Michael Graves was perhaps the first. A commendable career, one of those starting from Harvard to join the Memphis group, called by Ettore Sottsass. And then by Alessi, for which he designs the 9093 kettle, for his friends Uccellino (little bird). A surprising combination of pop art and design, a beloved object. So much so that it became a long seller. And finally the big leap: one of his latest works, in 1997, is a signature collection for the mega chain of convenient stores Target and for Home Basic.
For Michael Graves it is probably the triumph of his motto Design for all: cheap, pop, understandable. So much so that the collection is called just like that. And it is, through gritted teeth, considered a democratic downshifting of work for Alessi (which, however, led to a billion dollars in products sold and more than 2000 pieces designed). And it is at this point that the European design freak, and even more so the Italian one, gets hives. It is an automatic reaction: for the connaisseur the word best seller causes a feeling of distrust.
“At some point in my career, I got tired of tackling every job as if I were creating the next icon” says Luca Nichetto, another best-selling designer. The fear of cultured and a little Taliban criticism would make anyone nervous about the restor. “Since the beginning of my career, I have believed that design must in principle be democratic. If I draw but my products don't sell and enter people's homes, am I doing it for?” continues Nichetto. Reasonable question.
A job like that of Graves for Target today almost shivers at the environmental repercussions of hyper-consumerism. But the implicit and legitimate aspiration of a design for all remains, so that the project is not an elitist idiom confined to super bourgeois homes. “Understanding which design works, in practical and symbolic terms, is important for companies and for people”, continues Nichetto. His most recent best seller, the Easy Peasy table lamp for Lodes, is a readable object that mimics the gesture of the pepper mill and uses a ritual automatism to suggest the dim to warm function. continua Nichetto. “Easy Peasy was presented digitally in September and has already been bought by 60% of our customers. It is now available in 50 countries” comments Massimiliano Tosetto, CEO of Lodes.
Like many best sellers, it evokes smiles and childhood memories, even Easy Peasy is colorful, hand-sized, rides on simple beauty. It is irresistible. As was the Alessi Girotondo collection. Seven million pieces sold, enormous corporate success and also for the designers (King-Kong studio) who immediately passed, in the eyes of the right-thinking, from breaking designers to ‘creators of commercial things’.
So why do design best sellers have their haters? Nobody takes it out on those who designed the interface of the iPhone, but making housewares that sell is considered a sin. Perhaps the problem is that the universality of language does not dialogue with exclusivity. And that, underneath, the designers care about this exclusivity because they still read it as a synonym of intellectual value. The temptation of the icon, in fact, is always there. “Anch’io mi fisso sulla forma di una vite”, ammette Nichetto. “But then I let it go. Stopping three steps earlier does not affect the overall value of a project but allows the company to carry it out with low costs. And, above all, to be understood by most”.
The whole to which Nichetto alludes is a balance of functional reasonableness, aesthetic tension and scalability. “I have always worked with both emerging brands and already famous brands and I like to go from one extreme to the other”. A tendency to broaden and to overcome the feelings of guilt caused by success, whether financial or otherwise. But the point is not Luca Nichetto, but the feeling that made in Italy design should be protected, but finding a mediation: between the honesty of the language, the price to the public and the collective reasons for the pleasure that design must give, to how much more possible people. This is a mediation that could also bring together two sides that seem to love each other very little: the designers who sell and those who sell less.
Cover photo, a piece from the special edition of Alessi's Girotondo.