Photos Carlo Lavatori
Text Maddalena Padovani

Does an Italian design exist today? The heterologous prejudice lurking between the ranks and lines of certain foreign criticism cannot suffice.

For some time now, the Hamlet-like doubts have also been fed by authoritative exponents of our national design culture, who in various ways have expressed their perplexities regarding the propositional force (or even the existence) of a new generation of Italian creative talents. Instead, Italian design is alive and well, and simply waiting for a chance to express itself with projects and poetics that due to the natural evolution of things can no longer be traced back to a single school of thought.   At least this is the assertion of Chiara Alessi, design curator and critic, whose book “Dopo gli anni Zero. Il nuovo design italiano,” published by Laterza, attempts an overview of the national creative panorama in the 2000s and 2010s. A book that according to Alessandro Mendini, author of the introduction, is an act of love with respect to a generation of ‘designer puzzle solvers’: those who “according to heterodox and marginal modes of conceptualism” approach design like a rebus to be solved, closed off like monads who have difficulty connecting to each other, but imply a great intelligence, namely the awareness of something new that will soon happen and will change the previously experienced scenario.   Chiara Alessi describes the most characteristic and recurring traits of these ‘monads,’ identifying six poetics of reference proposed as keys of interpretation of a contemporary essence that can no longer be deciphered using rhetorical and dated tools. The conclusion? Today there is not just one Italian design, but many, which for one evening took on the name, visage and products of almost seventy designers gathered at the presentation of the book, in January in Milan. Interni was there, at this exhibition- event, intentionally temporary but also representative of a situation in continuous evolution: to interview the person behind an operation that will surely leave its critical mark, but also to survey the many protagonists of a phenomenon that exists and pulsates, though its heart often beats in the most interstitial and least apparent spaces of Italian design.   How did this need come about to analyze, map and ‘generationalize’ the new Italian design? First of all there was a need to grasp and systematize a debate that has been circulating for several years in magazines, encounters, exhibitions, blogs, dinners among friends; I felt the need to try to put this chatter in order, into a discourse I hope is more articulate, also exploring beyond the design system, linking that system to transformations that are also happening in economic and cultural spheres, for example. And then, in a closer sense, there was a personal need, which I then found in other people as well, to try to update the tools of analysis, to redesign a scenario that might be more satisfactory in order to describe the present. Getting beyond the categories that were previously valid, perhaps to narrate other moments, trying to imagine a map of coordinates we can all recognize, today.   Do you agree with the idea that new Italian design is influenced by the prejudices and the focus on foreign designers of companies in our country? Yes, but I do not share the surprise (we should remember that Italian companies have been courting foreign talent for thirty years now), nor can I join in the widespread, paralyzing culture of complaint. First of all, because with respect to the ranks of those twenty (at best) names of the historic Italian Design Factories, today there are at least twenty more that look to Italian designers with enthusiasm, though at times their focus is a bit naive. Expanding the range of possible involvement, they often get our designers involved as art directors, consultants, talent scouts, etc., roles that do not have to do only with the production of objects. Finally, I think the problem is not so much a love of all things foreign as the fact that the game continues to be played by the same names (Italian and foreign), with the result that often the catalogues of historic companies, originally with a clear identity, now tend to all resemble each other. But we should be clear about one thing: Italian companies are not looking to young French, Swedish or English designers with greater interest than they put into Italians. Apart from certain cases, most of these companies are simply not looking at all, they are unwilling to take risks and to bet on unknown quantities. Instead, risks are taken abroad, and what is lacking in Italy (because it was originally the unspoken job of those companies) is an institutional service to promote our creative talents in other countries. But this would imply a revision of the entire ineffective public system, which at the moment does not seem like a credible prospect.   Do you believe that initiatives promoted from within, by the designers themselves, can make up for the talent scouting previously done by entrepreneurs? Yes, independent solutions can work, if they are detonated by the designers, or initiatives that also involve agencies, institutions, clients, investors, museums, galleries, alternatives. I am not as familiar with what is happening in other countries, but I have the impression that many designers around the age of 40, in Italy, are making efforts today to promote the very young, and this is always a good thing, bucking the trend with respect to their predecessors. Of course it always depends on what results you want to achieve; economic results, visibility, exploration…   Foreign designers should be given credit for an ability to communicate (with companies, media, the public) that many Italian designers seem to be lacking. Do you believe this might be a weak link for our designers? Maybe I’m naive, but I continue to believe that the know-how and culture of our designers working in foreign countries cannot be equaled. If anything, there is a problem of ‘trends,’ of ‘fashions,’ of attitudes – also fed by those who do our job – so that if you have a good name and produce nice images, perhaps with a rather elaborate story of the backstage, it is easier to find your way into the system. As we were saying, it is also a natural question of the exotic, so that the Italian designers most in vogue at the moment are those who speak Dutch (Formafanstasma) or Danish (Gamfratesi), but an Italian like Christian Zanzotti, who has even lived in Germany for many years, and is very talented, is much less well known. I have the suspicion that his name and surname don’t sound so good to the Italian press. In any case, I have interviewed at least 64 of these Italian designers, and it seemed to me that they all had something to say and, in many cases, were saying it very well.   You assert that in their multitasking role contemporary designers are also becoming critics. Do you believe the new Italian designers have a greater capacity for self-critique than the previous generations? No. Actually I have the impression that the attitude of crossover of skills has always been part of the DNA of Italian designers, and that if we are talking about criticism in the strict sense of the term, the most interesting results have already been produced. What is emerging today, which I have tried to put into words in the book, is a thinning of the borders between criticism and communication. In this reduction of (literal and metaphorical) depth, the designer-narrator who accompanies projects with a paratext (words and images) can work very well, not only superimposing it on the product, but at times even taking its place. Those operating in this area (attempting to work on this thin borderline) often simply grab and translate content already modified by the media, but with a downstream role, no longer upstream as in the past. Self-critique, on the other hand, is something else again: it is undoubtedly true that today many projects are nipped in the bud, censored by the designers themselves, who are increasingly aware of the mechanisms of marketing, communication, the market, etc., so they tend to allow only the ‘best of’ to emerge from the workshop, the project purged of all its healthy, vital dirt and imperfections. I believe this attitude towards formal and process perfection is partially the result of the era of the social networks, where we all try to display only our best side, disguising the truth. But criticism has to dig for truth, or at least try to do so.   Your intellectual curiosity and privileged vantage point have given you great critical lucidity that gets a bit diluted in the copious array of designers you identify according to interesting but inevitably questionable categories. Why did you feel the need to do this? Do you believe that in the logic of the design of the Zeroes, what emerges in the end is more the personality than the project? The fact of inserting so many names had to do first of all with an editorial need, namely to also give numerical proof to my thesis, a response to those who wonder if an Italian design still exists: naming 100 names at least raises the doubt that something must be there. Then there is a more theoretical reason, which you correctly say has to do with the logic of the Zeroes: after the end of the generalized systems and utopias of the 1970s and 1980s, but also the end of the icons, the stars of the 1990s, what stands out today, also in terms of social incisiveness, are not the projects, but probably not even the signatures; it is a fragmented, elusive, heterogeneous system I have not set out so much to categorize as to try to photograph, so much so that the exhibition with which I have framed the works lasted one evening only. But if the categories no longer exist, that does not mean that we can say that everything is the same, or that there are no emerging features or factors in design. The poetics I describe in the book, and which not by chance I never call ‘categories,’ are intended to each bring out one characteristic of contemporary design, which in many cases can coexist or include at least one other. Form me, these are the things that emerge, even more than the names I have ‘used’ as examples and illustrations. But these are intersecting sets, they move, they form crossroads and rhizomes. Nothing is pre-set or definitive.   What is the substantial difference between the viewpoint of Andrea Branzi in 2007, for the exhibition “The new Italian design,” and the vantage point of your book? I have trouble comparing my work to that of Branzi: he is a Master, a researcher, a philosopher applied to design, a professor, a curator, an architect; I am not, I studied criticism, then publishing, I got into design through a special, privileged observatory, but also a partial one, a Design Factory. In the years in which Branzi was doing his radical research, my parents had probably not even met as yet… The substantial differences are therefore inevitably very many in number. However, it is clear that those who concentrate on Italian design today cannot help but come to terms with that exhibition. To use a metaphor, which maybe he would appreciate (though who knows), I imagine the exhibition “The new Italian design” as one of his works of architecture in wood, a load-bearing axis. Instead, my contribution, to stick with the metaphor, is a branch, more fragile, lighter, but pointed, which might sprout forth from that monolith. So with a very personal interpretation and with a book – that inevitably leads to an approach very different from that of an exhibition – I thought it might make sense to interrupt that continuum outlined by the Master (who not by chance utilized, in his show, an uninterrupted conveyor belt to display the projects) and to insert discontinuities, distinctions, breaks. My goal was to state that the expressions of contemporary Italian design – beautiful or ugly, good or useless, experimental or backwards, redeeming or surrendering – cannot be standardized in a single, reassuring, big, anonymous whole. The other apparently superficial difference is that I know the designers mentioned in the book, one by one, I know their faces and their work, I have met them all in person. For the presentation exhibition, I thought it was nice to take advantage of the fact that they are alive, and have thinking brains!