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Interview with Alessandro Mendini on Design Management – 30 October 2001


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My meeting with Alessandro Mendini got off to a false start, the first day I visited, the appointment was not made so I had to come back and come back I did and it was truly worthwhile. Atelier Mendini, is a large warehouse type space, with space, and with many people buzzing from corner to corner, with Sandro, as Alessi affectionately calls him, and brother Francesco, moving around from meeting to meeting, from office to office, from space to space.

Like my meeting the week before with Sottsass, after I had introduced myself and talked about my work and my interests I began the questions, but was immediately interrupted 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.

Q            Do, in your view the majority of commercial organisations recognise design as a discipline to be managed specifically?

A         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.

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

A            In Italy yes of course, the best factories are aesthetically 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.

Q         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?

A         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.

Q         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 designers prior to them undertaking a project…?

A            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.

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

A         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 thecommercial 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.

Q         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…..?

A         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.

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