An outside view from some of today’s insiders

January 1, 2011

Fernando Campana, Konstantin Grcic and Philippe Starck dialogue with Anniina Koivu.


Philippe Starck Italy does not exist. It is a country, where you find the best furniture and light companies, but the designers come from all over the place. We should stop speaking about national design. It is not like it was 50 years ago when only Italian designers worked with Italian companies.

Anniina Koivu You were among the most influential people in terms of this change. Your “Miss Sissi” (1991) and Piero Gandini’s move to produce the archetypical plastic lamp was radical for that time. It must have felt rather vulgar

PS It was the time when countless copies of the “Tizio” lamp (Richard Sapper, Artemide, 1972) were being made. It was a “D to D” situation, where designers designed for other designers, which inevitably raised prices. I decided to make a small and cheap lamp, which had absolutely no design to it. It hit like an atomic bomb. At first, the great masters were shocked, not only was I an outsider to La famiglia, but they also understood that something was about to change: more democratic designs were about to replace the sophisticated pieces they were doing.

Fernando Campana Until then, Italy had been the world of the films of Fellini and Pasolini, which Humberto and I grew up with. In contrast to the general Americanization of Brazil, we lived an Italian dream of home-made pasta and Sunday lunch under the pergola at the coffee farm, which our grandparents, originally from Lucca, had built in the countryside of Sao Paolo. And of course coffee forte, no sugar. Still today, the first thing we do when we arrive at Malpensa, is to take a true espresso at the bar.

PS My first visit to Milan was in an old van full of prototypes that I wanted to show to the iconic crook Dino Gavina. It all felt so chic at that time. And then he just took the prototypes and never paid me for them. Later I met Arturo del Punta Cristiani, who introduced me to a series of geniuses: Enrico Baleri, Enrico Astori and Giulio Castelli. Together we started to create affordable design in Italy (“Attila”, Kartell, 1999).

AK But your first project for Driade, the “Costes” chair (1983) was rather expensive.

PS That is true. But I also remember that I was unhappy about selling it for €1000 a piece. I believed that a family dinner worth €6000 was decidedly not a modern thing.

FC Our first project was the “Vermelha” chair (1993). In the beginning no one believed that a chair made of 450 m of cords could ever be produced industrially. It had received some publicity, yet we were struggling and were about to give up design for a chicken farm, when one day, a hoarse voice from Italy came on the phone: “My name is Massimo Morozzi from Edra and I want to produce your rope chair.” He spoke in English and pronounced Edra Ydra, like the name of a huge factory for waste management in Brazil. Thinking it was a bad joke, I rudely responded “Ok, Mr.” and hung up. Thankfully a friend sorted out the mistake.

Konstantin Grcic My first contact with Italian design was with Vico Magistretti at the RCA in the mid 1980s, who we could spent some time with and talk to about design. He was a larger than life person, very honest and generous and he made us understand that there are no secrets about design. Design does not need mystification, but it is something very close to life. And even though his personal background was quite bourgeois – he was very elegant –, at the same time he had this human side to him. He spoke the language of the workers and he loved to meet them in the factories. He would make everything seem so simple.

AK And is it still simple? Is there still this lightness to design?

KG I never experienced this easiness because of the distance and because of the language barrier. Our process had to be different. But back then all these guys like Magistretti or Castiglioni could simply get in the car and half an hour later they were in the factory.

AK What about the idea that the best design can be described over the phone?

KG Of course. But the possibility to stop by the workshops at any time, to see the process itself is so inspiring and immediate. Working in front of a screen cannot compete with that.

AK How is it to work with Italy from the other side of the Atlantic?

FC With Massimo (Morozzi) we have developed a special way of communicating. Sometimes he emails us only images of crocodiles in the Pantanao Braziliano. Without ever speaking about typologies or dimensions, that’s how the “Kaiman Jacaré” sofa (2006) was born. Like a filmmaker, Massimo is capable of creating images and dream worlds of things that don’t actually exist. I think that is because of the importance of the Opera. Aesthetics have also been very important. Or take the “Cabana” cupboard (2010). Initially it was meant to be made in bamboo, but Massimo convinced us to keep it in straw. Doesn’t it look like the furry creatures from “Star Wars”?

AK …or the cousin of the “Adams family”? You once mentioned that Italy is like a rite of passage for designers.

FC It is like an audience with a cardinal. Take for example the “Favela” chair (2003). Today Edra has it built by a German company in the South of Brazil. But whereas the Brazilian clients had the chance to buy the chair for $100 directly from our workshop in San Paolo, they choose to pay €5000. This is the power of “Made in Italy”.

KG To me one of the most important Italian manufacturers is still that old rascal (Eugenio) Perazza. He is a true visionary and he is right to call himself the “Head of Design”. His work is to think. And he is constantly looking at stuff, mixing it all together in his head. His passion creates energy. Sometimes he calls you five times a day with new ideas.

AK How are these ideas?

KG They are all very different, but always straightforward. “Let’s do an aluminium die-cast chair” kicked off “Chair_One” (2004), which at that time made a huge difference to Magis’ product line, which had concentrated entirely on plastic. One of his last phone calls was: “I was thinking that Giovannoni’s “Bombo” (1997) can sometimes be a problem. The height adjustment mechanism only works if you are sitting on it. But for smaller or older people, it can be very difficult, even impossible, to get up.” That’s how “Tom & Jerry” (2011) came about.

FC Well, that reminds me of one thing that can also be very disturbing: chiacchiere. Italians talk so much. You can say many things about Brazilians, they are lazy and so forth, but at least they start working right away. Whereas the Italians chat and chat. But then something magical happens. In the final stretch things get done. I think they need this preliminary chitchat.

AK It can be nerve-racking and charming at the same time. It is almost like a performance. So you all agree, the Italian furniture industry is still based around individuality, personality and passion?

KG Yes, in many other countries you can find a very gifted engineer, in Italy you have a gifted engineer with the passion and the vision to achieve something not yet imaginable. They go beyond that certain point where most others would stop.

AK You have mentioned manufacturers who work as editors. Then there are also those who run their own factories.

KG This kind of co-existence is something typically Italian. Clusters of industry, which more or less produced the same things in the same place, developed in areas, which guaranteed good supplies of wood for firing, water for energy or certain minerals. Look at Sarafina Zani in the Val Trompia, where there is an intense production of cutlery, pots and pans (“Subito” pot, 2010). Thanks to the law of the survival of the fittest either the strong survived and started to take over the weak, or, more typically, they started to diversify. Just think of the Brianza district, where the entire infrastructure of the furniture industry intertwines.

AK Again others made the leap from traditional, local manufacturing into an international “design company”.

KG The personal story of Michael Plank is a good example. He realized that he couldn’t hand over a company to his son that would become a burden from the past. This triggered a complete turn around from making rustic Tirolese chairs to experimenting with new materials and typologies, like the latest “Avus” club chair (2011). This was a very courageous move.

PS Yes, it is right to change things completely. The times that we are living in are not a temporary crisis, but the beginning of the decline of the west. The Aztecs disappeared, the Egyptians disappeared… For pessimistic people this situation might be seen to be a disaster, but for others it can also be a fantastic opportunity.We should ask ourselves this question: What will be our new dignity? What will be the aesthetics of our new poverty in the post-plastic era? Once the oil has disappeared in about 30 years, there will be a lot of very interesting things to work with. For the last 20 years we lived in a civilized situation, and we even had a little bit of luxury to take our time to think about design. Until recently we were the masters of the world, now we shall become the servants, the maids. We were rich and we shall become poor. There are two types of job, those which save lives and those which don’t save lives. We know, for sure, that design doesn’t save lives. This means we are useless, but we have to try to be the less useless possible.

FC But something for the better is also happening in the design business. It is becoming more human again. I remember when we visited factories in the beginning, timber was fed into a machine, the computer was coded and a product came out, stacked and packed. All touch by hand had been eliminated. I like to believe that Humberto and I had also an impact on the revival of crafts in the industry. I never thought that Alessi, who never abandoned the heritage of crafts, would start to knit baskets (“Blow Up”, 2003), or Venini would take on our fountain design made from glass scraps (“Fragments”, 2011).

KG The government, however, has done nothing for the younger generations, in order to render the craftsman’s lifestyle appealing. The situation in Italy cannot be compared to what is happening in Germany or Scandinavia, where craftsmanship has been promoted as something of value. Many young people choose the hands-on life over university. Italy has missed the boat here, even though they have the most beautiful crafts of all.

PSTo me the immediate threat are the copies from Asia. And once they have built up the right schools and the right teachers, Asia will overtake us and the situation will become very serious. Look at what has happened in electronics. We have to ask whether Italian companies will indeed become Asian in the future.

KG Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Though it is very sad to see how in Italy there doesn’t seem to be a new generation emerging. The people who we are working with are often the founders of the company. Only very few of their kids continue doing what their parents started. This is a big threat, especially in a business, that is driven by single, strong personalities.

PS LThe same goes for the new generation of designers. They were destroyed by formalism. I love Sottsass and his fellows, but they managed to kill – unintentionally – an entire generation of designers. The youngsters like to think that design is easy and simple. You just put a yellow triangle into a red square.

FC Yes, unfortunately being a designer today is like being an actor or a politician’s wife.

PS Too many so-called designers spend their time at parties rather than working – and it is hard work.

KG Absolutely, when I discuss Italian business I often almost glorify it. It is something beautiful, precious, and rich, but it is also a physical job – exhausting. It is definitely no cocktail party.


Fernando Campana
(Brazil, 1961) and his brother Humberto (1953) have created a vibrant alternative to the “form follows function” mantra, and their imaginative work with materials has bridged the gap between gallery works and industrial design.

Konstantin Grcic
(Germany, 1965), believes in a close relationship between the designer and the manufacturer and the fruits of his collaborations are industrial avant-gard objects that continue to call the state of contemporary design into question.

Philippe Starck
(France, 1949) is one of the most prolific designers and communicators on the scene today, and was one of the first international designers to shake up Italian design with popular objects that were affordable and democratic.


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