Design, the days of the bubble. On Milan Week seen by a do-it-yourselfer

A month is missing for the first event in the world dedicated to furniture, but how much of the excitement turns into products in our homes?

By Paolo Casicci

he days of the design bubble have begun. An exact month is missing at the Milan Design Week, and in the life (and in the e-mail boxes) of designers and journalists there is no more room for anything other than previews, renderings and sketches of installations, the vast majority of which will see the light only a few days before the opening.

Milan Design Week, Brera District

What exactly are we talking about when we talk about Design Week? Is this spasmodic waiting sensible, if we think about the practical effects and the capacity of the furniture design to enter our homes beyond the marvelous effect of the photos and the selfies taken in front of more and more installations and settings perfect for Instagram?

Let’s start with the figures. Furniture design in Italy is a forty-one billion euro business every year and employs 320 thousand workers. Yet not even fashion — that is worth 78 billion — mobilizes an entire city, as does design every year in April. Even the fashion weeks in Milan give hoteliers, restaurateurs and taxi drivers the same amount of work as the six days dedicated to furniture that bring 434,509 visitors to the stands at the fair (they were the last year: 26 percent more of 2017) also the president of the Italian Republic. For months, finding a house or a room for rent in Milan at affordable prices is a very difficult undertaking: if the average rent for accommodation on Airbnb two days before the opening of the festival is 150 euros, the eve it touches 290 and april 11th, at mid-review, 379, but there are picks of thousand euros in some central areas.

Sergio Mattarella, on the left, president of Italy, and Daniele Lago, CEO of furniture company Lago

If from the dizzying numbers we pass then to a smaller scale, that of our houses, maybe the same ones rented by the people of design, we see that the discourse changes. How much of furniture, domotics, wallpapers with sophisticated patterns, the latest generation of kitchen utensils and experimental textures spotted in Milan will arrive in our apartments? Today as fifty years ago, at the time when Italian design was curiously codified as a category abroad and not at home by an exhibition at the MoMA in New York then passed to history, the idea suggested by the evidence is that between the reality and the exaltation of the insiders there is a huge gap. No, it’s not just an impression. It’s a story that started many years ago.

A collection of thoughts by Gian Piero Frassinelli, Design and Anthropology, just published by the Quodlibet publishing house and edited by Gian Franco Bombaci, can help us to understand more.

Design e antropologia (Design and anthropology), by Gian Piero Frassinelli, published by Quodlibet

Frassinelli, from 1966 to 1973, has made the history of architecture and design with Superstudio, a group that has designed over the years of the exhibition at MoMa Italy. The new domestic landscape. As the architect himself explains, already in his time the storytelling of design did not go hand in hand with reality:

“At the beginning of the 60s, when we entered the faculties of Architecture, and in the second part of that decade, when we started our professional and research work, the industrial design landscape was dominated by rationalism and everything seemed to be regular: the big industries produced those objects, the architecture magazines published them, the shops in the city centers sold them. But in our houses, except for rare cases, there was no trace of this furniture, nor was it in the houses of our friends and in almost all those where we happened to come in. If we looked at the statistics and the sales results, all these avant-garde objects occupied a modest niche of the market and the bulk of the turnover and the commercial exchange was the prerogative of companies, many little but some also large, often located in districts of the province entirely dedicated: from Ponsacco to the legendary Cantù, which produced old-fashioned furniture, in some cases copied, but often specially designed in other universes of design. They were the ones that gave rise to the discomforting and often shabby and anachronistic scene that we saw around us every day in the houses, ours and others”.

Furniture district in Cantù (Italy). Courtesy

So today’s “bubble” comes from afar, from the golden years of Italian design. According to Frassinelli, first of all, the legacy of tradition is still strong in Italy:

“We prefer the old grandmother’s chair to an ergonomic or design one, perhaps also because the design, in terms of comfort, has sometimes come back in. If I show my students of IED Rome the hundreds of Italian chair models, compared to the specimens of the countries in development where there are few variations, it makes me think that design has complicated everything by chasing fashions, and in doing so it ended up not dictating the line just where you expect it to do it!”.

Actually, the variety that has been feeding for years the show and the storytelling of design is threatening to cancel in reality the weight of what we see in the window, because the eyes of an average consumer, unlike those of an enthusiast or an employee works, they can no longer grasp the differences between thousands of models of chairs, and look away. That’s why we talk about “bubble”. Frassinelli explains it with a personal anecdote:

“As a child, I was angry at living in a house similar to that of my neighbor, it seemed absurd to the idea of ​​buildings with houses all cut the same way, so thirty years ago in Amsterdam I designed a building with sixty different apartments.When the builder arrived, he said that there can not be more than ten ties in a shop: if I find sixty, I look, I go into crisis and I do not buy any of them. Dodging the complexity has pushed us away from the ability to evaluate and understand”.

Luca Nichetto and Salviati at Ventura Centrale, Milan Design Week 2017

The temptation, then, would be to try to curb this superabundance, this marvelous effect, limiting what the Design Week and more generally design can offer to the public for years: shows and dreams. But are we sure that to make people dream less then sell more?

April Key, preview from Milan Design Week 2018, Isola District

The solution could be another: to encourage consumers not to be only passive viewers, but to develop the attitude and the ability to recognize their own needs, to understand how to satisfy them and perhaps to bring them to realize their own design. In a word, the solution that Frassinelli suggests is called bricolage. The great architect imagines that the future of the house passes from here:

“The do-it-yourself is a litmus test of the ability to design for themselves the things that really serve, a capacity that we have lost, just as we have lost the want to choose from sixty different models of tie or flat”.

Let’s see carefully what Frassinelli wants to tell us:

“The architect and the designer have an operative possibility, linked to their specific technical preparation: the study and promotion of poor and non-specialized technologies for the organization of the domestic environment. In fact it is only through the self-management of the domestic space that the individual can become aware of his real needs, eliminating false needs”.

Iqos World by Alex Chinneck, Milan Design Week preview 2019, Tortona District

According to Frassinelli we must therefore return to do-it-yourself, but not as a hobby: it is about “reawakening, enhancing and using the creative potential until now relegated to the manifestations of hobbism, what the consumer culture has carefully limited to the use of free time, exploiting them as another source of consumer appetites”. In other words, it is necessary to leverage the ability that this activity provides to those who practice it, the high capacity to compensate for frustrations and satisfy personal libido, to finally push it towards applications of real usefulness. And this can happen “only through the creation of systems that are so elementary that they attract individuals, but also so ‘poor’ that they do not risk being reabsorbed by the production mechanism”.

The return to the do-it-yourself is not a new prophecy. Exactly 45 years have passed since Enzo Mari, another design master, published Autoprogettazione, the book that explained how to build furniture by assembling raw wood boards and nails, and since then the furniture design has certainly not come back or could do without factories and big brands. Moreover, it was not Enzo Mari’s intention to banish industry, as he himself explained:

“It would be wrong to think of a return to Arcadia, to a world where everyone does everything: industry exists and is a positive fact. Industry must be taken care of, managed, made in. These objects do not want to be alternative to industrial objects, their realization wants to be a sort of critical exercise in design”.

Not by chance, Mari’s book was not called Self-construction, but Self-design.

“In doing the object, the user realizes the structural reasons of the object and then improves its ability to evaluate the objects proposed by the industry.This is a research activity, and the research can be done only with direct practice”.

Italian designer Enzo Mari, father of Self-design (Autoprogettazione)

In turn, Mari’s attempt to make consumers aware of a product conscience has, however, been absorbed by the market and self-designed furniture has become a status. It is Frassinelli’s thesis, when he argues that “the message brought by all those objects that have been conceived by avant-garde designers as a function of social criticism or rupture in recent years, has proved to be without impact and clarity at the level of mass, but above all dangerously exposed to the recovery of the system in a fashion or aesthetic-cultural current”.

Curiously, a letter written by a reader to Mari some months after the book was published shows it: “I confess it reluctantly: I am the classic fully integrated employee. My home is perfectly furnished with all the trappings that the opulent society wants, but at the same time not completely enslaved. If I can build a single piece of furniture, it will not be a tinsel, a chinoiserie, but only a piece of furniture once and for all”.

And designers and architects, in a world where bricolage reigns, what part would they play? Frassinelli explains:

“The role of the architect in this context obviously transcends the specific disciplinary position to merge with the action of all those who are engaged in analyzing, demyzing and rationalizing the phenomena associated with living”.

In short, less creative and demiurges of spaces and more critical thinkers and service technicians. Maybe it’s a way out of the bubble, even if it will hardly mitigate the pre-Design Week frenzy and certainly will not make the rents cheaper.

Journalist, contributor at La Repubblica, founder of webmagazine I communicate and share design. I do not like those who slow down

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