Stefano Giovannoni
“Design Doesn’t Change the World”

29 May 2014

It’s a rather sensational announcement. Wanted: designers and architects with a CV, portfolio, valid passport and great desire to work. Destination: China. Address (email): that of Stefano Giovannoni and his studio in Milan at Via Stendhal 35. The designer from La Spezia is opening four workshops in the country: one devoted to electric transport, one linked to ceramics, one that will deal with interior design and architecture and one specializing in electronics. Giovannoni, in any case, has long been multitasking: graduating from the Department of Architecture at Florence University in 1978, he has taught at the Domus Academy, the Università del Progetto in Reggio Emilia and the Department of Architecture of Genoa University. Since the eighties, he has been designing bestselling products for Alessi, including the celebrated Girotondo series and the Mami collection of kitchenware and flatware, and for Magis (who hasn’t heard of his Bombo stools?) and worked with Bisazza, Deborah, Elica, Fabbrica Pelletterie Milano, Fiat, Lavazza, L’Oréal, Maletti, Nestlé, Nissan, Replay and Samsung. The world of his designs is represented in the permanent collections of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the MoMA in New York, and he has accumulated a series of international prizes: from the 100% Design Award in London (1997) to the New York Interior Design Award (2012) and the Wallpaper Magazine Design Award (2013).

“Now that our world is finished,” he says with a knowing smile in his Milanese studio, “we need to reassess our work from the foundations. Going to China entails a huge quantity of work and I’m going to need a hand. But let’s be clear,” he adds cynically. “No one should imagine that the design can change the world.”

Please, don’t shatter my idea of the designer as a great dreamer.

I’m sorry, but it’s not like that at all. In the future, the designer will be more and more tied to the pragmatic aspect of the discipline. Anyway, the beauty of our job is that it is a 360-degree activity, so that the skills required range from artistic creativity to managerial expertise.

Girotondo, design di Stefano Giovannoni, per Alessi, 2009.

Girotondo, design by Stefano Giovannoni, for Alessi, 2009.

Let’s pick out some qualities. What do you think matters most in order to be a good designer?

The philosophy is important, understanding the public, grasping what people like, how the market is evolving, with what technological innovations. Very simply: before concentrating on the aesthetics of the product, the designer has to have taken many other things on board.

Then I’ll put it to you directly: what is design today?

Design is the possibility of transferring a series of inputs able to communicate our cultural identity: from our imagination to the object. Cultural identity of the designer and of the historical period in which he is operating.

And where does technology fit in?

It’s important because you have to exploit all its potentialities. If you’re designing sanitary fixtures, objects made of ceramics or flatware, the technology hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. But if you’re designing more advanced products, like a TV set, the technology is undergoing continual and very rapid development. To design a smartphone, you have to be able to pick up all the latest innovations offered by the market.

What do you think of the Salone del Mobile? How did this year’s Milan Furniture Fair seem to you?

I had the luck to experience the golden age of design, and so I’m unable to adjust to the current situation of the companies working in our sector. By now the object in itself is only of relative interest to me: I’ve designed almost everything, and now I prefer to concentrate on projects of broader scope.

And if we were imagine the fair starting again, from scratch?

The Salone del Mobile operates in a cultural and economic context undergoing great change. Since 2008, but even from before that, let’s say 2000, the world of design has progressively changed, following in the wake of the evolution of the global economy. There’s no point in pretending that production hasn’t moved to the countries of Asia. This shift has taken place, and it has led to the crisis in which the Italian design companies currently find themselves.

Can we imagine an empty fair, from which everything has been removed?

No. We live in a world made up entirely of objects. We are condemned to overabundance and surplus.

Pino, design di Stefano Giovannoni per Alessi, 1998.

Pino, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 1998.

Why do you say we are condemned?

Because it’s the state in which we find ourselves, like it or not. We have been condemned to it since the moment when these objects ceased to be linked to consumption or to a real need, and became instead a repetitive, uncontrolled factor, disconnected from the economic context. It is clear that we are living in a world in which there is a surfeit of merchandise, and it is equally clear that design has nothing to do with all this. Design ought to be concerned with the lack of true products. There are endless objects, but products have now vanished.

What is the difference between an object and a product?

Objects are vehicles for the image of the company and the designer, but nobody desires them, nobody buys them, nobody would ever put one in his home. The product, on the other hand, has been a sort of sublimation of our work: the industrial designer created products and the system, the business model of Italian design, set out to make the most of them. For the successful designer, the idea of the bestselling product was of course linked to a numerical objective, but it also represented the synthesis of a cultural, social and economic need.

Who is to blame for this development?

It’s hard to assign responsibility. Up until ten years ago, there were dozens of products in the world of design that, at least in the Italian case, were able to bring in several million euros a year. This system involved the designer in a very direct way, and this was obviously the most interesting side of the thing, seeing that if you designed a product that didn’t work out you earned very little and if you designed one that was a success you earned really a lot. It was a very enjoyable aspect, and as far as I’m concerned I was always doing projections of sales, making calculations about the proceeds in the years to come.

You’ve always been interested in the logic of the market.

I’ve always been interested in the object which appeals to the public. From the moment I began to work as an industrial designer, I started out from the premise that the quality of the product was directly proportional to its appeal for the consumer. It’s an extremely clear logic, perhaps even a cynical one, but it has given me a very precise view of people’s desires.

Google TV, design di Stefano Giovannoni per Samsung.

Samsung Google Tv Smartbox, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Samsung, 2011.

What do people want?

If we clear the decks of ideology and look at the product as pure merchandise, our work takes on a different dimension. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve always collaborated with the marketing departments, getting them to screen my proposals before deciding which to go for. I asked for them to be tested, trying to understand and weigh up the responses, because it’s one thing to be convinced of an idea, it’s another for the public to make it their own.

You use the past tense a lot, but what are you doing now?

After working for a long time with Japanese and Korean companies, for a year now I’ve been working in China with a series of operations both at the startup level and at that of an art director for already established Chinese companies.

What are we talking about when we speak of China?

About a very difficult country, undoubtedly still a very backward one. And yet, in spite of the backwardness, there is a lot that can be done and there are energies and possibilities to be steered in the right direction. What is most striking is the huge gap between the potential of Chinese companies and the level of the country’s consumption, still very low. In a way, when I go to China it’s as if I were coming from the future: I see their situation, and I already know what is going to happen over the next twenty years.

What are you working on in China? Can you be more precise?

I’m shortly going to sign a contract as art director that will be the contract with the highest budget a designer has ever been given in China. The Chinese potential for production is enormous, and I think that it’s extremely interesting to move in this global dimension where, since China is the world’s factory, you are almost compelled to work with their companies. Personally, in fact, I don’t see much alternative, as it is increasingly difficult to set up new operations with the design companies at home.

The defenders of the idea of Made in Italy would be unlikely to agree.

I’m doing what I can, creating a new situation that might also bear very important fruit, and not just in China.

Mami, design di Stefano Giovannoni per Alessi, 2003.

Mami, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 2003.

In this connection, the New York Times has said that Italy is a country that has lost its hope for tomorrow.

This is for sure. The first thing I said to my son was: get out of Italy! We have experienced twenty years of political and cultural disaster, there is every likelihood that we will go on struggling in the decades to come, and it is my impression that until we touch bottom we will not be able to recover the hopes and the energy that we once had.

It’s the reason why designers and architects are leaving Italy for new destinations in Asia.

The majority of designers who go to China do great damage, because they take an approach that is too low profile. The fact is that Chinese companies want to associate their brands with the Made in Italy one, and so they pay you for your name, much more than for your skills and your work. The position as art director I’ve just taken on envisages a vast amount of work, but the thing for which I’ve been paid most is not what I’m going there to do, but my name. And this is really crazy.

Between East and West, what does your usual workday look like?

I make an effort never to work outside office hours, and in the rare cases when this happens it’s a result of my inability to plan things well. At the end of August, then, I go to the sea and don’t work for anybody.

This is quality of life, you will have to teach it to the Chinese. But let’s go back to Italy, how do you see things going in our country?

I have faith in Matteo Renzi, that is I believe he’s our last chance, given that the situation is really dramatic.

Sodastream, design di Stefano Giovannoni.

Aquabar, design by Stefano Giovannoni, for Sodastream, 2013.

Is design on the right or the left?

Design has always been on the left. But in the last general election I voted for Grillo. Indeed, I was one of the people who regularly posted comments on his site.

Did he censor you too?

Yes, when I criticized his choice not to hold a dialogue with Bersani. My vote for Grillo stemmed from the fact that I wanted to get rid of a system that has now thoroughly infiltrated all the institutions, even the cultural ones. You can’t change it with reforms, you have to really sweep it away. But if I had to go and vote now, I’d vote for Renzi, not Grillo.

Whether you support Grillo or not, I’ve read that you’d like to bring Lenin back to life.

Yes, because we live in a world of great hypocrisy that has banished every kind of courage. I see it even in my children, they no longer have any sense of responsibility. Lenin was a warrior and I feel that I’m a bit of a warrior. The things I’ve done I’ve done them as a warrior.

How does design fit into all this? As a form of innovation, of change, as a revolution on a small scale?

No. Design doesn’t change the world, design is the consequence of changes in the world. Indeed, when I give lessons on design I explain how the evolution of the context has changed my work. For example, few people have noticed that the plastic or the color that were in favor in the nineties have disappeared in the new century, because the war in Iraq and the first economic crisis have brought enormous changes in the whole world of design, including Apple.

And yet those colored plastics left their mark on an era.

By designing them I helped to identify a typology of products in a more sentimental, communicative, relational sense. I started out from a desire to liberate design from the more intellectual culture of the insiders, in order to take it to a wider public. I was looking for a more media friendly language than the traditional one of design.

Mary Biscuit, design di Stefano Giovannoni per Alessi, 1995.

Mary Biscuit, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 1995.

What do you think of the new frontiers of design, such as self-production?

Today self-production makes sense if you’re creating extraordinary objects, if you’re not making objects that are similar to the ones you find at IKEA but cost three times as much. If that’s what you’re doing then you’re an idiot, there’s nothing else to be said. However, in the future, with the new technologies of 3D printing, self-production could turn out to be an interesting possibility.

Like many of your colleagues, you don’t seem to have much faith in the young.

Unfortunately, the young in Italy have been ruined by the subculture that holds sway in the schools, universities and academies of design. Recently I found myself teaching at one of these schools and I realized that a serious professional can’t do it.

Why?

When I attended university, at the Department of Architecture in Florence, I had at least five teachers who were number one in Italy in their discipline. Today you go to university and you won’t find a professional at any price. They’re all people who aren’t able to make ends meet and have no choice but to teach. Then the absurd thing is that a day of study costs me more than I earn in a day of teaching.

If everyone refused, who would be left to teach the young?

The institutions should be dealing with it, unfortunately things are as they are. Why in Italy is there no designer, after my generation, who makes a decent living, who can live in a dignified manner? Neither the training nor the culture of most young designers is adequate, and to this is added the fact that instead of carrying out research they immediately start looking for the little company on the doorstep. But in this way they reduce the compass of their imagination to the wooden chair, it’s really sad.

So what do we give the designer, if he’s hungry?

Research. Personally I spent years doing research and tightening my belt, getting by without earning anything. Young people ought to go down this road, instead of graduating from university and at once starting to do things of no consequence. In the end they narrow their horizons and spoil their chances.

Alright, let’s make a comparison between generations to understand this better. Past generation, Ettore Sottsass?

With Ettore, who thought highly of me and considered me a promising young man, I once had an argument about the role of intellectuals. I was very critical and he got really furious, defending the figure of the intellectual to the hilt as if it were an indispensable role. The difference in our vision probably stemmed from the fact that in his time intellectuals were still a driving force, while for my generation they had already shown themselves to be too caught up in the mechanisms of power.

Aspirabriciole SG67, design di Stefano Giovannoni per Alessi, 2004.

SG67, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 2004.

What do you think of Fabio Novembre?

Fabio Novembre is a good guy.

No doubt, but as a designer?

He’s an intelligent young man who would have had a great future in a different context from the one in which he has ended up.

Is there any young designer in whom you can see signs of a spirit of innovation?

In Italy no. There are some who have done interesting things but without being able to emerge as complex figures.

That’s really encouraging! Let’s end with a poetic vision, regardless of the cynicism of which you’re accused. Apart from designing, what else do you do well?

I’m a fisherman. Before I used to go scuba diving, but now I have a boat in Tunisia and I go fishing in the middle of the Mediterranean. I go after tuna.

There must be a link between the two things, between tuna and design.

At the age of five I had a book on fish and I liked to draw all the species in a very meticulous manner, arranging them by degrees of affinity. This logical operation was my first effort of design. Perhaps my career as a designer started right there.

Mandarin, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 2001.

Mandarin, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 2001.

Mami, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 2003.

Mami, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 2003.

Bombo Chair, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Magis, 1999.

Bombo Chair, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Magis, 1999.

Washlet, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Toto, 2010.

Washlet, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Toto, 2010.

Coccodandy, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 1998.

Coccodandy, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Alessi, 1998.

Smartphone, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Nuoio.

Smartphone, design by Stefano Giovannoni for Nuoio.

Stefano Giovannoni

Stefano Giovannoni


Francesca Esposito

A journalist, she contributes to several publications, writing about design, architecture, women, theater, art, lifestyle, economics and the city. She lives in Milan, next to a second-hand market, after living on the 17th floor of an apartment block in Shenzhen, China, near a botanical garden (in Rome), above a copy center (in Parma), next door to a store selling vinyl records (in London) and on a boat (in Paris). She is planning a getaway.


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