by Chiara Alessi
illustration di Paolo Giacomazzi

If Italian design is in crisis, then the same can be said for Dutch, Scandinavian, French, English, American, Brazilian, Austrian, German, South African, Japanese design, etc.

etc. Is it a problem of the lack of a scene? Perhaps, in part: the heroic epoch of design (and counter-design) has not been replaced by a new generation with the same visionary verve and long-term perspectives; the historic manufacturers are in trouble; there is a loss of collective and plural identity; realism has replaced utopia. But, above all, there is a widespread problem not only for design, and certainly not only for Italian design. In our country, over the last 15 years, the situation of the past has been replaced by many separate experiences of individuals, with their industrious efforts and widening of intelligence, with a new pragmatism and a different kind of experimentalism, a type of ‘commitment’ that may seem more ‘detached’ but is also more agile, elastic. Italian design today is far from dead, but it thrives on micro-phenomena and individual poetics (on this theme, Laterza is about to publish the book by Chiara Alessi “Dopo gli anni Zero. Il nuovo design italiano”, ed.). So is this a problem of product limitations? Do we already have enough chairs, sofas, lamps, tables, flatware? If that were the case, then the issue would also impact the big names of international design. But it does not have to do with design itself, which worked just fine until somebody started to wonder about its true role in the saving and transformation of the world. Worrying about the beauty of the things that surround us, at a certain point, has become an undervalued and demodé activity, “a question of forms.” There has been a challenge to people who until recently worked on solving little functional conflicts, or on giving form to gestures, saying that real design pays attention to organization, technology and interfaces, services. Like telling a mechanic that the job of a surgeon is more interesting, because the latter fixes human beings instead of cars. If Italian design has not saved the world, then perhaps it is not the fault of design, but of those who expected designers to suddenly abandon their working tools and products, and to start being engineers, or physicists, or economists. This does not mean that designers should not pay increasing attention to technology, science, economics, ecology, literature. And in this area, it is true, here in Italy we are still lagging behind. But just as we would not ask the mechanic to doff his overalls and put on a smock just because people are more important than cars, we need not insist that product designers change their profession, confused by the true problem, that of a semantic metaphor of the term ‘to design.’ Professional pluralism is important (would you ask a surgeon to fix your car?) as is the Italian design tradition, first of all with its focus on products (would you choose to eat at a Korean pizza joint instead of a Neapolitan one?) So is it a problem of sign, that makes Italian production seem less interesting than foreign production? If it still makes sense to talk about national approaches to design, we should remember that Italy is the homeland of Italian design, but also of Dutch, Scandinavian, French and English design, just as much as the nations to which they belong. With the present spread of information generated by the media system, the connections between different latitudes offered by the web give rise to a rhizomatic system in which the actors speak an increasingly similar language, modified by media, mixed and interchanged. Though we might not want to admit it, most of the Italian designers at work today are not very Italian, because they make things that look Dutch, French, Scandinavian, Japanese… And vice versa, over time many foreign designers have settled in Italy, inevitably contributing to alter the DNA of our national design? Is it a problem of inheritance from the 1970s, and a lack of replacement of the great masters? Yes, but in a different way than we usually imagine, with the disadvantages of habit and the advantages of the fact that these are secondary and mostly symbolic limits. After all, in other countries where there has not been a tradition of master-worship, has that made it any easier for new guides to emerge, new icons? Is it a problem of companies? Only in relative terms. First of all, because the old cliché is no longer true, the one that says that ten historic companies – lamentably more and more oriented towards working with foreign talents – make the real difference, in terms of jobs and sales alike. Then, because some of them actually do also work with Italians and very young ones too (see Cappellini). Finally, because Italian designers, above all, have managed to put alterative approaches into practice, in relation to old and new companies, or different combinations of companies, and in individual experiences with which to convert the role of the designer, or extend it to neighboring sectors, like the world of production and distribution, inventing new more or less ephemeral hypotheses. Is it an economic problem? Of course the Italian designer inhabits an increasingly competitive and improvised, recession-plagued and cautious system. But what sector is not in the same boat today? Are teachers in great shape? Journalists? Photographers? Architects? Furthermore, with respect to other jobs, that of the designer is one of the very few that allows you to launch a career quite early, with the risks and the advantages that implies. How many young designers open studios just two or three years after graduating from school? What about lawyers? Precisely from our sector, signs are arriving that may not be encouraging, but are at least comforting: the number of students at schools is increasing, new schools are appearing, old ones are getting revamped; never before has design been such an interstitial active ingredient on different levels, increasingly understood for its value, even by a wider audience; design is more inclusive than ever, and the designer is a mythological figure, half product design half graphic artist, architect, teacher, manager, publisher, art director, artist, artisan, engineer, etc., adaptable to any combination in a system where supply always exceeds demand. So what is the real problem of Italian design today? Anorexia. Italian design looks in the mirror and sees it is ugly, not up to par, not able to compete with a model imposed by certain blogs, certain critics and communications. It is a problem of tools: when you look at the present in search of the confirmations, the presences, the legitimations of the past, it is clear that the gaze on the contemporary has to waver; when the canons of judgment are changing and you look with new eyes, you have to try to hold the object of your analysis still. Instead, we are less indulgent with our own design than we are with the various expressions of foreign design; as critics, we are always more fascinated by the mysterious expressions of some unknown youngster who works in a chalet in some remote corner of Switzerland or an African hut, than in the work of a student at the Politecnico. After years of consumption, now it seems nobody wants to fill up on Italian design, in spite of the fact that it comes in all flavors, and in spite of the fact that design in Italy has never been as hungry as it is today. By failing to nourish it properly, someone is leading to its premature demise. Ah, it is not even a question of fairs. It is a problem of the media: another dress size is in fashion right now.