15 June 2018
by Marco Romanelli
Italy versus Europe: while previously it seemed possible to define a “specifically Italian” design situation for the purposes of comparison with a Dutch situation, rather than an English or French one, these sorts of distinctions seem increasingly incongruous these days: characterising a designer no longer hinges on their country of origin, but on their own specific story. In fact, building the personality of a designer hinges far more on the encounters they have had while training (with both companions and teaching staff), than on their contextual roots. This tends to blur the “geographical” lines (a statement that can also be applied to many other aspects of our globalised society) and to underscore what it means belong to much more homogenous groups than the strictly national ones used to be, because they are rooted in real and therefore tangible experiences, if not even in different beliefs. It has now become “normal” to come across an Italian designer, trained in Holland, now working for a Swedish company or perhaps a French designer, culturally formed in Italy, who has managed to overcome the diffidence of a German company.
That said, tackling the issue of young designers from a more specifically Italian perspective, we have to recognise that our young people have made a huge leap forward, while only a decade ago, they really found themselves at a great “disadvantage” compared with their foreign colleagues. Let us start our analysis at the beginning of the new millennium: a young Italian designer starting out on his own in 2000 would probably have been aged 35, which Dante regarded as “midway upon the journey of our life”, not merely because he would have spent the time up till then indulging in all sorts of vices and only focused on getting his head straight later on, but simply because a normal school curriculum would have seen him graduate in architecture or design at the age of 24/25, only to realise that, given the prevalently theoretical nature of his previous studies, he would literally have to go right back to the drawing board by serving an apprenticeship in a studio in order to hone his skills. That would have taken a further 5 years or more. Only at around the age of 30 would the “typical Italian designer” start to ask himself “what shall I do when I grow up?” (assuming his parents hadn’t already posed the question, despite being Italian and therefore programmed to provide a permanent “nest” for their children by then, however, possibly facing up to incipient baldness, they might cease to conceal a certain anxiety).
In the meantime what would have happened to his foreign colleagues (whether English, Dutch or Finnish)? Generally, after attending a more professionally-orientated school, they would have taken a predominantly “skills-based” (from carpentry to metals, from metals to resins) university-level course and, within a year or so would, by default, have acquired a certain assurance on top of that rather cavalier assurance typical of their age. Our European designer, now 21, would immediately be able to avail himself of a series of state incentives for young creatives, ranging from free workspaces to study bursaries to taking part in collective presentations at the leading international furniture exhibitions (first and foremost the Milan Salone). So the young foreigners’ arrival - often armed with little woolly hats and cotton vests, the former or indeed the latter at odds with April temperatures in Italy - at SaloneSatellite is a smooth one, and they discuss their prototypes, with a smile on their faces. And here we have the young Italians of a decade ago: acculturated, devoid of little hats and vests, but totally blocked as regards the hands-on creation of the pieces, yet absolutely certain about what they will want to do afterwards. Because that is precisely where the problem lies: in what they “want to do” or rather in what the world HAS A DUTY to let them do.
Herein lay/lies the difference: while the foreign system offers young designers fewer manufacturing opportunities, it undoubtedly does incentivise them (practical outcomes), but especially (psychological outcomes, significantly more deeply rooted) it does not trap them into becoming “stereotypes of the masters”. To explain, taking another step back: the generations of young Italian designers prior to the current one have been inhibited by the presence of extraordinary masters who, before they even reached full maturity and even as they warded off senility, firmly established themselves in all the positions of power (here I mean people like Magistretti, Castiglioni, Zanuso, Gae Aulenti, Mangiarotti and Sottsass), but at least they really were extraordinary … whereas nowadays the generational blocking mechanism still exists in Italy, but it has changed along with the changed furniture design scene, which no longer strives to produce masterpieces, but puts together collections of objects (tables with chairs, sofas with armchairs and coffee tables, wardrobes with beds and bedside tables) that are as elegant as they are banal. Young Italian designers find it no easy matter to gain a foothold in this scenario, which calls for extremely high financial investments. They may well have designed their own autonomous little masterpiece (and it is precisely in autonomy that the problem lies!), but companies will find it hard to know where to place them. You, the readers, may then rush to the conclusion that “therefore, in terms of real opportunities, nothing has changed for young Italian designers compared with their predecessors of 15-20 years ago?”.
Absolutely not: everything has changed! While young Italian designers in the past may have come up against a dozen knock-backs, and politely secreted their drawings in a drawer while waiting to grow old, nursing a great many (dangerous) grudges, today’s young Italian designers do not take no for an answer. They will telephone a friend with whom they have studied at the Royal College or St. Martins in London, in Eindhoven or Lausanne and they proceed to set up a group together (under some improbable and unpronounceable name). A volatile group, perhaps, just as friendships and love affairs are at a certain age, but our designers will manage to have produced, or will self-produce, their little chef d’oeuvres which will then feature in magazines that are constantly thirsting for a new little thrill, a new “personality” to launch and then swiftly forget about. But that’s all part of the game. The newly formed group of trans-national (stateless) young designers won’t care at all about being abandoned, because in the meantime they will have taken another step towards maturity, towards professional completeness. A decisive step that, in short, will give the finest of them an opportunity to work with the industry and for the galleries in particular, and achieve an effective profit margin. Thus, young Italian designers and young European designers are all starting on a level playing field at last, overcoming a disparity that had persisted from time immemorial and, especially, overcoming a subjugation to the masters that no longer made any sense, partly because there are no masters in Italy any more!