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A fictitious meeting Alberto Alessi, Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass and Ron Newman discussing design management in commerce



It is hard to place oneself in the rare atmosphere of the Italian design factory as Alberto Alessi calls them, but driving around the beauty of Lago D’Orta, down to industrial grunge of Crusinallo with its idyllic mountain villages hanging like pictures on the spoilt landscape, one begins to understand that from within these contrasts come the very contrasts that make the Alessi products just what they are.

The pragmatism that spoils mountains to mine marble for the Australian parliament house and the Getty museum in Los Angeles while banning cars in townships such a Orta San Giulio, that pragmatism is what makes the art/design of Sottsass and Mendini, work with the visioned pragmatists of the Alessi company…  not strange at all.

We all live in a less than perfect world, but we all have our wishes and our desires, we all have our quest for art in our lives and it is these urges that Alessi, Mendini and Sottsass satisfy, with their special brand of design practice.

The argument and the one I will promote and one which I will certain I will have the agreement from Alberto Alessi is that in fact we can move this edge of design practice into the centre, it is done often with great success, citing Apple computers, Swatch cars and watches and the Alessi products themselves that are in fact no more than standard homewares that touch the nerve.

Mendini’s role is truly that of the design manager, framing all design practice of the Alessi company into a context and doing so in an easy way with the other design managers of varying contexts, those managing the day to day of realisation to those like Alberto himself managing the interface of them all, with the infrastructure of the company.

No one in the process can be ignorant of the process, or in fact of the world, no one in the process can be oblivious of the subtleties of the process and its importance and so design and the management of design is an intelligent practice and that is the future,

I haven’t tried to Anglasise the answers to my questions because so often for me the Italian English, that was used was so much more expressive, so much more colourful and indicative of the minds and views of the particiapnts. They all asked my forgiveness for their not speaking English better, they were all so gentile and understanding in my lack of Italian, and it is I that beg forgiveness for any misunderstandings or miss reportings and I claim, weakly, it is my lack of Italian.

We entered that other Milano. And so here is the meeting that didn’t, but did take place. I suggest we meet at Ettore Sottsass’s office.

It was a smoggy cum clear morning in Milano (in my four weeks here I found the air to be Beijingish….) and full of anticipation I left the 13th floor of Daniel’s Palace, the Milano Politecnico, residence, to walk the 3 blocks to what I had thought would be the Atelier Sottsass. The address I had from Cristina was via Melone, 2, but my Michelin directory had no Melone, but did have one via Melloni… so I thought I must have taken it down wrongly…..  but when I got there I realised I hadn’t because number 2 was a large derelict building….   You always have to take a second look in Italy because most buildings have an element of dereliction about them, but it had a sign that said……..    so even the Hard Porn cinema had moved out….

It was 10.15am and time was ticking, so out came the trusty tourist map and yes it had a via Melone, why didn’t I go simple the first time but it was a walk, a real walk, more like a hike. To cab it or not…? No it would not be quicker so off I set, swaggling along hips some 2 feet behind me…

I arrived at Atelier Sottsass at 10.40am in a sweat, but arrived and found a calm gentile Ettore Sottsass sitting in a large work room / office with hung padded walls and just a few really fine pieces spread around. He looked at me from his desk, his eyes greeted me so I sort of by passed the reception and went into his office.

We greeted each other, no he didn’t remember me from Sydney in the 70’s and when I told him my Melloni / Melone story he said to me; “I suppose it was a brothel…?”  “No just and Hard Porn cinema” I replied.

I also told him that in 1977 when I interview him, he had just left Olivetti, and was emabarking on a new design direction and when I asked him at that time what is next for Ettore Sottsass he said “I will revisit Ettore Sotsass”, and he responded “I am always revisiting Ettore Sotsass.

And in my mind the many many Alessi books I had read were whirling and Alessi and mendini were there with me. It wasn’t hard to get Ettore Sottsass talking he has much to say, and it comes from that real design practice experience those over 50 years of good and bad times, you can feel it. Before I could get into a question, straight from my introduction he said, let me say something: “I have stopped designing for industry, mass manufacturing industry has become too aggressive, too aggressively business oriented, less ethical and less cultural”

I explained to Sottsass, a little more my proposed line of questioning and at this he responded that he would like to talk in general at first.

You remember he said, I worked at Olivetti, in Olivetti at one time the designers and management sat at the same table and the designers had real power, we were telling management what to do, what direction to take. Design is supposed to be an intellectual practice, that cares for life, the well being of people. Today we live in an industrial culture, not an agricultural culture, an industrial culture that has a sort of destiny – which is, we produce many products, and so we have to sell them, so we put into motion all methods to push people to buy. We now live in a communication culture, advertising, we use sex to be able to sell, we use body image, we are going into a barbaric era, a Genghis Khan era ….  To conquer, industry is pillaging the air, the earth, the water, they don’t care. They are burning the books, they don’t care for thinking they care for making money and immediately, it IS a barbaric system.

Me, I am put into the world of the gallery with my design, calling me artist or even maestro (which I hate). I am living in an underground world, like some young people do! So why not…! I tell these people (young people) if you really don’t care for money, don’t know what it means, then money becomes offended and it runs after you. They say if you want a girl, don’t show that you like her.

Before I could begin my questions I was immediately stopped by Mendini with the words….  “before… about myself…!”

I don’t really know what I am, began Mendini, I studied at the Politecnico Milano, I wanted to be a cartoonist, because I tried to have connections to people. Having a motion, a dynamic of questions and answers with people. My job is not that of an architect or that of a designer but rather one who is trying to connect my ideas with people. Sometimes it does happen that I meet people who need architecture and design.

I like to design faces,   in history… anthropomorphical…. chairs with lions, teaspoons with birds, these interest me because they are a little ironic, but also archaic, and the face is synthetic……

I found an interesting person in Alberto Alessi, but I also find the glass makers of Marano interesting and my clients the Swatch watch people interesting. With all of them I like to organise my work into a patchwork of methods and materials, not just designing objects, but creating a milky way, doing something almost literary with them.

It is not my goal of design to design for my own function, in fact other than a swatch watch I don’t have at home any of my objects. So you talk about my work with commerce, I am interested in working as an artist, painting or writing.

Part of my world, a very interesting part, is my work with Alessi, sometimes only talking, sometimes as an art director and sometimes as a designer, for more than 20 years now, we work in a calm way, it is not a stressing work. We are currently working with many younger architects on the second Tea and Coffee Piazza project. I also work for Alessi with my brother Francesco, on very different projects, houses, shops, exhibitions and fairs.

And so my questions finally began in the hope (I had) that I would bore no one.

AA            Alberto Alessi
AM           Alessandro Mendini
ES            Ettore Sottsass
RN           Ron Newman

             Do, in your view the majority of commercial organisations recognise design as a discipline to be managed specifically? If yes, how is it recognised? Identified?

ES             Yes they are trying to manage design, but with no ethics, and they are trying to manage me, and they wont succeed. The word design is like the word literature, what does it mean? Design for life, balance design against industry. Can you manage poetry…..?

RN             In a way… Alberto Alessi would say; yes you can! 

ES            I even don’t like his new direction, it is conditioned by the situation. I guess yes and no, they do another type of design for industry. I work for some industries that are much more careful, like the lighting firm Zumtober. We are working well together, designing light culture, not just products. We are considering the problem of light, natural light, light for love, light for the office.

I have told him I will not work for you, designing for only selling only, for sales. There are some commercial men that are design oriented who understand their product but they are rare. Anybody who makes a fire lighter out of plastic cannot be serious… I have told Alberto so. 

AA      Depends on size, all mass production industry design, but this is less from evidencial but more subjective. It depends more on the individual. But I find that design is still put into a secondary level, many of the business people that I meet think that design is marketing, almost without exception.

AM     It is not easy for me to understand design….! because there is a lot of design, glass in Marano, is different to to airplane design, there is different design in different countries/cultures; Japan is miniturisation, Italy is formalistic, and the USA is computers. There are a lot of objects in the world, some cultural, some banal and stupid and some kitch. I am interested in mixing it all together. For me it is not so important to understand what design is, but to understand the object, if it is good, if it is useful.

RN            Do you believe art or design is considered by management to be important to the profitable / efficient operation of commercial organisations?

AA            Yes and yes, but still it is a fake we still get extremely boring design. Companies continuously speak about design, it is just words, they use their publicity machines to speak about design, but still they copy. The Fiat Stillo is an example, it is a copy of the 20 year old VW Golf it was, it is popular so they copy it.

RN          In your writings you often use car design as the example of the worst copying of the least interesting design. I recall you words to Phillipe Stark in 1990; “For years I have been sick of the attitude of the international producers of utilitarian cars: I find them increasingly boring, without spirit or emotion.   .    .    .    .  I wish to show them how to escape from the vicious circle of pure manufacturing technique (and from copying from each other) and leave more room for creativity. I wish to conceive and realise a car which is entirely new, poetic, full of emotion!”

So what do you think about the Smart car?

AA      I don’t like it, I must say… but I think it is good, I guess my answer is that it is “not what I would have done!”

ES       Again yes! That is why they want to manage design. But what they want is a provisory seduction, a spectacular seduction, industry wants design for 10 years, they don’t want to say ‘forever’.

AM     In Italy yes of course, the best factories are esthetically oriented, the central idea of their factory is design. In the UK and the USA I generally say no, but the people who arrive here at our office, know what we do. There are problems, when we work for Swatch and Philips, but I am not only a good artist, but a professional so I have to answer the briefing. Swatch Watch is very technical – they do marketing and social research, but finally what they ask me, is giving back to me my style, we work for Swatch, we have designed 130 shops as communication, but they have high technical standards and many colours.

In Swatch they work like a fashion design company, every 6 months, a new collection, so the research of trends, of fashion is important. At some times it is good using some colours some materials, so you as the designer can approach with ideas given by the trends, then you are free, but also you can design outside the trends, you can understand the market, and they are different, the Germans and the British like black, in Italy it is colours, in California we can sell a white watch, in Japan they like black as it represents power and the poorer countries like colours. 

RN            What formal procedures have you observed in commercial organisations for the selection of consultant designers, the briefing, and the approvals of projects…?   How can consultant design be placed in the decision making hierarchy?

AA      To be truthful mass production industries main feature is to be ‘not disturbing’ and as a result there are very few main designers design managers in industry who are disturbing, very few examples, Richard Sapper at IBM was one of the strongest, Peter Berens at AEG, maybe Dieter Rams at Broaun in the early years, but he is not so disturbing but rather soothing, certainly he was not offering the gastromic view of design that I have spoken about.

Designers have become very good in mediation, the good mediator between the market and the manufacturer.

We are experimenting in this area, always, we learned much from our experience with the Philips Alessi products and we have established, I guess you would call it a liscensing division, but it is different because we do not make the products but rather we act as a consultant to design manage the development, we do the strategic marketing and we do the communication… our partners do the engineering, the production and the logistics and of course it carries the Alessi brand.

We are currently working with Siemens and we have some three partners in the bathroom products area.

We have gone this way because we have found that, the process of design in commerce is still not understood, companies set up strong design departments but are still unable to design. They continue to produce design which is ‘stupid’ a tool for marketing. Many of these companies have even tried to work with the top designers, the media and finally the market but still they have failed. The Newson ford car is an example, it is a game for them.

What they don’t understand is that design has to be borderline, as close as possible to the borderline, between the possible and the not yet possible, where we are almost not ready to accept. This cannot be measured, but it is done through intuition, through sensibility, and by working close to the borderline you have for a while a monopoly.

And finally the long answer to a short question we are still experimenting, you will recall the Tea and Coffee piazza’s of the early eigthies, that was a great project and I found many new designers at that time and we are now doing it again with 20 architects, we have two from Australia, John Denton and

AM            Also depends on product, when I go to Marano the problem is the material it is very very easy and very very difficult, but with someone like Alessi you must talk, have discussions, in Marano it is just the working, but one is not easier than the other, and to many designers of differing mentalities, they are open also to electronics companies like Philips with Marzano. 

RN            What are the cultural and social issues directly affecting design decisions you made in design projects in commercial organisations?   Do you  articulated these to your clients prior to undertaking a project?

ES            They the clients, come to me, but after a very short time I understand what type they are – I had one client, a manufacturer of furniture, I recognised that he has an attitude, he respects his public, but he then asked me to design expensive products, and so he puts me into an ethical crisis. Today research is very expensive, so what should I do, express something for the poor people or should I think society has only rich people. If I design for poor people I would be Ikea. Ethically I don’t believe we should give poor people poor products. Poor people should also enjoy life.

I can do profound meaningful design – suggest a ritualistic relationship between people and objects, then I am successful. The bowl I bought in India has meaning to me. A bowl could be gold, and it could be plastic it then has different meanings.

I don’t try to educate, because I am the first to be educated. I do sometimes tell clearly what is right, I suggest a book to read, I tell them what I think they should do.

AA            Our practice and behaviour depends on the designers we work with, we try to be light on the process, we let them interpret design and society. And of course some got to the left and some go to the right, if you can talk about design in those terms. I do not have a position, but we do have some basic points.

If you speak with Ettore Sottsass he will tell you he is unhappy with our current direction, he is unhappy with some of our designers, this is his position, I respect it, and he still designs.

I spoke with Ettore Sottsass some days later and he said: “I even don’t like his new direction, it is conditioned by the situation.  .  .  .  .  .       I have told him I will not work for you, designing for only selling only, for sales. .  .  .  .    Anybody who makes a fire lighter out of plastic cannot be serious… I have told Alberto so.

And Alessi went on to say: But as I said we do have our position, we do not use PVC, our packaging speaks for itself.

AM            I think my work is the work of an artist, more than designed. My approach is to the aesthetic, I think, I hope my design is that of beauty, quality, and the spirituality of our life. Architecture and design are part of art. So in answer it depends on the character of the factory, sometimes people are simple, so you do what you think is good without explaining, sometime we talk, and sometimes we let the work talk.

My life has changed. I spent part of my life as an editor of magazines, so my approach to design, and my interests come from that time in magazines. You have to work with many many people, your work is done with others. My method is having a dialectic relationship with others. With Aldo Rossi in school we were opposites, but I admired his work, I like ideas different to mine, I like people who work in a strong way, I don’t like to teach, but I like to work with the young.

RN            Do you think design and art are considered by commercial organisations to be a cultural issue or just a business activity?

AM            In the world where we live everything is connected to money. From a Warhol to a local artists they are also managers. So good artists and architects are good managers. So there is a very strong connection between the commercial land and the creative aspects. You cannot be in the mountains if you want to do something real, you must work in the real world.

I understand the world is so full of indulgence and with our work we can do nothing that is a paradox, we can only work if it is true to the spirituality of our work, it is really important. So you see a world of toys in a catalogue too much of the simple optimist sometimes, and you need to be dry and aggressive, some work in the factory, is with a realistic mentality

Alberto Alessi is a cult person, and what I do for the factory is introducing a philosophical feeling, being attentive to the political aspects, the social aspects, trying to have a good panorama to the different aspects of the catalogue. So if to open dangerous or excessive aspects of consumerism, you have to correct things, the imbalances, that may be caused by too much of an emphasis on some designers. We do this with projects like the second Tea and Coffee Piazza project, trying to have a new relation of the language of new architecture. Twenty years ago the project was open to architects of the post modern era, they were 50 years old, I was 50 years old, but now we are working with today’s 50 year olds. There is a big energy in the research of architecture, there is not a new movement, it is all individual style. Twenty years ago the architects all used pencils, now they are almost all using computers, maybe with the exception of one or two…..

When we started the first Tea and Coffee Piazza project the Alessi catalogue was closed, almost only stainless steel, and it was opened to different materials, wood, glass, ceramics and plastics. 

AA            The second always. They think maybe, but to behave in a coherent way is different…. They don’t….   Some commerce try to think in this way, like say Stephano Mazarno, a friend at Philips, but they do not practice it… the commerce is too strong. Design, good design brings high turbulence with it, to have creativity you need turbulence, and so they treat design as a business activity to avoid the turbulence. 

ES            What is culture?  It is a group of thoughts that a group of people have. Is life a continuity or is it a random comedy like Italy. (theartre delle’arte). To some people culture is a particular knowledge. I like football because the coach is telling the team the plan, but it never happens, because of the other team, so he has to restart the program regularly.

No, normally they think design and art are just to sell, It is interesting that the Koran says that you should not sell something that you don’t know its origin, it is putting some ethics under business, design can do that.

RN            Do you believe in general commercial organisations feel that they have a cultural role within the community? and do you believe that they believe that they can use design and art to assist in fulfilling this role…..?

ES            They don’t believe it, but they have it. Industry, commerce, technology give culture but they don’t have a plan or an awareness. I asked Sottsass, considering his views whether he ever became depressed or unhappy with the world….  he said  “no! the only way forward is that we should all become Budhists, I am not saying I am one, but we should all become Budhists… because they know how to live with fragility, how to live with uncertainty, to live not with heroism.’

Sottsass showed me the draft of a book that is soon to be published and on one page under a drawing of a blank space was written, and I paraphrase:

“Today Ettore Sottsass designed a blank space that has no text, has no sex, no naked women, has no colour it is just white. It is understood he may go to prison.”

AM            A lot of time they don’t, they are stupid, able only to sell, some in a very stupid way. It is very, very rare to find a common person with a real sensibility to the cultural aspects of the objects they sell. Sometimes they are enthusiastic and they can make a show, but in a superficial way. But I don’t want to be an elite person and put other people in another standard, but there is a real gap between the design and the commercial.

I work a lot, I am an enthusiastic but pessimistic, my life is a labrinth…. pessimistico ottimista

AA            I think they do believe so! By definition they have a cultural role, but I cannot see them making design and art as a cultural developer as we do, try to do.

The discussion between Alessi  and Sottsass is a healthy one between people in my view who know the issues understand the edge, it is also conducted in an intellectual atmosphere with true signs of love and respect. Alessi says of Sottsass in his writing: “He is something of a philosopher bursting with carisma, and he has something interesting to say about everything. It was with him that I began taliking over the high topics of design, the role of industry in Society.  .  .  .  .  for me he has become a real mentor one of the maestros.”

Why does Sottsass hate being called a maestro…? because I believe he fears it means that he is not being taken seriously. He is, Alessi certainly does! So if the arguments, the healthy arguments alive here in Milan, what is design..? what is its position…? are we the mediators…? is this our real position for the future…? or are we the philosophers, the one that will lead, that will show the way…?  are we the instruments for simple monetary profit or do we have a more important role that is still profitable, but rather more long term.

We concluded our meeting and parted, leaving sottsass to his practice which was buzzing with young people who all seemed to speak 3 languages and me to the streets of Milan, to reflect on my view that design is a highly intellectual, highly philosphical, highly ethical practice, and certainly my three guests thought so.

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