Created as an expression of their way of living, CIBI is a concept that is a blend of their experience in food, wine, design and architecture. Japanese sensibilities and their evolving Australian lifestyles are combined to create a world that is warm and welcoming at the same it is exciting and refreshing. Above all else it should appeal to the three driving elements that drive drive CIBI – the head, hands and heart.

POI: What is Cibi and how did it come about as a business?

Z: Business is an evolving philosophy via a certain practice, Cibi is changing continually. It’s been eight years since my wife Meg and I started Cibi and I carried the idea with me for ten years before that. When I was studying architecture at age twenty one I was learning about creating a lifestyle for people through building and design. It seemed to be big people, providing big designs and ideas to the public, but this didn’t really resonate with me. I began to consider what it would be like to create a space where people just come in, get a lot of ideas, become inspired and enjoy themselves. Wouldn’t it be great if I could start to practice like that? Through meeting people and through discussing ideas? The dialogue starts when I welcome them into this public space I’ve created. 

POI: Do you think that’s very Japanese approach?

Z: Yes, it’s a more holistic approach. It’s like saying “Come into my space and I can offer nourishment. Let’s talk philosophy, let’s talk ideas, and let’s share.” It’s a space where we create things that represent our thoughts and philosophy. You want them to ‘feel’ first. It’s a very soft, genuine approach. That’s how I’ve always looked at it.

POI: What was your experience studying architecture like?

Z: I studied at the University of Adelaide but during my studies I hit a wall and had to escape. I went to Germany on exchange which was a blessing. The culture was different there. It’s more open. More mature. The melding of cultures from various parts of Europe was also something I learnt a lot from. 

POI: So the idea of Cibi formed in your mind quite early on?

Z: ‘Cibi’ didn’t have a name of course but I did have a vague idea of the design. I started working in hospitality during my studies and that’s when I discovered the rush and the energy. Beautiful moments. You look at a customer’s face and it’s so instant. You do something nice, you provide a product, the food. You provide beautiful food. I would help in the kitchen plating the dishes and I really enjoyed seeing what the food and the space would do to people. The food aspect then came into my concept and philosophy. I thought ‘I’ve got the design. Ok, I want to do something with food too.” Then it became about the styling and putting it all together in a space. It’s a means of expressing my history and personal value system. Having interactions with perfect strangers, food, space, product. They are all sensory experiences. We’re talking about so many instruments. So many touch points that need to be consciously considered to encompass the optimum communal space.

POI: We kicked off together in Golden Fields. 

Z: Yeah, that’s right was that five years ago? It seems like yesterday. That was Andrew’s first restaurant on his own. Totally independent.

POI: I clearly remember talking to Andrew and saying we should be starting with the table, we should be starting with the dish. We’re not just framing an interaction of the visitor; we’re talking about framing the dish.

Z: It’s interesting looking at ceramics and the relationship they create on the table. You commissioned ceramicist Shane Kent to come up with porcelain plates and bowls and I remember Andrew coming to see me, with those dishes, and talking about the table settings. I was so happy. Andrew came to me with those plates and start talking about the details of the cutlery. I’m like ‘Wow, here we go, this is great! A big restaurant is actually paying attention to the details and looking at this as a full composition and not just a dish.” From the moment you said ‘The concept comes from the table, from what a customer sees, in the first moment.’ It was a magical direction.

POI: I remember coming into contact with the glassware and the cutlery, and I was thrilled. It was like we were talking about a ceremony. I was thinking, “This is brilliant. We’re finally talking about this now, someone is going to interact with the instruments.”

Z: Yeah, instruments. Exactly. 

POI: Up to that point I had be wrestling with a lot of clients who seemed to not care. They’d rush out and get the cheapest, most accessible, poorly made cutlery and then you’d try to put this ensemble together only to find that it lets down the composition.

Z: In Japanese cuisine a lot of importance is placed on the plates too. People use different kinds of plates and enjoy them, even if they’re just looking at them or holding them. But yeah, you’re right, five or six years ago that wasn’t happening here. (Laughs) 

POI: Well I’m loving the fact that ceramics is really coming to the surface now. We’ve seen in the past that the government saw no value in ceramic production, or the teaching of it, so there was sort of a dual interest in trying to promote it and showcase the value of it.

Z:  After architecture I was very interested in the tactile, in the things you carry, the things you use every day. My theory is that life is about how you enjoy moments and there are these tools that help.

POI: Once we had set up a table I remember suddenly looking at your product, and realising that it’s about consciousness.

Z: Yes!

POI: It definitely had an effect on me and I remember thinking to myself, when I ate some of the food with your cutlery, that I was very conscious of it. When the spoon went in my mouth, I was like “Wow, this is not an everyday spoon.” 

Z: (Laughs)

POI: I think that is where the absolute brilliance of it lies. Because it’s not just the handle on the front door. And it’s not just the chair. If you’re not taking the audience all the way through every physical, let alone sensory experience, then it’s failing isn’t it? It’s falling short somewhere. 

Z: I think when you can do that it’s wonderful. For the customers, and for the people who produced it too. There’s nothing like it. 

POI: What I enjoyed about working with Andrew was that commitment to detail. He’s one of few that manages to continue to do so. With Golden Fields, even though it wasn’t strictly Japanese, it was nice to be able to work through a certain philosophy that was possibly coming from more of a Japanese origin.

Z: You’re right. Seeing Golden Fields was so refreshing. It made me really happy to see that mix of Australian with a little bit of a Japanese take.

POI: Then Supernormal Canteen comes along. Which was a completely different exercise because — I hate using the term — it was a ‘test kitchen.’ It was a different level of energy.

Z: It was. It was a lot speedier

POI: I think what we were looking to do was to challenge the frequency and the vibration. It was to be a little more fun. It was to stimulate and create an interest because it was leading into Supernormal in the city. 

Z: Were you trying something? Were you testing something? 

POI: Yeah, we wanted to be a bit more playful. It was a small, temporary space so in that moment, no different to an exhibition, there was an opportunity to lighten it up a little bit. You’re not thinking about longevity. You can create an acceleration within the space and within the materiality. You can play. With temporary spaces you have the opportunity to deliver in a different order, in a different arrangement.

Z: How long was it there for? 

POI: About six months.

Z: At that point I didn’t know that you were going to do Supernormal in the city. 

POI: When you’re stepping into the sensitivities of say, a Japanese accent, it’s easy to possibly offend or quickly take on too much of a literal outcome.

Z: There’s such a danger. With Supernormal the first time I saw it was still under construction.  

POI: Did you come when it was still pretty much a carpark? 

Z: No, I came in when most of it was done and you had about a week before you were due to open. 

POI: A mad rush. 

Z: There was about forty people working on site. So, in a sense it was chaos. But just seeing the scale of the space and being able to sit by the bar while it was still under construction I could see it. I was blown away thinking “This is where Supernormal’s going to be.” I was very curious at that point of how it was all going to come together. 

POI: Yeah I think I was too! 

Then I saw the timber! These little pieces of timber here and there, and of course the column that stands out amongst these different materials.

POI: They are ordinary materials, everyday materials. Our constant pursuit is to use these ordinary materials and make them contextually relevant to challenge the expression. 

Z: At Supernormal you’ve got raw concrete still with pencil marks and all sorts of things on it. That kind of thing is sort of Japanese, you just let it be. You let the material be and naturally it becomes meaningful too. The materials are so quiet and meaningful that we take notice.

POI: Often when there’s too much information you don’t recall anything, all these subtleties matter. When I first came into contact with you all those years ago at Golden Fields that’s the effect your pieces had on me. The level of finesse and idea of reduction, but the expression was not reduced to a moment where it lost it’s impact. They’re really impactful pieces because of the intelligence of their simplicity. The idea of contact with a material or the expression of its form effecting the audience briefly or unconsciously is beautiful.

Z: At Cibi, this is a philosophy we love. We just want people to walk out the door and feel great, even if they don’t know why.

POI: It applies to all of us. Why do we like things? Or why do we like something new? It’s not immediate but then, through its use… You know I have all the Cibi glasses and they never, never disappoint me. You know you’re living with something important when every time you use it you’re aware of its value. I’d almost go so far as to say that is where we need to arrive in this consumer world. It would be nice to think that when someone sits in their chair they’re conscious of it. Not “I’m sitting on a functional tool” but appreciating its beauty and their relationship with it. Challenging their consciousness in a really positive way. If this was the norm perhaps we’d overcome this trend of mass manufacturing and disposable cultures around the world.

Z: That’s right. We want to make that right choice. That one tiny choice. 

POI: Even if people understood that buying quality ceramics means they won’t break so easily. I’ve thrown your bowls around and I’m pretty happy with how they’ve stood up. If the masses could understand the value of buying quality goods and paying a little bit more, they’ll get more life out of it, more joy out of it.

Z: Thanks for touching on that. That’s what we want to pursue too. It’s what Cibi wants to do through our products and creations. 

POI: Every time we have these discussions, we’re probably not even aware of it, but we continually throw around the same values.

Z: We do, we do. And that’s how we want to enjoy life, through these moments and with the right products.

POI: Interesting. 

Z: (Laughs) We could talk about this for five hours.

POI: What I like about how we share our time, is that we talk quite philosophically about design and life. We share very similar values and I think it’s interesting when you talk about the ‘joy’ moment and what it means. With Cibi you’re continually striving for that moment and that’s the thing we’re striving for also. It’s an interesting moment when you spend months, and sometimes years in some cases, to realise a space and every touchpoint within it. Then to stand back and see it… Sometimes you don’t know how audience will respond and that’s the moment of truth. I think with Supernormal, Canteen and Golden Fields what always gave me confidence was that there was a discern for every moment. It’s a simple idea really. It’s just a level of care, pride and respect for the audience. When you go into those types of venues you know that the people behind the business care about the experience and the joy that the experience will bring.

Z: I find in your work that the value you bring to every project is different, but you always bring immense value and lead your clients down that path.

POI: Thank you.

Z: It’s amazing. I only do it in my world, in the Cibi world but you are constantly doing it for other people, other business, and large audiences. I’ve only got two or three hundred people coming in every day but that’s only in one spot. 

POI: That’s still a lot! 

Z: That’s a big credit to you! I know you’ll continue to do that. 

POI: If the businesses aren’t successful and don’t have a flow of currency then the design in some shape or form is letting down the pursuit of that commercial enterprise. I’ve always enjoyed the complexity of knowing that there’s so many components that make up functional and aesthetic considerations, but it’s the business itself that we need to be really aware of. If you don’t understand that, then you shouldn’t be designing because all you’re doing is seeing to an aesthetic outcome. 

Z: We see too many places like that.

POI: We do now. Especially in Australia.

Z: And in the last five years. 

POI: In a lot of capital cities around the world we’re seeing negative trends. But all the same, as long as we don’t lose sight of the origin of food, sustainable practices and environmental considerations then these businesses will come and go like in any other industry. It’s been an interesting period.

Z: We can do so much more can’t we more? We can still do so much more

POI: I think it’s happening. There’s enough proof of that now. Whether you call it a movement or not, there’s a consciousness now. It’s exciting to see younger generations relishing in the value of design and creativity and what it means within their own domestic interaction in certain social settings. They are buying into it, quite literally. But they’re also getting joy from it. I came from a generation that said “You’re crazy for paying x for stemware, glassware, cutlery.” 

Z: It definitely motivates me.

POI: So, what’s coming up? 

Z: We need to touch more people with these ideas and these thoughts. 

POI: Your outcome or what you produce is the truth. It’s not what you are continually saying, it’s what you are continually doing that has value.

Z: I think through hospitality service we can make a difference too. Just that level of extra care.

POI: It’s a term that we need to focus on more. The idea of care and what it means. It’s exciting. Thank you. 

Z: Thanks, Dion. We’ll talk more? 

POI: Yes, definitely. That’s always our challenge isn’t it. 

Photography by Ben Clement