Social distancing and Made in Italy have a hard time finding an agreement. Ça fait deux, we might say in French. Over the last 20 years Italian manufacturing has adopted a competitive model that sacrifices economies of scale typical of mass production, exploring market niches through dialogue with attentive, engaged clients. In all sectors that have built the strength of Italian exports, from the home system to fashion, components to machine tools, Italian companies have found a way to develop empathy and interaction with a demand side that has asked for and obtained specific solutions for its requirements.
This capacity for dialogue and exploration has been able to rely on a flexible, high-quality production system. Medium-sized businesses, now the pillar of Italian exports in the world, have been able to count on professionalism and expertise rooted in the crafts tradition of districts, and on a system of suppliers capable of guaranteeing exceptional turnaround times and standards of quality. Investments in solutions 4.0 have boosted this process, bringing technological quality to an original model of ‘industry to measure.’ The furniture sector has been emblematic in this evolution.
A few years ago Carlo Molteni, in a long interview with La Stampa, recalled how the success of his company and many other medium-sized firms in the sector was inevitably connected to getting beyond standard items. Halfway through the 2010s his group produced all of its kitchens and 80% of its wardrobes to measure, based on client specifications. “Molteni is more a tailor shop than an industry. The future of my type of industry is crafts.”
Dialogue with designers and deep comprehension of the needs of consumers are essential aspects of the modus operandi of Italian companies. The competitive advantage of Italian design lies in social proximity. And this social proximity is the premise for the differentiation of product and success in niche markets. For production based on listening, erasing travel for work, personal encounters and trade fairs is no easy matter. It means interruption of communication with the demand side and – more in general – with a vast, fragmented chain of supply, production and distribution.
The only way out is a rapid migration towards digital solutions, an area in which most Italian businesses have invested few resources, and one they have explored only in part. After years of investment to modernize production processes and logistics in the 4.0 version, the priority shifts to tools for managing relationships with dealers and, above all, with the final consumer. Those who have invested in this direction have discovered that it is possible to mobilize the sales force through video conferencing, engaging with international consultants and designers at a distance, and presenting users with an interior design project, by sharing plans and renderings via web.
Lisa White, an authoritative voice of the agency WGSN, has defined this ability to present virtual customized products on the web and social networks as digital craftsmanship, which can be translated into analog reality by order of the client. The design is digital, the communication happens over the web, and items are produced only when the client orders them – obviously online.
Investments in digital communication by companies need support on the front of platforms. Even a production system that forcefully pursues variety and personalization requires moments of encounter and discussion to identify overall trends and to intercept evolutions of taste. The Salone del Mobile and the FuoriSalone (with all the visibility triggered by these two events) have represented the true antidote in recent years to the fragmentation of the home system, crossing people and paths of a in a wider professional community. Again in this case, the evolution towards the digital represents an obligatory passage. We will need new platforms to share ideas and projects. We will need digital containers capable of hosting initiatives of a commercial character, as well as conversations and content of a cultural character.
The crisis triggered by the Covid-19 virus has set various programs of this type into motion. Over the last months, the website of ADI has gathered reflections and proposals to orient the design profession during the pandemic and beyond it. The Dezeen publishing platform has set aside ample space for projects that have taken form during the lockdown, involving designers from around the world. It remains to be seen how this function of digital gathering can take us beyond the emergency.
Covid-19 has imposed a change of pace in a direction that was already evident. It is probable that in one or two years we will once again travel, meet each other, and spend time in crowded trade fairs. But at the same time, the impact of the digital will be lasting. The tools deployed to cope with smart working run the risk of irreversibly altering business organizations. Likewise, the relationship with the demand side will not return completely to the logic of the past. The entire sector is now called upon to interpret the transformation in progress in an original way, respecting the specificity of the paths launched by companies in these years.
These investments in digital expertise and culture – it is worth emphasizing – need not be seen as a challenge to the great analog-artisan tradition of Made in Italy. Nor should they overshadow its manufacturing quality. Quite the opposite: they are destined to contribute in a decisive way to its protection and revitalization.