For design, Milan is a place of convergence, the living room of a large family that weaves strong bonds and builds an indispensable lexicon. But how do we make up for the distance when we create together?

“Returning to stroll through the streets of the city during Milano Design City has been a thrill, a very intense experience.” Patrick Norguet visiting the Istituto Marangoni during the Interni Designer’s Week (watch the video interview here– speaks with the real, frank enthusiasm of someone returning home.

And for design, Milan is just that, in all probability. The main place of convergence, the matrix of an ideal modus operandi, a place to meet at least once a year, for those who work on reinventing the world and its functions. By now this can be taken for granted.

The overwhelming and unavoidable factor is that Covid has swept social contact out of the picture. Not just for designers, entrepreneurs and journalists, who experience the Salone and the FuoriSalone as some sort of pagan Christmas. For everyone.

And in Italy things seldom happen unless people can meet and greet. “I rushed to do all the tests so I could be here for Milano Design City,” Norguet says. “I really felt a need to be here, to see the showrooms and stores, the physical presence of things and people. There is a unique vitality here, in terms of design.” A raging river that communicates a very clear feeling: nostalgia. The days in late September and early October granted us a break, an opportunity to gather in something that resembles a big family, more than a production system. The centripetal and irresistible force that binds, adopts, creates a sense of kinship, among designers and businessmen. There’s no getting around it: design too is a matter of love, in Italy. Milan is the motherland, a legendary place unanimously recognized as the center.

So what was missing this year? “The Salone, of course. But also the work done face to face with entrepreneurs,” Norguet explains. What follows is a description of the alchemy that happens when you sit around a table with a manager like Giuliano Mosconi, CEO of Zanotta. “You spend a day together, and in the end the brief is inevitably: you do it!” Free rein, which according to the designer produces a pile of sketches, three centimeters thick. Is there any hope that this can happen at a distance? “Not much, to be honest. Dialogue is really the spark that makes design possible,” the designer concludes.

Philippe Starck, from his refuge in the French forest, during lockdown in the spring, spoke instead about a radical, solitary, reflective way of working. “My approach is completely inserted in a system, from the desk to the bed,” he commented, happy to finally be able to concentrate for 18 hours a day, in monastic peace and quiet.

The exact opposite of the structure of convivial and participatory collaboration many designers and architects describe when they talk about a project. Especially when it is being developed for and with Italian companies. “The humanity of Italian businessmen is chaotic, authoritarian, difficult,” says Alfredo Haberli. “Human motivation is fundamental. The alchemy is very important. Friendship that is reinforced by presence.” Not just a question of cultural background. “The difference lies in human relations,” the Argentine designer insists. “A bond of trust and respect that lets you draw on creativity and forge beyond.” So we should talk about friendship, affection? “Definitely. It is an affective relationship, an emotional bond, desired, sought after. You miss people, you share their concerns, you cultivate the desire to see them again.” A love story, in short.

A question of passion, perhaps. Of creative fires but also intellectual rapport. Curiosity and learning. “Every time you do a project in Italy it’s like a PhD,” says Luca Nichetto. “And Milan is the place where you meet everyone, once a year. A truly necessary breath of fresh air, a moment of fun, full of encounters that bring inspiration and fertile energy.” As if the Lombard city had invented the planetary hackathons of design? “There is widespread expertise, a shared vocabulary for entrepreneurs, designers and artisans. You learn a lot, something new every time. Innovation is fast and constant, knowledge is transmitted very rapidly when there is direct contact. There are no language barriers: foreigners and local artisans understand each other perfectly.”

Soft skills and ongoing learning are also the pillars of remote working, not just of design socializing. Marco Susani, who has worked for two decades in the United States with Defne Koz, explains: “Without knowing it, the Americans have applied the expertise of Italian design in the startup model. To make innovation requires structural lightness and the authority of an entrepreneur who is also an inventor.” A description of authorial business and innovative daring that gets spread in schools of creative marketing in the USA, though it has existed for decades in Italy, in a spontaneous way: unfortunately we have not been able to shed light on its dynamics in a more highly structured way.

So remote design is a possibility when you have the right digital tools? “Definitely. But you also need a shared culture, to avoid clumsy errors,”Defne Koz adds. “The real difference in remote work is to have a shared base, a shared language that translates into attunement of objectives and pathways. Often, in the United States we realize that even large companies can be lacking in a design division with which to interact.”

In this moment, then, is it the solidity of relationships, emotional reciprocity and a shared design culture that really matters? Michael Anastassiades is categorical on this point: “What can save us, in the end, is that design can serve to find solutions to problems. I am a 100% physical person, and in this moment being able to use your hands is a very strong experience: I am not able to work from home, the process of discovery takes place through doing, through building models.” Light, however, has a complex design process: how is it possible to communicate with the company? “I ship a copy of the model. This is what I mean when I talk about solutions: it is hard for everyone to cope with a lack of physical contact. And it is frankly impossible to talk about light in a virtual way. So we made two models, and one of them gets sent to Italy. This is clearly more complicated than taking plane and landing in Milan in a couple of hours. But the effort in design is to understand how to do things in a functional, human way.”

“The distance from the studio has been painful. And I miss not being able to work with people in Italy, sitting around a table. Those are incredible moments when it seems like ideas are floating in the air, within easy reach,” says Jay Osgerby of the firm Barber & Osgerby. But the fragility of these months has sharpened human expertise: “We are all going through this time together, it is a collective experience that transforms even the simplest, most obvious things: travels, work, affections. And at the same time it is redesigning the needs and relations with the world. We will find other ways to design, and we will design different things,” says the Londonbased designer.

Then there are the people who have been designing at a distance for some time now, virtuoso communicators, using methods that would have seemed impossible a few month ago. Francesca Lanzavecchia lives in PaviaHunn Wai lives in Singapore. Time zones on different sides of the planet have forced them to find a feasible work mode, even from a distance: “We have well-defined roles, and this helps. And we use the classic tools of sharing, the ones utilized by everybody, which are truly excellent for collaboration, above all when work days can have such different rhythms. We always set aside an hour for direct communication, synchronized, for alignment,” Francesca explains.

But the distance from companies is a new problem. “The dialogue with entrepreneurs is a great source of inspiration, to clarify objectives and to create coordination of visions and desires, including unstated ones. Projects are now getting under way with these methods, but I am certain they will be different than in the past. Designers train themselves to cope with different dimensions, spaces and materials. But the direct relationship is so deep that a telephone call with an entrepreneur is like a call between family relations. This distance makes you really understand how things are going: it’s a sort of mourning.”