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September 7, 2012 8:28 pm
Milan has been one of Italy’s most prosperous cities since the Middle Ages. Although it is best known for its fashion credentials, it is in the field of industrial design that it really excels.
Once a year the city hosts the Milan Furniture Fair, which Wallpaper* magazine has described as “the biggest and best design gig on the planet”. The first Salone Internazionale del Mobile was organised in 1961 by a small group of furniture manufacturers who wanted to promote their work to a wider audience. Today it is the biggest international trade fair of its kind in the world with 2,500 designers and more than 270,000 visitors.
And Milan is the perfect location. In addition to the Triennale Museum, which houses 1,000 examples of Italian design, it is home to 21 per cent of the country’s design sector. The city’s design industry produces around 15 per cent of Italy’s total manufacturing output, and more than 400 design companies are based there.
Not surprisingly, the Milanese, most of whom live in small apartments, also have stylish homes. While the backdrop is often neutral to encourage a sense of light and space, splashes of colour, whether from a chair or lamp, are essential.
“We don’t want to live in a show home, but our homes are always immaculate and ready for unexpected visitors. That is Italian life,” says Elisa Cirulli, an Italian interior designer who has lived in the UK for 15 years. “People think of us as being dressed in designer labels from head to toe but that’s not true and it’s the same in our homes.”
Italian design took off after the second world war. During this period, known as the Italian economic miracle, the country was transformed from a poor, mainly rural nation into a major industrial power. In a break with earlier, traditional furniture production, a collaboration began between architects (from the Politecnico di Milano) and a group of furniture manufacturing companies, just north of the city, where many still have their bases today.
It was an incredibly optimistic time, says Roberto Minotti, son of the eponymous company’s founder. “There was a lot to do and suddenly everything seemed possible,” he says. “People were moving from the countryside to the cities in search of work and they needed new homes, new furniture and new lighting.”
Alberto Alessi, grandson of the company’s founder, says the roots of Italian style lie deep within the Italian personality. Despite being at the head of a global multi-million dollar business, he refers to his employees as artisans rather than manufacturers and talks of research laboratories rather than factories. And Carlo Molteni, of Molteni & C, says no Italian designer will give up on a good idea because of technical difficulties.
Alessi pieces are part of more permanent museum collections than any other design house. The company will spend as long as it takes to make sure everything is exactly right; production of the Bombé tea set, for example, was halted for a year because there was only one person who knew how to weld the handles to the exact specification. When he died it took a year to train someone else to do it to the same standard.
Alessi pioneered the idea of working in collaboration with independent designers and architects such as Gio Ponti, Ettore Sottsass and Achille Castiglioni. This, the company claims, keeps its products free from corporate influence. “Italian design success is about the culture in our factories,” says Alberto Alessi. “We are somewhere between industrial and artisan. Our designers are given a lot of freedom. We like to break the rules, to dance on the borderline of what is possible and what is not possible. That is the essence of Italian design.”
Italian designers are also quick to embrace new materials, such as plastic, and they boldly experiment with form and colour in their desire to create new and exciting furniture.
This quest came to a head in the 1980s when Ettore Sottsass set up the Memphis Group (the name came from a Bob Dylan song that was playing on repeat during their first meeting: “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”). He led a group of Milan-based designers with a post-modernist aesthetic that freed them from earlier rules. They mixed wood and metal, perspex and vinyl and strong colours – turquoise, red and yellow with black and silver edging. The San Francisco Chronicle described it as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher Price”. The collaboration lasted barely 10 years but its influence is still felt today. Karl Lagerfeld is said to be a collector and Dior based its 2011-12 haute couture autumn/winter show on Memphis.
Cirulli says the colours are no coincidence: “When I go back to Italy now I have to shield my eyes from the bright colours. But those three colours are the colours of Italy. It is the sea, the sun and passion.”
One Milanese house that embodies this Italian sense of playfulness and colour is that of Piero Fornasetti, a painter, sculptor and interior decorator who created more than 11,000 products. He died in 1988, but his son Barnaba has maintained and developed his father’s house in the Città Studi area of Milan. With its red piano, yellow walls and pale blue shelves, the house embodies all the classic elements of Italian style.
But where now for Italian design? Will the country’s struggling economy deter the country’s furniture designers?
Luca Casarotto, the founder of youngdesigner.it, a collective of young Italian designers, says established companies are no longer willing or able to help the up-and-coming.
“Italy is going through a tough time economically and there is a lack of support from experienced artisans and leaders of major companies,” he says. “They can’t afford to employ people on long-term contracts or even offer them the chance to develop ideas in-house as there are no jobs to offer afterwards.”
This, in turn, has led to a lack of experienced people to guide and invest in young designers, something Minotti says was crucial to the country’s early design success: “The designers provided stimulating ideas and the entrepreneurs frequently invested their money and energy in avant-garde projects.”
Casarotto believes that the Italian refusal to compromise will ultimately save the industry.
“The innate creative flair of the Italians leads us to keep pushing the boundaries and as long as the search for ultimate beauty continues in line with the creativity, Italian design will continue to thrive.”
Survival in an age of austerity: The Italian design industry today
The ongoing eurozone crisis and weak domestic demand have taken a toll on factory output across Italy during the past 18 months.
Paul Overton, of Panik Design, the UK’s largest stockist of contemporary design, says he has seen changes in the Italian approach over the past year.
“Italian design companies have become more risk-averse,” he says. “They are sticking to their tried and tested designers rather than taking a chance on new talent and they are spending money on revamping existing successful collections rather than producing new pieces.
“If a product is selling well then they have become much quicker at producing new colours or styles – something that used to take a couple of years – but it is a change to an existing piece rather than a completely new launch.”
For example, the famous face chair, Nemo, from Driade, was first made in white only. Now a range of colours and finishes have been added.
“They’re not taking a risk with a new idea and they already employ the designer so they don’t need to take on a new one,” Overton says. He adds that other items are being quietly dropped from collections, in part due to supply problems. As some Italian factories go out of business, design companies are having to find new suppliers before they can fulfil their orders. In some cases, this has led to waiting lists as they prefer to secure a large order before committing to the cost of manufacture.
Giulia Molteni, global retail manager of Molteni & C, admits that the Italian economy is suffering but adds: “Unlike the economy, the value of good design is solid. We work with high-profile designers and architects and invest in the development of new product whether the economy is good or not. It is however, during times of economic downturn, that it becomes particularly important for a design brand to reinvent, innovate and think outside of the box.”
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