7 April 2015
At a time when discussion of design increasingly turns around processes, narrations and images, Odo Fioravanti’s work remains proudly centered on industry and form. A lone and discordant voice, Odo is a product designer in the round, appreciated by the critics and the specialist press who recognize the remarkable depth of his thinking and research. For him, the word design remains inseparable from its historic attribute industrial. In fact his work with business and for business strengthens a tradition deeply rooted in Italian history: a tradition that has always been sui generis industrial, steeped in craftsmanship long before this became a matter of fashion or the banner of a different mode of production. On his blog, Fioravanti publishes images of common objects, not ones he has created himself but taken from real life like spontaneous stories. A practice that reflects a propensity to observe and ask questions about everything around him, as a designer but also as a human being. With the curiosity that Achille Castiglioni considered indispensable to doing the job well.
We might as well come out with it straightaway, you are not on the same page as far as a great deal of contemporary design is concerned.
I’ve always been fascinated by the succession of fashions in design. It’s a sort of short bowel that digests you rapidly and then expels you. If you’re concerned about being up-to-the-minute, and make a bow in the direction of the crafts, the world of makers or the negation of form, then it’s clear that’s how you’re going to end up. But there is something decidedly specious about this approach: many designers do not set out so much to create merchandise for sale as to produce pretty pictures to be published on a blog. As it were an alternative system: the production of images as opposed to that of real objects.
And yet, for some time now we have been seeing a strong revival of the “hands-on” approach, of craftsmanship.
I’m not convinced by it, in part because the crafts have always been there in Italian industry, as it operates in a way that, with very rare exceptions, has never really been industrial. Giampiero Bosoni has said rightly that there are more cutters turning out rococo furniture in Veneto than there are in the companies that are said to work with “design.” And then there is someone who sticks lots of balls together by hand until he has made a whole chair, which ends up on the covers of books on design: that’s a work of handicraft in the strict sense.
And your design?
I’ve always looked at this semi-artisan world of Italian design as a reality capable of offering people beautiful objects. For me the beauty and rightness of an object are a continuum: in an object, there is no boundary between being beautiful and being right, that is fit for purpose. Making this virtue of things accessible is an objective that I identify with. As for commercial success, I have no fear of some yardstick being used to judge my work: I think I’m one of the few designers to make two thirds of my living from royalties, that is from a percentage of the sales of things I’ve designed. This ought to be something common, but it no longer is.
Among younger designers you encounter a certain embarrassment over the commercialization of objects. What do you think about it?
Obviously, there are degrees of commodification. But today it’s easier to be on the side of those who present themselves as an alternative to industrial means of production. That’s fine as long as your design is not a success. When a maker proposes a product, he has to be hoping it’s not going to prove popular, because if all of a sudden he’s asked for twenty thousand pieces it’s a problem: to make that leap of quantity and quality, there’s no choice but to go and knock on industry’s door.
What does it mean to hold a dialogue with industry?
In the first place, changing the scale on which you design. Reaching out toward the large number, that is what interests me personally. You can put a message in a bottle and throw it in the sea, hoping that someone will find it, or you can design something that will be produced in around a million pieces, counting on a wider distribution and reaching many more people. Having said that, behind a chair like Frida there are sleepless nights, sweat, hard work, without this meaning that it has any message to convey beyond that of it’s being a designed chair. I use design as a means of spreading my ideas, and not to communicate something beautiful to be buried in a hole. It’s like making a movie: you hope that people will go to see it!
What is the relationship between the form of an object and its message?
In recent years objects that had the form of the message they wanted to communicate have been rewarded. Objects that codify gestures in a pornographic use of form, in the sense that the function is not just put on display through it, but actually imposed. In other words, the designer tells you what you should do with that object, how to use it, the gestures you are you going to make, the smile that it will provoke. But this thing of turning objects into messages is nothing but a “technique.” And it doesn’t interest me.
When you’re designing, do you anticipate the use that will be made of your things?
I don’t like to design the reaction. I’m reminded of Bruno Munari who sat the wrong way round in an armchair, negating the function for which that object had been designed. Deciding what you have to do with an object, or how you have to move in space, is a position typical of architects. And the word architettare in Italian—if you think about it—has a negative connotation: it’s what you say about someone who’s plotting something behind someone else’s back. Architettare means scheming, engineering.
What is the significance of your objects?
Sometimes I think that the significance of my work is diluted into such homeopathic quantities that I don’t even feel like explaining it. That’s because I hope and think this meaning can be perceived in an almost subliminal manner, without having to make it all that plain. It’s a bit like the difference between sarcasm and irony. Irony serves to stimulate the intelligence. I like to touch people’s feelings, without making the stimulus too explicit. Mine is a positive cajoling of those who will be using my things, a mark of esteem for their capacity of interpretation.
What does it mean to have success in the world of design?
My greatest success comes in making the people who use my things feel good. And hoping that over time this relationship between people and things grows more intense, and the awareness of what there is in that object increases. Just as happens between human beings who open themselves up and get to know each other better in time.
How much does time matter in the relationship with objects?
I think it takes time to understand the things that surround us. And time is often what we’re lacking, so that our relationship with objects seems to have been settled within the first ten seconds of encountering them. I, on the other hand, would like it if people felt the desire of possess the things I design for a long time, to establish a lasting relationship with them. Otherwise you end up letting a stranger into the house, as Alberto Sordi used to say! When choosing who you’re letting into your home you need to think carefully.
How much has the figure of the designer changed since, as in your case, he has begun to receive specialized training, and not necessarily as an architect?
By nature, the architect is accustomed to conditioning parts of the world and not always to establishing a relationship with the general public. The architect has to persuade a small group of people to realize a particular project. Once constructed, the building will be utilized by hundreds of thousands of people in just one way, without any possibility of choice. Think about a station: five people will take the decision, ten will do the design and millions will use it, ?even those who criticize it?. A chair, on the contrary, is made by five people and is chosen, bought and used by many individuals who act separately, expressing a preference. This is where the difference lies: one is an imposition, the other is a free choice. It’s a crude way of saying that the architect lowers his solution into reality from above, while the designer proposes it.
You started out by studying engineering, didn’t you?
Yes, I followed a course of engineering in Rome, but I was a very poor student. I didn’t like it, I wanted to do design, but I didn’t know it. It was a subject I knew nothing about. I discovered what design was almost by chance.
A friend of mine had come to Milan to take an evening course in building supervision at the Polytechnic, and the lessons were held in the lecture halls of the design department. He asked what it was about, and once he had understood gave me an enthusiastic call, telling me that it was just the university for me. I remember going straight to the ISIA [Higher Institute for Artistic Industries] in Rome and asking what I could read to find out more. A teacher there suggested Munari’s books, De Fusco’s history of design, Domus, Ottagono. That same day I went to the bookstore and bought everything, coming home loaded down with books and magazines which obviously I still have: they all bear the date of that day on which I decided I had to understand what design was. It seemed a miracle to me that a subject existed that had everything I liked in it: ideas, but also working with your hands, technique.
Speaking of technique, what do you think of the process of democratization promoted by the world of makers?
Listen, when I was a child there was Lego, and then Lego Technic came out, which succeeded in bringing mechanics into the world of toy bricks and play in general. Now, this has not changed the history of mechanics. The phenomenon of the makers, who are distributing technology at a popular level (the celebration of open source, design within the reach of all, etc.), will not automatically lead to innovation. It’s not that everyone knowing how to make a circuit board is going to change the history of technology. If anything it will change the history of custom, not that of technology.
And the proposal of a new model of production and distribution?
It’s a bit as if this world had been created in an attempt to distinguish itself from that of industrial production, like underground music has done with respect to the big labels. It’s a mechanism at work in many fields, including that of art, where Cattelan is considered to have “sold out” just because he has done an about-turn and made money. In short, you’re one of “ours” as long as you’re not doing well, but if you go mainstream you automatically become one of the bad guys. I’ve never liked this aspect of the world of makers, the way it defines itself in opposition to the world of non-makers.
You see only this negative side?
No, I’m very appreciative of what makers are doing to increase basic literacy as far as technology is concerned. But I think there is something of a gap between the spread of a practice and the fostering of innovation and production of things that are beautiful and good for humanity. With regard to commercial outlets, however, the problem is that the world of makers is more interested in itself than in the ordinary market: Arduino sells its boards to makers, who sell milling cutters to other makers, who mill pieces of other machines, etc. It’s a sort of society of technological Quakers based on barter 2.0.
Tell us about your latest projects.
In the last few months I’ve been working on a project curated by Marco Sammicheli for the TIM4Expo space at the Milan Triennale. It involves two things which I’m very proud of. The first, the exhibition (S)oggettiva: lo sguardo degli oggetti [“Sub/Objectivity: the Gaze of Objects,” which ended last week, Interviewer’s Note) proposes an almost animistic interpretation of some of my products, turning them from objects into subjects of the actions they carry out. It’s a perspective linked to what is known today as the internet of things, and I could sum it up in one sentence: what would happen if your chair opened a Facebook page? The second is an exhibition that will open on April 10, on the occasion of Milan Design Week. In this exhibition, which is entitled Milano Galleria and involves Zaven, Marco Dessí and GamFratesi as well as myself, I have developed a theme linked to industry, and in particular I’ve focused attention on PPE, Personal Protective Equipment. Out of this has come the Shield & Share project: an opportunity to take another look at the barriers that separate people from their work and from machines, and turn them into means of sharing at low cost. I wanted to acknowledge the status of a means of social sharing even for gestures that are part of the simplest jobs in traditional industry. Often, in fact, what you find on the Web is a sharing of chic or trendy experiences. If I go running at 7:30 am in Central Park I write about it on Facebook, giving the times, the distance and the calories burnt, but if I turn a lathe it seems that it’s an experience which does not deserve to be shared.