By Maddalena Padovani

Milan Triennale, 11 September 2014.

The time has come for Franco Clivio to dismantle the exhibition No Name Design that has been up for three months, displaying his collection of anonymous objects: about 1000 of them, mostly old utensils, which the Swiss designer has been finding, collecting and classifying for decades. As he delicately places them in their cases he observes them, touches them, reveals their unexpected mechanisms, the intelligence hidden inside objects that are marvelously perfect in their simplicity. There’s the mechanical protocalculator and the tool Swiss watchmakers used to measure hundredths of millimeters before the advent of electronics, but also nuts and bolts, hammers, knives, finishing joints, technical books, posters on the history of mathematics, or the art of the machine. A far cry from the classic types of glamorous products we now associate with the idea of design. Next to Franco Clivio, Giulio Iacchetti observes and listens to the stories each object contains, like hidden treasure. This isn’t the first time the two designers have met. Always interested in everyday objects considered marginal by design culture, Giulio had already managed, several years ago, to get to know the maker of certain products he had always appreciated for their simple, apt design, like the Gardena gardening tools and the Pico pen for Lamy. The opportunity arose at the IUAV in Treviso, where Clivio was a professor. Giulio Iacchetti: “We were introduced by our mutual friend Marco Zito. When Franco saw that I was carrying a Brompton folding bicycle, a discussion on design got started, because he thought his Moulton was better. The discussion continued in the evening, away from the university, on a little gastronomic cycling tour of Treviso that did not solve the issues, but definitely involved plenty of wine.” Franco Clivio: “You insist that your bicycle can be folded up more easily, but mine is resolved better in terms of the joints, which cannot be seen. The joints represent an essential question in design, i.e. the way the parts of objects are connected to each other. If we observe products from this viewpoint, we notice that we can identify many different design approaches. Generally, when you find an intelligent joint you also find an intelligent product.” G.I. “But how did you find an intelligent joint between your Swiss and Italian halves? Because I think this ‘borderline’ identity of yours has an impact on the way your practice the profession…”. F.C. “I was born in Italy but at the age of nine I moved to Switzerland. My training was Swiss, then, and it gave me a forma mentis for which everything has to be precise and functional, down to the smallest details. I don’t think of myself as a designer: there are professionals, like bakers and hairdressers, who are much more designers than I am. I never design fashion objects. I am interested in the idea of the product.” G.I. “But you have managed to understand people’s taste. For example, for Lamy you designed the Pico pen, which is pocket-size, but thanks to an exclusive button mechanism takes on the length of a regular ballpoint pen.” F.C. “The challenges I approached in that project were different, and it was not easy to achieve the goal I had set. My idea was that the pen could be extracted, lengthened and used with one hand only. On its perfectly cylindrical surface a small protruding element keeps it from rolling if it is set down on the top of a table. One day a friend of mine called me and said he wanted to eliminate that part. I told him he was in for a surprise. The next day he called me and said that the pen had completely come apart: he hadn’t understood that that insert was the key that holds all the inner parts of the object together.” G.I. “The objects you have shown in the No Name Design exhibition seem to underline your taste for miniaturization. Do you think this passion comes from your Swiss background?” F.C. “More than Swiss or Italian, I think of myself as a man from Ulm! I had the good fortune to study at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, with Tomas Maldonado, with whom I am still in contact. For me, there are no differences between the design of a small object and that of a large one: the approach is always the same, along with the focus on details, materials, ergonomics, aesthetics.” G.I. “As an Ulm alumnus, what do you think about today’s design schools? Or, how do you think the training of a designer should take place?” F.C. “If I were thirty years younger I would open a school. The problem, actually, is that no one would come. My ideal training would be composed of three or four years of courses in which you do not make projects, but you acquire the fundamentals of the profession. For example, I would make people work for six months on joints, for six months on materials, then on proportions, and so on. Today young designers seem like medical students who after just three months of school think they are ready to perform open-heart surgery.” G.I. “Tell us about the collection of objects you showed at the Triennale.” F.C. “It began almost by chance. In Zurich, next to the university where I was teaching, there was one of those places where the Swiss leave the objects they want to discard, where the sale of the objects goes to charity. I would go there in my spare time, because you could find strange things, but also exceptional objects, like a table by George Nelson I bought for just 50 francs. The objects I began to collect were not those normally purchased by people at flea markets.” G.I. “I think a designer who visits your show might almost feel frustrated, seeing objects that although they were made many years ago, seem to have an intelligence that would be hard to replicate today. Apart from the taste for discovery and surprise, what did you want to communicate to the visitors?” F.C. “I wanted to invite them to ‘see.’ I think the eyes are the designer’s most important tool. When I was sixteen I had a teacher who said that to see a painting takes at least twenty minutes. So one day I stood in front of a painting by Paul Klee and, minute by minute, I started to see things I hadn’t seen there before. It’s a matter of educating the eye, so you can also learn to judge things.” G.I. “Visiting the exhibition, one had the perception that very little remains to be designed anew.” F.C. “Everything, of course, has already been done. Especially in Italy, every week a new chair, a new lamp makes its appearance.” G.I. “And you do not intend to design a chair or a lamp?” F.C. “Absolutely not. Even when I designed for Erco, my interest was not in the lamp, but in the light.” G.I. “The passion for anonymous, intelligent objects was also nurtured by Achille Castiglioni. Did you two ever get into contact?” F.C. “Of course. In the early 1980s Castiglioni came to Zurich to give a lecture. That day I had two folding saws in my car, which I had bought in Germany to do some work. When I saw Castiglioni’s talk, in which he showed some of his famous collection of objects, I ran to the car, took one of the two saws and gave it to him. We became friends.” G.I. “Another fun thing about your show was that the objects were intentionally presented without captions. In some cases that was frustrating, because certain things seemed very mysterious or hard to decipher. I believe one can learn a lesson from the show, i.e. that it is important to retrain our eyes to see things. We designers are always told that an object should be immediately comprehensible; but this attitude leads to blindness. Your objects not only observe us, they also question us: they call on our ability to understand their complexity, and they are memories of the intelligence of those who created them with the sole objective of solving, in a brilliant way, questions of a technical, practical and scientific order. I would say that your desire to start a school has already come true, to some extent, since a visit to your show was better than any design course!”