27 May 2019
by Marco Romanelli
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the ‘local/global’ dyad only applies to the present time. Many years ago, in the late Fifties to be precise, when the Milanese cityscape was embellished by the contemporaneous addition of its two best-known ‘objects’, the Pirelli tower, designed by Gio Ponti and the Velasca tower, designed by BBPR, the controversy assumed exactly the same tone. The Pirelli tower, designed in a ‘global’ key, was accused of looking like a razor planted in the ground, while the ‘localist’ Velasca tower with its Mediaeval references, was regarded as being consistent with the urban context. But can we really claim that the former was ‘global’ and the latter ‘local’? The concept of ‘context’ has certainly become a firm fixture in the architectural debate since then (often in order to be shot down), but, leaving aside the architecture and focusing on ourselves, the leading question is how can the local/global contraposition be interpreted within the context of furniture design? In a world in which the market has become global, but politics is flying local flags, what stance should young designers adopt?
Perhaps we have a Utopian vision of an ideal association of designers, rather like the United Nations Organisation: each member would bring their own traditions, their own habits, all equally respected within the universal debate. Were that the case, as the great Gino Valle said, we might suggest that young designers dig into their own roots in order to come up with the right design ideas. How wonderful that would be! But would it be realistic? Moreover, is that correct? In the very best cases (we saw some of them at SaloneSatellite) this only holds good during the early stages of a designer’s professional life, when they are still clinging confidently to their hope and dreams. This has informed poetically rationalist young Germans, poetically minimalistic young Japanese, and poetically recyclist young Brazilians. By making these distinctions there’s a danger of risky ‘nationalist stereotyping’, but we take no notice because the matter has to be nipped in the bud anyway. As their professional lives progress, that German, that Japanese and that Brazilian will find that that standardisation will become a necessary choice. The only alternative is self-production. The high-end furnishing industry operates on an international circuit, essentially based on contract supply, in which the language, sophisticated as it may be, also needs to be universal. This means that a particular sofa (or table or chair) designed by a particular designer (Italian, French or Dutch or whatever) will be marketed identically in Dubai or New York or Tokyo or Shanghai or even in faraway Iceland. This will mean that that ‘digging’ into one’s roots and one’s heart, which we suggested as a primary source of inspiration, will necessarily have to be confined to very near the crust, on the surface – and in the end every single piece will eventually resemble all the others. Hence the ‘global aesthetic’ characteristic of this period in time which, even if not entirely taken for granted, could quickly be summed up in a design brief.
It doesn’t stop there, however. There is another sort of conditioning that helps foster the final homologation of designs. This is known as ‘art direction syndrome.’ In other words, while at one time designers (such as Aalto in Finland, the Castiglioni brothers in Italy, the Eames in the USA) focused on designing single pieces (often chef d’oeuvres) that individual users could put together however they liked and according to their own tastes, designers these days are designing ‘atmospheres’ or ‘background music’, ‘overall colour’ where the fact that the leg is made of curved birch (Aalto), the light is provided by a car lamp (Castiglioni) or the frame is made of curved plywood (Eames) is largely irrelevant, it is the ensemble that has to work and, especially, has to sell. This leads into another question: how will design museums in the year 3000 showcase the finest objects of the II millennium (our own)? Will they create rooms painted mouse grey or powder pink full of low corner sofas with precious marble coffee tables, subdued lighting and possibly a fringe or two? Luckily that won’t be our problem, but it is still up to us right now, to make sense of the state of creativity, without wishing to stigmatise anyone but equally without losing the ability to ‘see’. No easy matter when one is bombarded by publicity - all just the same, by publications about houses - all just the same, by products - all just the same. When we get to the point where the inclusion of ‘local’ on this astutely ‘global’ scene is seen as a ‘folkloristic’ move!
What can save us? Culture certainly, but that applies to every sort and kind of problem and therefore is no use. As regards design, however, I would venture curiosity – powerful curiosity about others, about the way they live, about the smells that surround them and the colours that tell us about them. We could simply start by being curious about the diversity of others.