The post-war era was one of history’s great shopping sprees. All proceeded to fill their freshly acquired mass-produced houses with newly designed furniture and appliances. The architectural centrepiece of these fantastic homes was the kitchen, or more precisely, the Kitchen of Tomorrow. Push button gadgets begun to signify the fantasy of a carefree and leisure-filled life.
In 1959, during an exhibition of American culture in Moscow, Richard Nixon told Nikita Khrushchev: “We hope to show our diversity and our right to choose… Would it not be better to compete in the merits of washing machines than the relative strengths of rockets?”
You were born in Milan and studied at the Politecnico. You now live and work in Milan, the heart of design in Italy. What impact does this leave on your creative output?
This is true. Milan is much more important than that. It is the crossroad of many interests, the home to the most important design fairs, of industry, schools and design publications and magazines. There is much intercourse of ideas, and concepts tend to evolve first in Milan and, in actual fact, not necessarily and merely in the city itself but also in the areas around it. I would find it very difficult to acknowledge that my work would have yielded the same results if I worked out of, for example, Bergamo. It is also thanks to our practice being based in Milan that we receive so much interest from young students and designers interested in working for us.
You have lectured in both Italy [at the Domus Academy in Milan and La Sapienza in Rome] and in England. Do you still teach and what are your fields of interest? How do you compare schools in Italy with those in England?
No, I do not teach in Italy anymore. In England, I used to teach at the Royal College in London. I much prefer to teach in schools like the Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio in Switzerland, where the focus is on quality and the classes are small and you can build a relationship with students. It was the same in England, the number of students there was also small. The Italian faculties are in a terrible state and I do not want to teach there anymore. It is not the only problem of course, but how can you conceive having a class with 3,000 students? And, of course, I teach architecture.
I do not know what you mean with this term design, I am an architect.
Most of the best designers in Milan seem to be architects…
This is not necessarily true. It depends… The formation of an architect is wide and if what you are commissioned to produce is a communicative tool, like a door or a kitchen, then your training as an architect will serve you well. If on the other hand, you are asked to design a television, then you do not require a foundation in architectural training.
The Italian design scene continues to dominate global markets. Yet the work of Italian architects and Italian architecture appears to be in perennial crisis. You have managed to retain an important place in both fields, in both design and architecture.
Most of the work of my firm consists of architecture projects. We are a team of 40 and only two of us are designers. As much as 90 per cent of our work is architectural and we work a lot outside of Italy as well. At the moment we are working on the design of nine hotels. These are new markets, even in Italy. I am confident that things are changing.
You have said before that you hold in great admiration those unknown architects who produce good work without seeking to become ‘protagonists’. You have also stated that architects have ‘a positive world vision’.
Yes, I believe a lot in the humanistic aspect of our work and in architects who strive to achieve an improvement in the quality of life of people. Fundamentally, I think that this is the reason why one becomes an architect and there are many good ones. These are not necessarily the star architects that we read about in the media. These are professionals who base their work on respect, respect for their clients, for the work they are creating, for nature and for the built environment, the spaces within which we live and work. In both design and architecture, the issues we deal with are often very complex but the solutions are simple. I design what I think I need, I like simple things and this frequently means that we have discovered the right solution.
You are very much in touch with daily affairs and are an avid reader of newspapers. In another interview you said that you read Corriere Della Sera, La Repubblica and Il Sole 24 Ore everyday and it takes you 40 minutes. However you claim to only look at design magazines, not read them. A look at your website seems to confirm that you appear not to be inclined to including much text with your drawn work and your projects.
Well, I enjoy reading newspapers, during the day, maybe at lunchtime. About my work, the images are very strong and the projects often clear. There is now a book about my work and there are more being planned. It is really about communication, the way you want to communicate with the rest of the world. For example, I am convinced that certain products will be available on the internet, and others will never be, because people prefer to go to shops for certain products. But, one day my work will be available on internet and people will be able to download the details with the various addresses of where to buy the items... I have a lot of faith in this.
You appear concerned about issues of world poverty and the increasing gap between rich and poor countries. But much of the work of designers of your calibre is perceived to be extravagant and intended for the wealthy. Yet your work seems to have carved out a special place and seems to be appreciated differently.
And this is not necessarily about my work being functional or efficient – that would be banal. I work on things which I would buy myself, things that I need and that can be used. But this is something which can also be done with poetry, and based on a clear evolution of the thought process. The approach is one that intends to solve problems not create them. If you design a chair that looks good, it is useless unless it is comfortable.
You have made important contributions to the development of kitchen design, the whole experience of food preparation and consumption. You have evolved new thinking in the distribution of space in kitchens; you also moved into the design of accessories and elements that contribute to a successful culinary function.
I find this to be a most interesting theme. It is central to the approach of an architect who should be best positioned for optimal kitchen design because his training is holistic and encompasses all those areas required to design a kitchen. The kitchen is a very special place; it is the heart of the home and the family, a space for social gathering and interaction. It often faces substantial change and is a rapidly developing typology. In the 80s it was becoming very clinical, almost perfect. But now we are recognising that the kitchen is a space for ritual, for event. Most memories of past family life will have taken place there. Then you need to take the whole issue to different levels of detail because of the continuous development of technology and the design for kitchens has to respond rapidly to this too.
How important to you is the relationship you develop with your client? You are known to build brands more than to build products?
The role of the client is crucial to the success of any project. The alchemy between designer and client is what gives birth to any project. This relationship is almost like giving birth to a son and of course, each son will be different, because the relationship between the parents is different.
Which of your projects do you think left the most positive impact on the the intended users’ quality of life?
I cannot select a particular or specific project. I would prefer to mention the series of projects I have carried out for a number of design houses like Arclinea, B&B and Kartell, among others. These relationships have lasted for several years and the collections are the result of intense relationships, the development and evolution of concepts and ideas. I do not need to react to instructions from a marketing team and this permits me to design things as I think best, as I would like them to be.