16 March 2020
Matteo Ragni’s now 20-year career allows us to say that contemporary design hasn’t been totally lost amid the meanderings of certain favoured art directions or the decorativism of stylism. Ragni, along with a dwindling number of colleagues, is pursuing the paths forged by the masters, designing “for” and “with” the industry objects of various different types (even extremely unusual ones), that always have a sense of necessity and of “evolution of the species” in common. Born in 1927 and trained as an architect at the Polytechnic University of Milan, he initially worked in partnership with Giulio Iacchetti, with whom he won two Compasso d’Oro Awards (in 2001 for the Moscardino disposable spoon/fork and, in 2014 for the manhole covers produced by Montini), Matteo Ragni has worked for himself since 2007. He has designed for Danese, Fantoni, Poltrona Frau, Campari, Guzzini, De Vecchi and the 23 Coop, amongst others. He also often works as an art director and promoter of design-associated cultural initiatives (his Tobeus collection, in which he involved more than 100 designer colleagues in a project for a wooden children’s car, is one such example). Ragni eschews lofty proclamations and advertising, shunning “overexposed” designer attitudes, in order to pursue the concept of true, and therefore democratic, design.
For many years, far more than one might realistically expect in terms of age, you’ve been regarded as a “young” Italian designer: what did this mean for you?
Getting into this profession very early on (my first product was presented at the Salone when I was 22) has, I think, had a huge bearing on my identity as a “young designer.”
Being young holds no particular merit, it is just a pure and simple age-related statement of fact and, alas, this “recognition,” destined inexorably to grind to a halt, does not by default define the quality of a project. Unfortunately, our wonderful Italian design is fixated with age-related definitions of this sort, which are as facile as they are superficial. It’s not like this in other countries – I don’t think anyone has ever classed the Bouroullec brothers as “young designers,” while my generation still suffers from this Peter Pan syndrome.
Years ago, precisely to break this particular mould, I designed a table for Poltrona Frau, one of the most classic and established companies on the international scene. Now I’ve finally got a few grey hairs and most people don’t dare pigeonhole me as a young designer … plus, my eldest child is taller than I am!
Your first projects were produced in partnership with your colleague and friend Giulio Iacchetti. Why did you get together and why did you split up?
We met at the Milan Polytechnic University where we were both experts on a design course; we had already embarked on our solo careers (Giulio is 6 years older than me and so started earlier), but we immediately recognised the value of frank, incisive and ironic comparison, which made us a professionally close-knit team and set the seal on a friendship that has lasted more than 20 years. So I don’t really like talking about a split, rather an inevitable evolution that leads professionals to tackle different themes and challenges. I think the secret to our friendship is the fact that we never wanted to set up a company – we are and always will be free thinkers, lucky enough to share projects when we deem it necessary.
We’ve each had our own practice since 2007, but every so often we take on an exciting corporate brief or, even better, certain cultural challenges.
You are one of the few designers of your generation that has continued to follow in the footsteps of Zanuso, of Sapper, just to mention two names that are familiar to everyone, designing on a furniture scale as well as a product scale, yet the contemporary world tries to distinguish categorically between furniture and product.
E. N. Rogers’ slogan “from the spoon to the city” still seems pretty current. I belong to the last analogical generation of trained architects and passionate designers, and I think it’s a huge advantage, one that I can make available to the companies with whom I work. Now more than ever there’s not just a need for products, but in an increasingly competitive market, it’s crucial to carve out one’s own identity.
I‘d quite like to venture a new slogan such as “from the spoon to the identity,” along the lines of what we Milanese tend to call creative direction.
It’s fair to say that you have a propensity for exploring “minor” typologies, from jewellery to manhole covers, from glasses to book stands, from toys to plastic washbasins, wouldn’t it be a good idea to design “another” sofa?
In actual fact we still do need new sofas on which to relax comfortably! The masters of design really paved the way – a broad, safe way, even though the level of innovation in this field is still at “homeopathic” levels. However, somewhat ironically, I will be presenting a new sofa at the upcoming Salone … a direct consequence of creative direction geared to valorising a well-known bed manufacturer.
In one of your ironic “project methodology manuals” (actually a series of blank pages), published by Corraini, you cite Confucius: “I hear and I forget/I see and I remember/I and I understand” – is this your “methodology”?
I’m sick and tired of the pervasive arrogance of those who want to teach us how to do the tiniest thing, from recipes for cooking to designing a product, without ever having produced a successful one. My “manual” is ironic, but its meaning is incredibly serious. Learning by doing is the only way we can become ourselves and build something really new; all the rest is now an indistinct magma of pastel shades, twee curtains, velveteen, Marmorino and brass.
So, not just a designer but often an art director (specifically not designing for the companies you follow or at least not becoming a rabid “unique-designer”): what’s the difference between designing yourself and getting other people to do the designing? Between putting together a design brief and designing a product?
I firmly believe that the great beauty of being a creative director is being able to work with rather than for a company. That means observing, listening, interpreting, intercepting and putting the most talented people in touch. Designing products is just the tip of the iceberg, I would rather silently direct the drowning masses: a sometimes tiresome operation, but hugely satisfying. I like to think that my work could be compared to that person (the conductor of an orchestra) who, in a classical music concert, waves their hands around apparently meaninglessly, while their musicians interpret a sublime symphony from them.