26 November 2015
That morning in early April there were only a few visitors to the Spazio Rossana Orlandi. A rather strange figure all on his own, standing apart. Two women in their fifties, gesticulating with purses in their hands, one on the right and one on the left. And an eccentric stylist, wandering around the spaces on the upper floor. “Who committed the theft?” Rossana Orlandi asks herself with amusement, seated in her studio and lighting a cigarette. “I never found out who stole the prototype of my famous glasses, which were on display in a small showcase. In any case, at the suggestion of Jacques Durand, we brought them into production this year for the Salone del Mobile.” She is dressed, the grande dame of design, in a comfortable and rather unusual pair of sneakers and wearing those huge white spectacles that have become an icon of style. Born in Cassano Magnago some years ago, Rossana Orlandi started out in fashion, studying at the Istituto Marangoni and working with the principal fashion designers. She created yarn for Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani, becoming his advisor too, and then struck out on her own with a line of knitwear. In 2002 she turned an old necktie factory at Via Bandello 14 in Milan into her realm of design, a hotbed of talents with its own restaurant and a pergola of must-scented vines.
What is hidden behind your legendary, much imitated and stolen spectacles?
My eyes, if you can find them: once very beautiful, but not anymore. As for the glasses, I decided to bring them into production because people kept stopping me to ask where they could buy them.
They want to be Rossana Orlandi. But aren’t you jealous?
Not at all. Jealousy is one flaw I don’t have. I have lots of others, but not that one.
Rossana Orlandi’s flaws, a good way to start an interview.
Ah! (Laughs.) Unspeakable, and abundant.
One of them at least.
I have a foul temper, and think that I’ve had it since I was born.
I’m generous, not envious or jealous. I’m very curious and full of energy. I’m always amazed when people say they’re tired. And people in their turn are amazed when they see that one of my emails arrived in the middle of the night or at 6 o’clock in the morning. But I have a great advantage.
I can fall asleep at the table. I close my eyes and put myself in a position in which my hands hold up my head: if an arm doesn’t give way, I look as if I’m awake. And the glasses help in this.
Have you ever been caught out?
Once, with Piet Hein Eek, a garrulous designer who gets very worked up when he talks and never stops. I couldn’t take it anymore and fell asleep, and then, alas, my arm gave way. Another very grave defect of mine is that I’ve never been able to remember names.
Any. I learned my husband’s name six months after we were married. It’s not for want of trying, nor is it, as they say today, because of my age. I’ve always been able to remember all sorts of details and stories, but not names. I often call my assistants by the name of my dog, and sometimes I even get my grandchildren’s names wrong.
Let’s talk about the gallery. I know that you want to set up a platform of e-commerce for the Spazio Rossana Orlandi.
Stores are going to disappear, I’m sure of it. They have to find a new form of presentation. Nowadays the world is moving so fast, with no borders anymore, that you can’t confine your activity to an enclosed space. And then traditional stores are so complicated and costly to run. Perhaps only the single brand ones will be left.
Well, they’re not all going to die. Perhaps some will manage to survive.
Obviously, I’m not thinking of closing the gallery. Rather, I will set up a Rossana Orlandi e-shop to work alongside it.
What objects are going to sell?
Unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball. It’s very hard to make predictions because there are pieces that get an immediate response, others that you don’t shift for a long time. I’ll give you the example of a small article, a delightful little Japanese bird with a sensor that made it twitter. I had it for a while, and then it suddenly started to sell like hotcakes while the exhibition Tabula Rara was on, a really abrupt success. I think it was mainly psychology clinics that bought it. It seems that the little bird has an incredible placebo effect.
Is there an object you always keep in the gallery?
There are many. It can happen that a piece is published in some magazine and sold shortly afterward. We anticipate fashions, very often we’re ahead of the times, which only catch up one or two years later. As happened with the creations of the two designers of Studio Formafantasma, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin.
How did you get to know them?
We discovered them many years ago. They were the first to take a master’s degree at the Design Academy of Eindhoven not as individuals, but as a duo. I remember they had shown us some vases, the beautiful Moor’s heads in ceramics [Moulding Tradition, author’s note]. Then it was the turn of Autarchy, a fantastic project that was based on Sicilian folklore about bread. Enzo Mari paid a visit to the presentation, and obviously dismissed everything in his vitriolic and perfunctory manner, which makes him think everything is rubbish. But then he saw Formafantasma’s work and went wild for it, but didn’t show it straightaway. Andrea in the meantime had fled, but Simone had courageously stayed to hear what he had to say, and then, right at the end of his speech, came the surprise: “If you carry on along this road, call me.”
Enzo Mari, as is well known, is a surly man with a good heart.
I really like surly people, because they often have great hidden depths. There’s no denying it, we have some past masters of design.
Ettore Sottsass, for example. Creative, extraordinary, a marvelous person. Sottsass helped to form many designers and architects. He was amazingly generous, and I ask myself why Milan hasn’t held an exhibition on him at Palazzo Reale. We have so much material, so many collectors, it would be fantastic to pay tribute to a man who has given so much to so many. I swear, when I see some of his unpublished pieces I go wild.
Sottsass advised young people to forget about industrial design, to give up on entrepreneurs and design for galleries.
I agree completely, because this should be the first step, and then a product can be marketed. And it’s what we do: we discover talents with the hope that this can lead to production on a small scale. On the other hand, I also have a democratic streak. For example, I have great admiration for IKEA.
It was the first company to make products everyone could afford. Upstairs I have two wonderful chairs designed by Verner Panton, one produced by Thonet and the other by IKEA. I’m glad that they’re betting on young designers. Incidentally they sent a delegation to see us here in the gallery.
But it’s not just from Northern Europe that people come. I know that every year you play host to a group of students from China. What do you think of the Chinese?
I admire them, but at the same time I’m afraid of them because they are wizards at copying. They’re smart people and when they’re good they’re really good. But I come from the fashion world and I’ve see the closure of a lot of factories after production was transferred to China. This is why I say I fear them and that they are causing great damage to the European economy.
In what way have you applied your experience in fashion to design?
When you work for spinning mills you have to watch out for the trends, in yarns, in colors. That’s where I got my big eyes from, where I learned to keep them open. Naturally, in my research one of the points of reference has always been the street, especially that of London, which was the top. But apart from the street, social and political history mattered too, and obviously design, which has always been a great source of inspiration.
Here’s the million-dollar question. What is design?
Hard to say, apart from pleasure, surprise, taste. It’s always a question of emotion too. For me a piece of design is a source of emotion and a discovery, like sensing the shift from mobile forms to rigid forms. Before, for example, there wasn’t all this black, people liked color and decoration, and then when Ettore arrived with his laminates it was a triumph.
Why do people prefer black today?
Because it’s convenient, it’s practical. As far as I’m concerned, white in the summer and winter, all the colors in fall.
By the way, I know that you like gardens.
When I was young I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a fashion designer or a florist. But flowers die soon, they made me sad, so I chose the Marangoni.
Flowers die, but then they bloom again.
Yes, but the fact remains that they die. I adore peonies, I have a stunning bed of them in the country, where I like to get my hands in the dirt.
How do you grow good peonies?
In good soil, first of all. In the early years I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was a big problem because every time I watered them the peonies opened and then were destroyed. One day, at the market, an old woman told me: “I put an umbrella over every plant.” She was very sweet.
So now you use umbrellas too?
I wouldn’t dream of it. Now I pick the buds and they don’t get ruined. Another problem is that today plants are pruned very badly.
Let’s take out a petition against inept gardeners.
I had a great teacher, the landscape gardener Ermanno Casasco, who taught me to prune plants so lightly that you don’t notice it. A good pruning respects the form and growth of the plant, avoiding brutal cuts. And so the plant retains its personality.
What is the personality of the peony?
Peonies have extraordinary colors and marvelous forms, they are an explosion of life.
So Rossana Orlandi relaxes with gardening and her grandchildren.
No, to relax I look at the sky.
In October you were in Eindhoven, at the Dutch Design Week. What’s the city like?
It’s a mine of discovery, it’s our history and our beginnings. It used to be a really sad city, gray, horrible and with a shabby airport. In the space of ten years it has become beautiful. They have renovated a lot of places with taste, simplicity and in a functional way. And the Design Academy, especially in the years in which it was run by Li Edelkoort, a woman who speaks with great wisdom of the present, the past and the future, has turned out very many young designers.
What do you mean by a young designer? In Italy the definition ranges from the ages of 20 to 50.
It’s true, unfortunately there are pensioners who discover they are designers and that’s the start of the tragedy. When I set up this space I said to myself: “I’m in Italy and I want to work with Italian designers. This gallery should be the center for design in Italy.” But it’s only in the last couple of years that I have Italian designers.
What was the problem?
The mothers. If designers come with their mothers I don’t take them on principle. I’ve quarreled with hyper-protective women who can’t stand the fact that their children’s pieces are not given pride of place. They’re not all like that, but for us it has been easier to work with Italians who have studied abroad, like Formafantasma and Gionata Gatto.
Is there some new talent?
I don’t want to name names. Because either you mention all of them, or they take offense.
On the ground floor I saw something that impressed me. Another View, a window salvaged in Istanbul that frames a projection, totally customizable, of days and views for someone who has nothing to look at or is fed up always seeing the same things. Will there come a time when we share the same horizons?
That was designed by Marco Tabasso, my right-hand man, who has defined it as nomad design. I didn’t interfere, I never do. When he spoke to me about the project I said: “Fantastic, you believe in it? Do it!”
Point-blank, what would you like to come after Pisapia [the incumbent mayor of Milan, translator’s note]?
No comment. But I really liked the Expo and I have to take my hat off to commissioner Giuseppe Sala, who has handled everything very well. He has been extraordinary. Expo has given Milan another spirit, it has given the city an international feel and new energies. A heartfelt thank you to Prada for its foundation and to the Terrazza Triennale restaurant. But I’m sorry the six months are over, a bit like with flowers.
Beautiful things always come to an end.