27 May 2019
by Marco Romanelli
The Salone del Mobile di Milano is undoubtedly the ‘perfect storm’ unleashed annually on the world of design. Both beforehand and afterwards, in magazines and on social media, gurus and prophets try to define the newest trends, the newest idols or, quite simply, in the case of designers, to promote themselves. In the great media fray, one word – criticism – has become conspicuous by its absence: criticism has gone ‘out of fashion.’ Constructive value is not recognised, reviews of the Salone del Mobile simply describe the products, based on the press releases. We are keen to see, however, without mentioning names, whether this short essay might be seen as an invitation to discussion rather than as an ‘attack’, an opportunity to take a critical look at the current situation?
Personally, I think there are two fundamental points that need to be considered.
The first could be described, with reference to the ancient game of bowls, as ‘moving the jack.’ Taking that as a starting point: in a recent interview with Art Tribune, Paola Antonelli, curator of the XXII Triennale di Milano entitled Broken Nature, said: “Design week in Milan shouldn’t just mean furniture week; it should mean all types of design as we understand it here in New York, which includes interface design, information, communication, videogames, architectural and urbanistic design.” This sentence perfectly encapsulates the current tendency to ‘move the jack’, all under the guise of a heroic mission, such as Can Design Manage to Save the Planet (this is both the title of the article from which Antonelli’s words have been extrapolated and the underlying concept of the Triennale). These sorts of ‘premises’ make it hard to venture any sort of criticism – one wouldn’t want to seem like the sort of person who isn’t interested in saving the planet? This programmatic ‘distancing’ of completely different typological fields (interface, videogames) from disciplinary ones (architecture, urbanistics, and one could add biology, zoology and the natural sciences in general) leads to ‘nothing being done’ in a concrete point sense: the great supply chain of ‘traditional’ design (from furniture to accessories, from domestic appliances to offices, from lighting to objects and gadgets, from machine tools to cars, from semi-processed goods to coverings, from sanitaryware to fabrics) feels only partly called to account and hastens on its way. The lack of serious debate, of a real consultation conducted within this specific disciplinary sphere actually fosters a multitude of misunderstandings. The most obvious of these relates to stylism: if the heroic era of the designer/inventors really was at the end of the last century, fuzzy, transmigrating into that of the designer/art director, now even this ‘mediatory’ figure between creation and market seems inadequate and a new figure has swiftly appeared on the scene: the designer/stylist. How do designer/stylists operate? Firstly, without inhibitions: it’s not a matter of designing objects that they try to insert in the often thousand-year-old development chain of a typological species (chairs, tables, vases etc.) but of simply constructing, with an undoubted flair for colours and materials, an all-enveloping atmosphere, a seductive lifestyle image. Dumbed down in sophisticated shades of light pink or cement grey, teal or sunflower yellow, the conscious ‘references’ to Ponti, Albini, Caccia Dominioni and Mollino (and the more they have, the more they use) tend to pass the general public by while being lauded by the specialist press. Often the ‘new’ is nothing more than a rereading of the past, sometimes sophisticated and sometimes merely nostalgic. The decline of specialist skills and the relegation of disciplinary reference parameters to an increasingly distant sphere, is to blame for this. Do we want to go back to calling ‘a spade a spade’ (and ‘a chair a chair’, or ‘a sofa a sofa’) ensuring that this ‘spade’ is designed correctly (without plagiarism), is correctly produced (with no damage to the environment or people), is distributed correctly (avoiding exaggerated leverage) and can be ‘used’ for many, many years, down the generations? Do we want to go back to designing (or perhaps trying to design) masterworks that will remain as such even when the walls are repainted or we move house? Or are we happy to settle for creating ‘grand hotel’ ambiances on one hand and on the other to parody or simply reference a number of different scientists: ethologists and anthropologists, robotics engineers and genetic engineers, microbiologists and marine biologists, astrophysicists and nanotechnologists, epidemiologists and immunologists? Forgive my traditionalism and my total ‘lack of updatedness’, but I personally believe that real architects and real designers, supported by the work of real entrepreneurs, can still do a huge amount towards saving our planet. And that criticism is an essential enricher of design.