By Cristina Morozzi

Thanks to the creativity of the masters and the manufacturing prowess of companies, in the 1970s Italy made a reputation for itself as the country of good design.

Since then the country has rested on its laurels. It can still boast of industrial know-how and fine craftsmanship, appreciated by the many foreign designers who produce things in Italy. But there is also the other side of the coin. The growing number of products Made in Italy but created by designers from everywhere else can be seen as a signal of Italian creative weakness. While this may be a matter of normal ebb and flow, it is also caused by structural reasons: the inefficiency of the education system, the lack of support from public administrations, the absence of organizations – like VIA in France – to promote new talent, facilitating contact between designers and companies. We should remember, however, that some of our great masters were self-taught, that there were no design courses in universities back then, but just architecture degrees. Many of the biggest names invented the job of designer for themselves. There may be other factors involved, connected to the national character. Inability to organize in a systematic way, a certain laziness that leads to a concentration on what is close at hand. Paradoxically, the very wealth of our manufacturing districts can be seen as a reason for our creative dullness. Young Italian designers know they can count on excellent craftsmen capable of solving technical problems, of finding innovative solutions to lower costs and to make products more efficient. They make a nice rendering and turn it over to the suppliers, who deliver a finished product. They give birth to projects, but they don’t raise them. In France, Holland, England and other European countries, where this capillary productive fabric is missing, designers develop their own projects in their studios, personally making the first prototypes. They get their hands dirty, experimenting with different solutions, making their own molds… they exercise the mind and the hands, re-creating the unity of thinking and doing that lurks behind so many historic masterpieces. Having companies close at hand means you don’t look elsewhere, taking the risk of the unknown. The objective is often rather short-sighted: to peddle yet another chair to a manufacturer in Manzano (the chair triangle), or to find a gallery willing to show some refined exercises. Andrea Illy, president of the IllyCaffè company of the same name and of Fondazione Altagamma, states it clearly: “The responsibility also lies with Italian design companies who call on foreign talents more and more frequently. I am emphasizing this because I believe that Italy, the cultural center of gravity of the Mediterranean, has to revive its creativity, using its varied, complex territory as a source of inspiration. To bring out the potential of our design, it needs to be connected with the Italian idea of ‘beauty’. The challenge is to give contemporary and global breadth to our roots. The brands,” he concludes, “should not concentrate so much on the fame of designers. Giulio Cappellini, one of the first to widen the company horizon beyond the geographical confines of Italy, is convinced that today the stage is the world, and that the viewpoint must be global. He thinks new Italian design is offering responses to an old kind of marketing, and that instead it is important to focus on new design areas, such as design for senior citizens, for example, a truly burgeoning market. He urges young designers to face challenges, to be more humble, to not be afraid to get their hands dirty and to have more respect for the craft. He sees working on lifestyle as a way to try to disguise a lack of vision. Patrizia Moroso, who has many international creative talents in her company’s catalogue, finds that foreign designers have a wider culture and the right intellectual tools to cope with the complexity of the contemporary world. “When I approach a designer,” she says, “I want to understand their references and take the temperature of their work. The Italians, I am sorry to say, are often superficial and arrogant. They don’t know how to listen, to discover the secrets of companies.” Elis Doimo, CEO of Casamania, produces many new projects by young designers every year, in the belief that there are many young talents that deserve a chance to be produced. She has worked with designers of many nationalities, but this year she went against the trend and focused on Italians, presenting a completely national collection. The designer Francesco Faccin, who has headed elsewhere to find new clients, thinks the system should be changed, and that it is necessary to be radical, a bit wilder. Unlike many of his colleagues, he thinks his counterparts should not be only the suppliers in Brianza. He got on an airplane and went to build school desks for the NGO ‘Live in Slums’ at Mathaore, a shantytown in Nairobi. “To make more courageous projects,” he says, “gives you energy and helps you to understand that there are other ways of being a designer. Today you have to produce ideas, not merchandise. I strip things down,” he adds, “because I would like to be able to make almost invisible objects, to work in the most tactful way possible, to not increase the background noise.” This approach can also be seen in the interiors made with salvaged materials for the restaurant ‘28 posti’ at Via Corsico 1 in Milan, built by the inmates of the penitentiary of Bollate. Giorgio Biscaro, designer, founder with Matteo Zorzenoni and Studio Zaven of the brand Something Good that makes products to sell mostly online, who has recently crossed the barricades in the role of art director of Fontana Arte, is pessimistic about the Italians. “They don’t have a humanist background,” he says, “and they pursue only specialization. What is lacking is a permeability to other sensibilities. It is necessary to rediscover the time to experiment along with producers, but today the companies are in a hurry, and they want to get a sure thing. The technologies and materials being used are already proven, and the activity focuses on the choice of the designer and the communication, which is becoming a way of compensating for lack of quality.” His wager, in his debut as art director, has been to propose products that establish a ‘dialogue’, capable of clearly transferring the perception of quality and functionalism. This quick survey of opinion sounds an alarm that is spreading: Italian creativity is lagging behind. The easy remedy does not exist; perhaps, as Francesco Faccin says, the only recipe is to become more radical and a little bit wilder.

Crystal Ball vase-sculptures with solid wood bases and spheres of colored pyrex, designed by Matteo Zorzenoni for the Progetto Oggetto collection of Cappellini, 2013. Ruben coat rack and caddie in metal and wood, designed by Ilaria Marelli, produced by Casamania, 2013.
Detail of the Pelleossa wooden chair, designed by Francesco Faccin and produced by Miniforms, 2012. A series of objects in glass, wood, metal and plastic designed by Giorgio Biscaro for the new brand Something Good, a productive initiative of Giorgio Biscaro, Studio Zaven and Matteo Zorzenoni, which made its debut at the Salone del Mobile 2013.