6 May 2016
With Christoph Radl we didn’t just talk about design and fashion, capitalism and democracy, Milan and Ettore Sottsass. During the interview—in reality two of them—recorded on a Saturday morning in his studio just a few steps from the cathedral, we discussed other things too. Over our coffee and brioches we talked of drugs as well. In the hippie sense of the term (if you can put it like that). Christoph Radl was born in Switzerland and grew up in Austria. He arrived in Milan in the seventies, to attend the Scuola Politecnica di Design. He began to work in graphics when this meant drawing a Bodoni typeface with Indian ink, a pair of compasses and brushes. He met Ettore Sottsass in the eighties, going on to design the coordinated image of Memphis, and in 1984 founded the Italiana di Comunicazione agency. In 1993 he set up the studio of art direction, communication and graphic design R.A.D.L.&. He worked for Armani, Ferragamo, Pucci and Trussardi, produced campaigns for Alessi, Cassina, Magis, Sony and Zanotta and carried out publishing initiatives with galleries and foundations: from Palazzo Grassi to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, from the Guggenheim in Bilbao to the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. For fifteen years he was art director of Interni and has recently designed for Grazia Casa, Anew and Cabana. Today he is art director of AD and is working on a book for Dior and a monograph on the Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming for Rizzoli International.
When did you come to Milan?
The first time was in 1972, when I was making paper jackets for riding bicycles with a German friend. They were silkscreened, customizable, and we sold them to one of the city’s nightclubs, which gave them away to its guests, and to some boutiques in Tyrol. I had chosen Milan to produce them because it was the location of the first company specializing in this kind of garment. And my sister lived in the city, where she was working as a model. I wanted to go to a school and settled on the Politecnica, which in my eyes had one big advantage: the course lasted for just a year, after which I intended to go to New York.
But you never left. What remains of the Milan of that time?
There is still a certain quality of life, and human relations very different from Northern European and English-speaking countries. In Milan, my fruit and vegetable store is also a place of friendship, a place for meeting and exchanging ideas.
Did you ever get an idea from the grocer?
Usually I’m not aware of when ideas come to me. I think that there is a constant flow of thoughts. Ideas need to be stimulated, there are no sudden flashes of illumination. And then I am usually just the graphic designer. I work to commission, I’m not an artist.
But you’d agree that it’s a creative job.
It’s true. If I have a problem to solve, I look for an idea.
And you don’t find it in the north?
It’s different. In Vienna I went into a delicatessen to buy some ham. I made a joke and everyone glared at me. It’s not like that in Milan, people interact. It’s all very Italian.
How do you work?
I establish a human relationship with the client, although with more organized structures this can be very difficult.
Which do you enjoy doing most, design, art or fashion?
It depends. Working with an artist or a curator is very different from producing a brochure. Magis, for example, is an exceptional company and what I liked best about working with them was the relationship I had with the charismatic entrepreneur Eugenio Perazza.
Among the many things you have done, the one I’m most curious about is the magazine Cabana.
It’s a publishing project which matters a great deal to me. We even held a party in London a while ago, in a photography studio that looked like a movie set. It went very well. We covered the walls with our wallpaper produced by Dedar. I’m happy mainly because Cabana is getting a very enthusiastic reception in the English-speaking world.
In Cabana I saw an interview of yours with Andrea Branzi. You talk about the times of Memphis and say that it was the beginning of the end of design. Really?
When I talk about the end of design what I mean is the end of a role of cultural and social enrichment. Design was born with the advent of industrialization, and the last creative figure to have united art and design was Gio Ponti. He had ceramic containers decorated. The container was an industrial product, but the decoration was done by hand. This kind of handicraft disappeared with the idea that ever more beautiful and affordable products would enrich the lives of ordinary people. They would be able to live in cleaner, better designed and ever more functional homes.
Then what happened?
Everything went well until functionalism revealed all its weakness, because it had canceled out the emotional significance of the object as a repository of affection, of devotion, of shamanic traits. Radical design, Memphis and Alchimia wanted to give the object back its emotional and existential dimension, with a strong decorative element. Today the only thing I can say is that design is no longer an art.
And what is it then?
A profession, like that of a lawyer or a dentist. Today design is principally the capacity to interpret marketing information and translate it into the best form, at the best price. People try to design a certain chair for a given setting, but there is nothing artistic about this activity.
Could we say, paraphrasing Virgil, that the accursed hunger for gold has compelled the designer’s heart?
It’s nothing to do with money. I think simply that the historical function of design as an art form has come to an end.
What has filled this empty space?
Perhaps it would be better to make some distinctions here. Part of design is still thriving. What Branzi does is design, but it is art too, and the same can be said of Studio Job or Martino Gamper. But Antonio Citterio, for example, doesn’t consider what he is doing art in the slightest. He is doing a job and he does it very well.
And Ettore Sottsass?
When its cycle came to an end, Memphis practically vanished. It was forgotten. For a couple of years now, however, the fashion world has rediscovered it as a source of inspiration. I keep on getting phone calls from students who want information on Sottsass, on Memphis and on the graphic design of those years.
You can tell us about it now, for all those who are going to call you in the future.
As a graphic designer, my contribution had been to assemble Memphis’s production in a coherent form, with catalogues, posters and all the rest. But at this point we need to define what graphic design is.
Let’s do that.
Today it is applied graphic design (postcards, websites, etc.) that is all the rage, whereas in Memphis the graphics were decorative. Like the famous laminates designed by Sottsass, De Lucchi or myself, not to speak of that incredible outpouring of creativity that was Nathalie du Pasquier. When you think of Memphis, the last thing that comes to mind is the catalogues. Everyone remembers the furniture of Nathalie du Pasquier and Sottsass.
What was Sottsass like?
He was an Austrian.
His surname says it all: “under the rock.” How did you start to work together?
I was hired and installed by his partners. Ettore was in New Guinea and found me in his office on his return. My relationship with him was built over time. He was a fundamental figure for my professional, human and cultural growth.
Architecture, design and graphics?
Ettore looked for inspiration in the peripheral areas of the dominant cultures. We used to tell ourselves that perhaps the most beautiful graphics was the sort you could find in the cafés of Sesto San Giovanni, where the owner would write “Here we make toast” on the window with scotch tape. Rudimentary things, in short. Another typical aspect of Sottsass was the need to fill spaces. He didn’t like blanks at all. In the eighties, when minimalism was born, cool people lived in white and empty houses, while he needed warmth, objects that would protect him. He even wrote a short essay on empty homes. In reality, he wanted to give a domestic dimension even to airports, like Malpensa, where he designed the interiors.
Was he a great influence on you?
Yes, he had a great breadth of vision that he passed on to me, in part simply by symbiosis. It was in the eighties that I started to work for him, in 1981 with Memphis and then in 1984 with the Italiana di Comunicazione advertising agency, a kind of creative boutique. At the time we were publishing a magazine called Terrazzo, a sort of forerunner of Cabana, but much more intimate. There were four of us: Ettore, Barbara Radice, my girlfriend at the time and me. We used to meet at Ettore’s, drink large amounts of wine and work on the magazine. There was a lot of creative energy.
Tell me something, is it true that Ettore used to take psychedelic mushrooms and LSD?
The hippie culture of the sixties did not disdain drug taking. It was thought that LSD or peyote could help you to find another self.
The infinite. Did you take drugs?
We all took drugs. We shared a culture of curiosity, the desire to find new forms of creativity and ways of life. But this happened earlier. When I met Sottsass he wasn’t taking anything anymore. He was over sixty.
Drugs have been a mark of various periods of creativity.
I’ve just read a book about the birth of the digital industry in Silicon Valley. All those young men who devoted themselves to the development of computer technology, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, were part of a culture of rebellion. They took drugs and saw the computer as a means of gaining access to all the information in the world. But then the capitalist system took everything over, including the internet. The few things that are still holding out are the various hackers, and Wikipedia.
Given that everyone is complaining about the lack of ideas today, why not go back to taking LSD?
We could propose it to the next Councilor for Culture in Milan: LSD in all the city’s schools.
Let’s not exaggerate, just in the schools of design.
A creative surgeon would not be a good idea?
I don’t think it would work. What is the state of design?
Right now we are seeing a shift from minimalism to maximalism. Minimalism has been the key feature of design over the last fifteen years. It all began with Cappellini’s minimal objects and was made popular by IKEA, which does good design at a very low price. Above all if you think that IKEA doesn’t start out from the product, but from the packaging.
Is consumerism going to bury us?
There can be no doubt that our society would not survive if we all bought things that were going to last in time. Like fashion, design always has to propose something new. IKEA, in this, is an expression of our day: it makes affordable to everyone products to be kept and consumed over a relatively short period of time.
But hadn’t capitalism failed?
Far from it. As Thomas Piketty says, we are going back to a 19th-century society, with an aristocracy of capital that has everything without having to work, and the rest of the world that no longer has access to the social ladder. Today a young person has worse prospects than I had. This means on the one hand that design will be increasingly democratic, and on the other there will be a handicraft industry producing unique pieces, without replicas and in very limited editions.
Can you give some advice?
Bet on authenticity. Sooner or later someone will launch an Italian IKEA of quality with economic products that instead of lasting just five years will last fifteen.
Let’s put out an appeal: designers of Italy, unite.
Brianza is gearing itself up for this type of competition, it is trying to make the leap. I know of companies that make chairs competitive with IKEA’s prices, but of better quality. Between the expensive object and the cheap one there is a vast amount of room. Today either you go for the high end or you go to Zara. There’s nothing in the middle.
By the way, what is your relationship with fashion?
It’s my favorite sector. There are brands that spend a huge amount for events that last two or three months. And in the meantime they’re already thinking about the next initiative. It’s interesting to work on the ephemeral, don’t you think?
The exhibition Design Kaput staged at the Galleria Luisa delle Piane in Milan, which opened at the time of the last MiArt and has just come to an end, may be replicated in New York. On that occasion you talked about the reappropriation of objects. Tell me more.
I’m not sure about doing the exhibition in New York yet. In fact we still don’t have the name of a gallery. If it happens, as I hope it will, it won’t simply be a replica of the exhibition at Luisa delle Piane’s. It’s not reappropriation, but appropriation: at Design Kaput I showed chairs that were not designed by me, but by Ola Wihlborg for IKEA. I had those chairs painted by hand with the lyrics of songs that had something to do with the bottom, an essential part of the human body when it comes to using a chair. As well as the chairs, I had a table decorated that had been designed by Jean Prouvé for Vitra. The only thing I designed was the type, which is distinguished by the fact that each letter takes up the same space, a square that only slightly reduces its legibility but greatly increases the decorative effect. On a large surface it resembles a fabric with a regular pattern, like the wallpaper that covered all the walls and ceilings of the exhibition space.
What plans do you have for the future, Christoph?
Unfortunately, I can’t see into the future, but I’m sure that it still has something interesting in store for me.