Design and the Italian dream
Does it still make sense to talk about Italian style in our globalized world? As Milan gets ready to resume its role as the planet’s capital of design, during its annual April extravaganza, several of the world’s most celebrated designers offer us their t
Although the days when icons like the Vespa of the ‘Dolce Vita’ managed to evoke a bygone era, the style, referred to as ‘Italian’, still exists. Though it is difficult to define, this style is unmistakable. Italians’ familiarity with beauty and their aptitude for design stems from their rich history. This is the only place in the world where walking amongst Roman ruins and 15th century facades is considered normal. Architecture is an ever-present feature in Italy, and this boundless creativity dates back to Leonardo da Vinci. Not even the economic crisis managed to shatter this dream. In fact an intrinsic part of the national character is the ability to turn misfortune into an opportunity, to show creative inspiration in times of need. Design, described in a study conducted a few years ago by Silvana Annicchiarico, the director of the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, is no exception. According to her study, certain revolutionary ideas of Italian design evolved “by transforming the constraints, constrictions and limitations generated by the crisis into opportunities.”
Beauty is a part of Italian DNA
“If I hadn’t been born in Milan, in a house designed by Piero Portaluppi, I don’t think I would have become a designer,” says Alessandro Mendini, a designer not known to mince his words. Mendini was born in 1931, and began making a name for himself in the 70’s due to his innovative aesthetic. Mendini was named a ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ in France, and has received numerous awards including a Golden Compass in
1979 and the 2014 European Prize for Architecture. His other achievements include the design of his Proust armchair, in addition to several other memorable objects for Alessi, Venini, Cartier, Swatch and Swarovski. Renowned 80 year-old architect Renzo Piano – a Pritzker Prize winner in 1998, the first Italian selected by TIME as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and the creator of Centre Pompidou in Paris, feels that he owes a lot to his hometown of Genoa, a bustling port city noted for its extraordinary architecture and glorious history. “I left home early, buoyed by that sense of adventure that appeals to seafarers; a sense of adventure that is also a necessary trait for architects”, says Piano. “I carry the beauty of my city inside me. A beauty that is linked to the lightness of everything suspended above the sea.” Strength, delicacy, lightness and rationality are the hallmark features of his work. “What inspires me about Milan is its forward-looking approach. In spite of hosting numerous works of art, it has difficulty in perceiving itself as a city of art, because it isn’t eager to embrace its past but is usually focused on the future, to what cannot yet be seen. It is not surprising that two of Milan’s most noteworthy events are its ‘Salone’ (Furniture Fair) and its fashion shows, events that attract visitors in search of new trends.” These are the words of Michele De Lucchi one of the world’s most sought-after contemporary designers, who chose to live in Milan after growing up in Ferrara and studying in Florence, while on the subject of being continuously surrounded by beauty. As the creator of several of the most symbolic buildings of the new Milan, and the designer of numerous cult objects including the Tolomeo lamp for Artemide in 1986, his capacity to seize the moment is undisputed. In the ‘70s, just before turning 30, he founded Memphis in collaboration with his mentor Ettore Sottsass. This is a design group that revolutionized the concept of design in the ‘80s. Other hallmark traits of his work include his interaction with nature and his meticulous focus on artisanship.
In search of livable environments
Currently, the stars of Italian design are focusing on topics related to artisanal customization and the use of technology, both key trends at this year’s ‘Salone’ that aim to improve wellbeing. On the one hand, there’s the theme of sustainability, a respect for natural materials and the importance of craftsmanship and, on the other, the increasingly sophisticated use of technology. Instead of being in conflict with each other, these two aspects can be traced back to a single trend, whose focus is no longer on the iconic object, but on the requirements of everyday living. This concept, first described as ‘No Design’, was not intended as a rejection of design per se, but rather the search for an archetype, the ‘non-designed’, the essential. This is now defined as ‘anthropodesign’ or design for mankind. It is similar to that famous icon known as the ‘Vitruvian man’ by Leonardo… This approach, where Italian designers are concerned, is deeply rooted in the past. Today, it is expressed through an interest in
re-creating designs of the golden age, between the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and, at the same time, involves multiple approaches that can be defined as ‘wiki’. No-one is more aware of these founding principles than Matteo Thun. A three-time winner of the Golden Compass award, he was inducted into the New York Interior Hall of Fame in 2004, and is renowned for his ‘eco-residences’ and the objects that he designed for Artemide, Flos, Philips, Coca-Cola and Missoni. Today, the project dearest to his heart is called the ‘Matteo Thun Atelier’, a project established to nurture Italian artisanship and the art of customization, based on technology. Typical objects of Italian design, including chairs, vases or lamps, can be customized thanks to an online platform. Design for everyone is based on individual taste. The logic of customization is also the leitmotif of the events at the ‘Salone’. A visual and sensory experience called ‘DeLightFuL’ highlights new generations and their perception of domestic space: fluid and cross-sectional, poised between the public and private, between basic needs and new desires, to promote creativity. “The Millennials consider living spaces as temporary arrangements, capable of changing rapidly to meet new needs, requirements and life stages”, explain Simone Ciarmoli and Miguel Qued, the curators of the event. “The always-connected Millennials are the generation of ‘me’ and of social sharing. The new users of design seek personalization and reject standardization. They care about quality and have a concept of luxury associated with ‘experience and authenticity’.”
This same concept is endorsed by urban planner and architect Stefano Boeri. Named the designer of ‘the most beautiful and innovative skyscraper in the world’ by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in 2015, Boeri recently launched a capsule collection of furnishings in collaboration with Annibale Colombo. As his first project, Boeri chose to revisit a ‘mettitutto’, an item of furniture found in Italian homes since the XVII century. “In order to design domestic furniture, you need to focus on the unresolved spaces of daily living. Hence the reason for an eclectic and modular container designed to welcome us on our arrival at home”, explains Boeri. “Today there is a strong demand for authenticity and minimalism, which explains why we decided to concentrate primarily on the evolution of classic products, infusing them with a new energy.” The result is a natural wooden structure featuring a series of glass shelves and box-like containers designed to house smartphones and Ipads, personal mementos or plants, in a piece of furniture that can be customized to suit individual requirements.
Beauty that stems from a dream
However, it is important to note that the indefinable and unmistakable trademark of Italian design continues to have an enormous appeal throughout the world. In March, 50-year-old archistar Fabio Novembre, the most eclectic, controversial and worldly designer of his generation, was honoured in Tokyo with an important event titled ‘The black box’, while an exhibition, aptly named ‘Italian Beauty’, has just ended in Milan. Spread out over 1,200 square metres at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum, this exhibition explored the momentous career of 82-year-old Mario Bellini, an eight-time winner of the Golden Compass Award, and the pioneering editor of Italian design magazine Domus in the late 1980s. The exhibition was curated by an enthusiastic Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum in London, who pointed out that this show falls exactly thirty years after the historical retrospective dedicated to Bellini at MoMA in New York. No less noteworthy is the world of car manufacturers, an important design sector in its own right, where, for the past decade, Italy’s Ferraris and Maseratis have continued to hold sway. This year, at the Geneva Motor Show, Italdesign, founded by Giorgetto Giugiaro (another legendary name in the field) presented a supercar in an ultra limited edition designed to make car enthusiasts dream. “Despite the presence of so many foreign designers in our companies catalogues, there still seems to be a common thread running through all of Alessi’s objects that makes them specifically Italian, a typical expression of our culture.” Thus wrote Alberto Alessi in a book published in 2016 that tells the story of a company that became one of the 20th century’s major design industries. “I think this thread consists of the cultural project that is the basis of our work. The project is largely implicit and was created over six decades, following encounters with several of the great masters of Italian design including Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi and Aldo Rossi. These meetings, inspired by a reciprocal curiosity and, at times, by chance: chance in a manner of speaking, because during my career I have often had the impression that several of these encounters were written somewhere.” The book is called ‘The Dream Factory. Alessi since 1921’ - it is all so Italian.
MESSENGERS OF BEAUTY From left to right, Michele De Lucchi with his ‘Bisonti’, Renzo Piano in his studio and Alessandro Mendini surrounded by prototypes of Alessi Tea & Coffee Towers. Below, Fabio Novembre stroking his ‘Her’ chair.
A QUEST FOR MINIMALISM Stefano Boeri poses next to a model of his ‘Bosco Verticale’, considered the “most beautiful skyscraper in the world” in 2015. Boeri describes it as “a house for trees inhabited by men”. This year, the architect designed his first collection of furnishings, including a ‘mettitutto’ for Annibale Colombo.