When I graduated in the late ‘60s, students like me saw design as a tangential phenomenon involving some now mythical figures on the Milanese scene: Castiglioni, Magistretti, Mari, Joe Colombo and so on … Industrial Design was a fairly secondary course (it would now perhaps be described as “optional”), taught by Marco Zanuso with two far from run of the mill assistants: Paolo Orlandini and Renzo Piano. Basically I thought of architecture and the fact that design comes into the history of architecture rather peripherally, as a lesser prosthesis of the great rationalist theories linked to Bauhaus and the Modern Movement. During that period, however, thanks to Domus, which discussed it (while the other “compulsory” journal for architects, Casabella, simply ignored it), I began to be curious about the contained yet intense and experimental dimension of interior design and the human scale of designs for everyday objects and furnishings and the spaces in which these were made. Then I started to see design as a truly practicable extension of the original and fascinating theory of design.
During the ‘60s, there were hardly any specialist trade fairs. The feeling of modernity and material progress was palpable at the International Sample Trade Fair (Fiera Campionaria di Milano), where my engineer grandfather took me to be amazed by the miracles of technique and applied technology. I discovered the Salone del Mobile in the late ‘60s; it was the first to exhibit homogenously the things that were beginning to appear in the drawing rooms of the Italian bourgeoisie. What was happening was that culture and customs were undergoing a sea change, requiring new relational and representational models, alongside the socioeconomic evolution taking place in Italy. This desire for modernisation found its outlet precisely in furnishing, experimental, design and trade applications that would have been unthinkable and unimaginable just 20 years earlier. The Salone del Mobile became the showcase, the crucible, and the backdrop for this evolution, in which the cultural and the commercial dimension became virtuously amalgamated.
These days there are design museums that preserve those remarkable times in mute collections. We need museums, I appreciate that, but I can’t help thinking that, while those works and objects that are now worshipped rather like fetishes were being created, there were no museums. However, there were the markets which, interpreted virtuously, are the real incubators of innovation.
I worked on magazines during the ‘70s. First at Casabella (the radical version under Sandro Mendini) and then MODO, again with Mendini. I started off being a spectator, commentator, critic of the design world and then began to design and make objects; like little personal, provocative paradoxes, reflections as it were on the relative and arbitrary nature of design vocabularies, until Gae Aulenti got me involved in relaunching the FontanaArte brand. I began to be a designer. However I started with an organic project for reconstructing brand identity and not, as sometimes and often happens, with a casual and hurried relationship with a client.
Since then, for the last 30 years, I have had a cyclical and almost compulsive relationship with the rhythmic annual creativity that the Salone del Mobile encapsulates into a compulsory showcase for topicality, novelty and innovation. The latter is a rare commodity, but it would appear not to count for much in a market that has evolved, expanded and specialised over the years, turning the profession of designer into a creative rationale that is tightly bound up with the fashion world’s rates of production, consumption and linguistic obsolescence. But this is very recent history.
I’ve been an assiduous frequenter of the city celebrations that project Milan onto the planetary scene as a great cultural, technical, style and traditional hub since 1980. A dimension no longer confined to furniture and object design, rather a platform for lifestyles and culture expanded by the image and anthropology of the living space. I prefer the philosophical, experimental and reserved dimension of the (my) great masters to this hedonistic and often superficial euphoria. I’ve hardly ever worked with these masters, but there are lessons to be gained from their work and words. One of them, Ludovico Magistretti, who also worked for the FontanaArte group, visited the Schopenhauer (a FontanaArte furnishing brand) stand at the 1995 Salone. I had designed both the stand and a couple of exhibits that year: a bedroom chair redesigned according to an intelligent 19th century English solution and a chair based on the technology of the layers of plywood ply and strips. The former was called Ometta and the latter Bianca. Neither were fashionable pieces but they were both the simple and consistent (not cheap, alas) upshot of conceptual research into the history of comfort and technique. Magistretti, “il Lodo”, complimented me kindly and sincerely, perhaps pleased that young people were taking up the baton of a career geared to producing meaning, not just shapes. At least that’s how I rather immodestly like to interpret this memory of the 1995 Salone.