Partisan style

While Milan’s Furniture Fair raises its international exhibits’ profiles, Italy remains modest about fresh domestic talent.

Italians like to do things well, whether it’s rustling up pasta or a Prada boot. They do it effortlessly and stylishly. The Milan Furniture Fair this year was no exception. A whirlpool of global creativity came together for a week, showing the good, the bad and the future of furniture. Yet when it comes to promoting their own young talent the Italians are surprisingly coy – while the press and public still fête foreign designers as rock stars, their Italian counterparts struggle to make it into the spotlight. To find designers under 40 – let alone women – spreading their talents like their ubiquitous British cousins is rare.

For many, the heyday of Italian design began in the 1960s, when the Italian economic boom propelled furniture manufacturers into a period of brilliant activity. Gio Ponti, Vico Magistretti and Achille Castiglioni are some of the names that rode the wave of prosperity after World War II, bringing a renaissance in design and creating many sublime 20th century classics.

Ironically, it was Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis, the last great movement in Italian furniture in the 1980s, that dismantled the attraction of the native Italian designer. Sottsass assembled a range of non-Italian designers – such as George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier – to create the new Italian cultural style. Now it’s the names of Italian manufacturers and not designers that roll off the tongue, with only a handful of designers, such as Piero Lissoni and Antonio Citterio, managing to compete with international talent.

Another reason why Italian designers have a rather low profile is that the great names from that golden era are still around, making memorable furniture. To stroll around the Milan Furniture Fair is to be faced with brand new designs by Magistretti, Castiglioni and Mario Bellini. For young Italian designers, who often qualify through the endurance test of an architecture degree, the chance to get themselves noticed by a manufacturer may not appear until their mid-30s. Even then, they are forced to measure themselves against these giants. In a country where you don’t leave home and take on an adult life until late on, it takes a painfully long time for the new generation to prove themselves. With most decisions made by sixtysomethings, it’s difficult for bright young sparks to emerge.

Stefano Giovannoni, 46, is one of the younger Italian designers to have made a mark. He has worked for companies such as Alessi, Flos, Magis and Cappellini, and teaches at Milan’s design and architecture school, Domus Academy. At this year’s fair he presented Twoo, a translucent plastic table lamp for Flos, a table for Magis, a watch for Seiko and continued his Alessi collaboration with plastic soap dishes.

For him, the problems for Italian designers derive from the current cultural climate. “There is a weak context for design at Domus Academy today,” he says. “Unlike the Royal College of Art, which has two rich years of pure research, we don’t have a similar educational situation.” He says furniture companies tend to work with the same names and there is little experimentation.

However, things are set to change: “The Internet will radically alter relationships between designers and manufacturers and between designers and consumers. E-commerce will allow products to sell at least 50 per cent cheaper, designers will be able to set up their own small enterprises – and focus on experimentation – and they will be in a position to get an immediate response from consumers.”

Giovannoni sees the designer’s role as increasingly important within the big corporates, which are seeking a strong image: “Before, sectors such as the car industry or watch-making didn’t approach many designers. Today these companies are in search of an identity, provided by designers.” Giovannoni has worked for Saab and Seiko, but another contemporary example is Marc Newson’s prolific designs for watches, airplanes and cars.

According to Giovannoni, crossing over into different sectors means “the product designer is becoming more like the fashion designer”.

Asked why there isn’t a typical style or recognisable furniture movement in Italy, he replies that to talk about one language in design is reductive. “Designers are becoming eclectic,” he says. “Just look at how Philippe Starck operates in different fields. Design can’t be ideological, it’s not about proposing one language.”

Atelier Bellini is an industrial design consultancy that has mixed the old and the new generations. Founded in 1997 by architect Mario Bellini and his son Claudio, it has created designs for companies such as Vitra, Artemide and Heller. Although Bellini senior is an eminent presence, the atelier is run by 37-year-old Claudio and British director John Bennett, alongside a team of young international designers.

Bennett thinks the success of UK designers, or collectives such as the Dutch Droog Design is part of a historical phase. “The phenomenon of designers such as Jasper Morrison and Ron Arad happened because they started to have access to the Italian manufacturing industry, which in the UK was either non-existent or lagging behind. There was an over-exuberance and enthusiasm on behalf of these designers finally meeting someone who could listen and be willing to enter into a collaboration. Italian manufacturers get excited about developing new products. They enjoy breaking new ground. A product may not be a financial success, but it may become successful by giving the company an image and creating a market,” he says.

For Bennett, employing big names in design is like buying a page of advertising. It creates awareness and presence. “All those kinds of processes in turn generate creativity and on you go,” he says. So why doesn’t all this excitement generate an Italian movement? “Why does something like Droog Design happen?” replies Bennett. “I don’t know. It might be a historical cycle or it might be that it’s part of a larger cultural movement. Design is just one of the components in many forms of expression.”

He admits that manufacturers without a real design culture tend to opt for established names, perpetuating fashions without a real vision. Those who take risks, and he mentions Vitra as an example, are a happy few. On the collaboration between father and son – again, quite a typical Italian state of affairs – he says it works well. Companies want the Mario Bellini name as a trademark, but that probably allows the studio the luxury to experiment in new directions.

“Claudio enjoys working with his father and I think that Mario also enjoys the mix. In the early days of the studio he never really used to come in. Now he is here every day, and has gradually become re-interested in design and in creating new pieces,” says Bennett. It might well be that the way forward for Italian design is a continuity rather than a total break with the past.

In the past three years, the Salone Satellite section of the main Milan Fair has been the place to scour for young, raw talent. For many Italians, this is their only chance to be noticed by manufacturers, distributors or the international press. At Salone Satellite, husband and wife team Nico Ambrosino and Madoka Sato presented a series of leather chaise longues and armchairs. At first glance, the furniture looks comfy and slightly retro, but hidden in the layers of silicone filling is an electronic massaging system, which soothes the tired sitter. The duo, in their mid-30s, have previously worked in Japan and have been selected twice for the prestigious Good Design Mark. They are now going down the self-production route. Judging by the appreciation from the flow of eager testers of the Relax range, they’re sure to find an enlightened retailer.

Salvatore and Marie are another duo who have been receiving a lot of attention, following articles on their upside down cups and saucers. At Salone Satellite they presented a collection of furniture, ceramic lighting and captivating accessories with glossy silver or gold finishes. The notorious upside down cups are also there, set to become a classic now Starck has acquired them for a new hotel in Paris. Salvatore and Marie sell their range at trendy Parisian Colette, but have so far found it hard to get distribution in the UK market. Their products are funky and fun, and would easily stand on a shelf next to our own home-grown talent. What is needed is constant exposure – and luck.

Falt Design is the acronym behind Francesco Tibaldi, a 36-year-old who works as a product and interior designer. For many designers and architects, renovating someone’s home interior allows them to expand into furniture. Most of the pieces that Tibaldi has on display stem from his work for clients. Tibaldi’s theme is playful, using coloured Plexiglass for see-through cabinets, adopting bun shapes for a white leather sofa and creating a wooden fruit shelf in which pears and oranges are stacked up like pieces of art. While most of the items can be commissioned or adapted, Tibaldi is in search of a manufacturer for his Onlio lamp, a Plexiglass contemporary take on the oil lamp.

Many Italian designers choose to go out and get what they want. Rather than waiting for the manufacturer to come along and commission a design they may opt to produce their own one-offs. While many design collectors believe that only pieces produced by enlightened manufacturers such as Cappellini have the potential to become tomorrow’s Barcelona Chair, there is always the appeal of the crafted, unique piece which is part design and part work of art.

Jacopo Foggini is a 33-year-old designer who has made a name for himself with his sculptural, bright plastic lights. The son of a sculptress and a factory owner who used to produce reflex reflectors for cars, he joined the two family traditions and started sculpting with methacrylate, a resin which has the same qualities of coloured glass, but is extremely light. During the Milan Furniture Fair, Foggini took over the civic Aquarium and filled it with sea-inspired sculptures – giant translucent squids and vivid orange shell lights. The plastic anemones, sea urchins, fish and corals resembled the real sharks and marine snakes in their tanks, but with the added appeal of a multicoloured Atlantis.

Foggini works from his Milan studio with a resin-heating machine of his own invention; his precious pieces retail from £1300. Glamorous collectors such as Sting and Uma Thurman queue up for his light sculptures and at a recent London Sotheby’s auction of contemporary art all his pieces sold immediately. Although Foggini has created bespoke sculptures for bars, he avoids the notion of mass-producing pieces, which he feels would limit his creativity and the close relationship he holds with his clients.

Mauro Mori has similar scruples to Foggini, but has been lucky enough to cross paths with Giulio Cappellini, the visionary manufacturer par excellence. Mori’s story began eight years ago when he designed some furniture pieces for photographer Giampaolo Barbieri’s house in the Seychelles. When Cappellini saw the pictures of his wood and marble pieces he decided to commission 35-year-old Mori to create a limited edition range of objects. Thanks to the continuing Cappellini collaboration, Mori can afford to focus and experiment his own one-off pieces, on show at his studio during the fair. “I’m interested in materials,” explains Mori. “I’m not looking for virtuosity, but for the essential.” His stools, tables or sculptures are monolithic blocks of raw materials. “I try simplifying my forms by subtracting volume. I’m not into rich, Baroque forms, but I do research my materials.”

Mori has a workshop in the Seychelles where he finds Rose Albitia wood, a parasite tree which grows in abundance on the beaches. “It’s an environmentally friendly material because it’s not protected and is often pulled down by the forestry,” he says. He recycles it, treats it partially there on the island and has it sent over to Europe in containers. His trademark is the natural red finish he gives to the wood objects, made from the Uruku berry. A traveller at heart, with no formal design training, Mori’s passion for materials often leads him to stay at the source and he has been known to work in the Carrara caves to extract his precious marble.

His organic shapes and rough, yet refined textures make him a favourite among collectors, who either commission pieces or find them in places such as the London-based Designer’s Guild. For the 2000 Cappellini range, Mori has designed a set of tables in black Marquina and white Campaccio marble, Rose Albitia wood or burnt aluminum. The pieces retain all the preciousness of handmade objects, yet are sold as relatively accessible Cappellini furniture. Cappellini has always been a place to savour new talent, Italian or foreign.

Michela Catalano and Ilaria Morelli are two architect-trained designers who produce for Cappellini and also work in its research and development department. A rare example of Italian women designers under 35 to have made it with a big manufacturer, Catalano and Morelli presented at Milan a brightly coloured transparent CD container, a small, essential table and a slick long bench. The bench comes as a teak outdoor version and a plush green velvet indoor version. Asked about their ambitions, the duo reveals a multidisciplinary approach. “We believe in a notion of design at large and are interested in furniture as well as in graphic and fashion design.” They plan a range of domestic accessories, certainly a more economical way to express their talents than with furniture.

Judging by the enthusiasm and versatile ways through which Italian designers have expressed their creativity at Milan this year, the duo looks set to be part of a promising new scenario, in which talent always shines through.

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