Here's the full transcript from the first Peroni Collaborazioni Talk in which Italian designer Fabio Novembre talks to Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs about his work, his influences, what it means to be Italian and how to lead by example.
Novembre begins by giving a whirlwind tour of the themes, symbols and obsessions that saturate his work, leaping from Genesis to ancient Greece to his favourite films of the 1960s and 1970s via nudity, apples, flowers, masks, gods and snakes.
A discussion between Fairs, Novembre and members of the audience follows, covering the design industry in Italy at the moment, how communication is shaping our times and what the change of government in Italy will mean for young creatives.
Here's the full transcript:
Marcus Fairs: thanks very much Leanne and it’s great to kick off the Peroni Collaborazioni talks here tonight with Fabio Novembre. Italy is famous for design, it’s famous for creativity and I think the collaboration element is key to what happens in Italian creativity. In design, for example, it’s the country where the designer and the engineer and the artisan will get together and collaborate to produce things, and it’s been the envy of the world.
I mean English people have for decades been saying, why can’t we collaborate to produce amazing design like the Italians do? So it’s a very appropriate theme. By the way, this talk, fingers crossed, all being well, is being streamed live on Dezeen Screen, our video website, right now, so hello! Let me introduce you to Fabio Novembre. He’s undoubtedly the leading Italian architect-designer of his generation. He’s also become, over the years, a very good friend. We first met when I kind of door-stopped him as a journalist at his house, and said, “can I do an interview?” And it was a very honest interview, wasn’t it?
Fabio Novembre: very.
Marcus Fairs: but I got a lovely note from him afterwards saying, “thank you for your integrity in writing such honest things about me.” And I hope very much that the fruits of our friendship, which have been lots of fantastic conversations, often in Milanese bars and restaurants late into the night, I hope we can kind of recapture the spirit of our conversations and that kind of honesty, because Italy is changing fast, as we all know, at the moment, and I hope we can discuss that later. But first of all Fabio’s going to talk us through his work, his inspirations and his country for about 20 minutes, and then we’ll have a discussion, and then we’ll throw it open to the audience for questions. But Fabio, over to you.
Fabio Novembre: thank you, Marcus. Alright, I’ll try to go through this presentation quite fast. Let’s start. Okay, this is a very fantastic sentence, I believe, from Leo Longanesi: Italians, “people good for nothing, but capable of everything.” I think it feels - it was written in 1955, but it still - I think, gets the sense of the Italian, very much.
And these are very beautiful, these are, how do you say? An illustration that came out in a magazine, together with a most important Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, okay? And it was a few months ago. It was Berlusconi’s designer. And do you know that, I mean you know all about Berlusconi, I’ve nothing to add, but you know that people like me have been living with Berlusconi for the last 20 years, it has been an obsession, it has been terrible for all of us, so that I wanted to try to retrace a different DNA, to arrive probably to the same result, but with a completely different background.
So let’s go through Piero Manzoni, that’s 1961, and Carlo Mollino, 1963. They used to take naked bodies of women and sign them as a piece of art. But these were two fantastic Italian artists; they were not Berlusconi. This is the manifesto of Italy, the domestic landscape 1972 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and you see, I mean they were used to pictures of naked women. I mean we have loved them all our life, I mean only Berlusconi is destroying our reputation.
And you can see here, it’s an advertisement of the Panton Chair from 1965 with a striptease from Amanda Lear. And I think it just gets a lot of influence on me, because otherwise I couldn’t arrive to do something like this, that’s me with my reinterpretation of the Panton Chair which has made me misfamous all over the world! You know that it was elected worst design piece of the year by Wallpaper. I’m very proud of it actually!
And this is Alessandro Mendini, 1973, it’s called Coffin Table. It’s, again, with the word coffee and coffin in Italian sounds almost the same, and there is a coffee on top of it, as well, it was like a joke from Alessandro.
But you can see here we have Titian 1535, and, you know, it’s Venus. I mean artists used to take naked women, usually they were prostitutes or very simple women taken from the street, and lie them on a bed, or something, paint them and call them Venus. I mean that’s a fantastic approach to life, you know, it’s exactly the contrary of Berlusconi because he takes Venus and makes them prostitutes. So it was really the other way around, and that’s what I try to achieve with my work.
This is a discotheque that I did in 1999, something like this, many years ago. No, 2001 - whatever! I did this discotheque because I was hanging around very much in discotheques because I was a very good client. And so I made this disco called Divina. I selected the divinas of the art history, the best divinas, you know, from Titian, from Ingres, from the best. But it was an interesting thing. Instead of keeping the distance with the artwork, you know they were like a box that framed an inside space, so that you could sit in it.
Actually people were trespassing the distance that there is between an artwork and watching it, so you were becoming an artwork almost. Actually you should have seen the girls at the time in the disco saying, “hey, but I’m better than this naked lady.” Because, you know, of course even the shapes of women have changed in so many years.
But you see then... this is a fantastic picture that I found on the internet. It’s about a calendar for medical machinery. You know, it’s like the calendars for the truck drivers, but x-rayed! So it loses all the power of, let’s say, sensuality. Actually it doesn’t lose the sensuality, but these could go through not being rated as an XXX image, you know what I mean? And so that when I get to design a sofa inspired by all of these, I designed this called Divina as well.
But as well it was something to me that is very much of my obsession, you know, like not dividing yourself from an artwork. You know, there was a fantastic guy from Italy called Carmelo Bene. I was impressed by this guy because when I was 15, something like this, I saw him on TV, and he was making an interview with a lot of journalists. And at a certain moment he said, “OK, you stop, you will all shut up. I don’t do artworks, I am an artist myself, so that all I do is artwork for emanation.”
And that’s something that completely changes your mind, changed completely the point of view. If you consider yourself artworks, you know, you don’t see things like it’s something out of you, you can just relate to them. So that this sofa is basically something that you relate to, a sculpture on top of something very similar to Mies van der Rohe, so it’s something very, you know, established and clear. But become an artwork yourself. So always go through that border that usually we have to face.
And that’s another piece from myself, it’s called SOS, it was the Sofa of Solitude, I did it when my wife left me, but then she came back, it’s a good story! But I was so sad, so for me solitude was like a solid block of darkness, it was a black solid block, but with a golden heart inside. But there was only place for yourself in the solitude. You feel, when you’re by yourself, you feel like you’re totally free, you know, you feel like you can do whatever you want, you can sleep with whoever you want, do whatever you want, but that’s a golden cage.
That’s what solitude is, it’s a golden cage, it’s an illusion, you know, it fits only yourself. So anyway, and then there is this guy, his name is Gustave Courbet. I used this painting for the same bar of the disco that you have seen before. And, you know, he took this lady, he opened wide her legs in 1866, you can imagine in 1866 what he did was really a revolution. But with the title he completely changed the point of view: L’Origine du Monde - the Origin of the World.
You know, he changed completely the game, guys, completely. I made a design book with an illustrator without any photographs, only illustrations, and this was actually the portrait that he did for me in the book. He said, “Fabio, I imagine you on your motorbike and Candela, your wife, is in the middle of the street, but you’re driving and the light shapes the naked body of a woman. And that’s me, that’s a family portrait in 1999, me and my wife, as well. So it’s like it’s my exploration of the female body, but really it’s a source of inspiration for me.
And I believe that definitely it’s the same thing with Lucio Fontana in 1960, you know, I mean what did he do? He calls it Special Concept, but what do you think he was thinking about? I mean, let’s not, you know... And so I used the same thing when I had to represent the beauty of Milano in Shanghai, I chose this artwork, it was so important for me. You know, it’s really cutting the canvas, but he’s really going through, going inside, really all the time going through the artwork. And this was the installation in Shanghai, and I want to show you, because through the artwork there is probably a lot of confusion, and confusion is always part of my work. You see this is a solo show I did in Milano, in the Rotonda di via Besana and you see confusion is part of my work. The name of the show was Teach Me The Freedom of Swallows. So it’s like the free flight of swallows in space, but I don’t want to control it, there’s nothing to control, you have to accept chaos, it’s part of the game.
You know, I think that Euclid is dead, in our time Euclid is dead, it’s very hard to say that this is cubes and triangles and circles. You know, the theory of chaos has changed everything, so let’s accept it, you know? Let’s try to make it part of the game. So that’s another theory of chaos for me, but it’s like losing myself in spaces.
Here came to me a client that wanted a shoe shop, but what is a shoe shop, more than only a shelf sticking out from the wall? So that shelf can become everything, you know, can become the air conditioner, can become the lights, can become the sofas, can becomes the shelves, can become everything. It’s like a crystal inside out, in a way.
And what’s this chaos dealing with? It deals with snakes, basically, and we are always afraid of snakes. Snakes are so much part of the beliefs in all cultures, in all religions. Actually in religions it’s very interesting, because in the Judeo-Christian tradition it’s temptation, but if you see with the different perspective, with the Buddhist tradition, it’s protection. You know, when Siddhartha goes in the forest for meditation, the first animal that approaches him is a big cobra. He puts it on his head to protect him, because he’s there for the meditation, you know, to protect him from the other animals.
So what is a snake? What is this confusion that we relate to? Is it protection? Is it temptation? It’s just, you know, something that we have to relate to. And probably women relate to it very easily, you know, it’s something like Eve, this is an interpretation by Richard Avedon, by Annie Leibovitz, by Rankin. It’s really interesting the body of women together with snake, it’s really like you have to deal with confusion.
Snakes are like roots that you can’t control, you know, roots grow very curvy and very chaotically, and when I had to design this table, for me the legs had to be like roots. Only four of them were actually hanging the glass top, but all the rest had to be like the roots of the table. And actually this table could move, because they were like aerial roots. But you see these roots, or these curves of the snake, I don’t know, is also part of my imagery.
I mean this is a picture from 1963, it was shot on the set of Eight and a Half, which is a masterpiece by Federico Fellini. I can tell you this is my favourite movie ever. Okay, if you have never seen Eight and a Half, you should. You know, tonight you go back home, watch Eight and a Half. It’s such an amazing movie, you can’t believe. I’m giving you the best advice you could actually have.
And you see Fellini, he’s my obsession so that I turn myself into him as well, because I want to enter the characters that I love. You know, when Carmelo Bene said something that day I was feeling an artwork, and when he takes a whip, when Federico Fellini takes a whip, I want to take a whip, but turning it always into something that makes sense. A whip can become a spiral.
This was a sofa I designed in... many years ago, anyway, when I wasn’t together with my wife. I had a lot of friends, house always full of people, so I just made the module, a padded module that you can add to in an infinite situation. So it was like designing a sofa for all my friends that never knew where to sit in my house. And it was called And: A N D. It’s a conjunction in English, but if you turn the word it’s DNA, it’s a different DNA for a different generation.
It’s a generation in which I myself don’t know where I am, because I was born, guys, in 1966. And I was trained as an architect with the pencil and the rubber. But now we have computers, so that my approach to architecture was like visualising it on maps, or building little models of the architecture that I was projecting in the university. But now we have Google Maps, and I accept both of the visions, both of the views, so that with Google Maps you can go close to things and you can turn them into a tray eventually. And this is another drawing from that book, and that’s myself, I was born in those piazzas, actually that was the reason why I used trays for piazzas, because in Italy people don’t go to piazzas any more.
You know, the piazzas are only attended by foreigners, you know, the "extracommunitarian", they call them in Italy. You know, the foreigners go in the piazzas, the Italians stay home. So that, in order to remind them where they come from, you know, in the piazzas I used to do everything when I was a kid. You know I used to play soccer, I used to chase girls, you know, and that’s really what piazzas should be about. So that I wanted to put trays on the tables of the people. And that’s where I come from, you know, you always have to understand where you come from and how your DNA in a way is an imprinting on yourself. I come from a city in the south of Italy called Lecce, which is considered the poor capital of the Baroque. I say the poor because the rich capital of Baroque should be Rome, you know, in Rome there were Bernini, Borromini, the big maestros of Baroque. In Lecce there were only artisans, only craftsmen, they were not famous at all. But they did a lot of little things, so did the churches with like this fantastic thing that you see here.
And probably I have it myself, you see here there is a monochrome situation, you know, because the stone, it’s always made with one kind of stone, it’s called the Lecce stone, and you can see that when I used these materials probably the DNA is still inside me, I become Baroque in probably a minimalist... the word is difficult to me, because I’m not... but in a minimalist way I interpreted that kind of root, so that when you see this, it looks like this.
But in the end, you know, my roots and who I am, I feel like... I still believe in fairy tales probably, I have two daughters, two little daughters, and I see myself always as a prince for them, you know. And when I actually designed this thing I was really thinking about shoes as Cinderella, you know, the shoes of Cinderella, and so I really pictured myself like that knight.
You know, there was Ludovico Ariosto in The Furious Orlando talking about, you know, life in Italy’s about ladies, knights, tools and love. And here is me as a knight on something I did for wallpaper, it’s... I had to reinterpret a Reebok shoe. Can you imagine I came out with horse? They were really like, “Fabio, what the fuck?!”
But it’s really part of the tradition, you know, it’s really... the equestrian sculptures are in all the Italian piazzas, it’s really like it comes out of the Italian nature. And probably I’m trying to get the best of the Italian nature, okay?
So that when you’re a knight, you’re chasing for your girl, you have to go through skies. This is an installation I just did in Milano, it just finished, for Lavazza. I turned the whole theatre into a screen and you had to go through in order to go to the second phase of the show. It was amazing to walk inside the screen, it was almost like... you remember the movie, Allen film, The Purple Rose of Cairo do you remember?
Woody Allen. He was the character from the movie sticking out from the screen. Here it was the contrary, you had to go through the screen to be part of the whole thing. And anyway you see that going through the sky, you know, being a knight, is only chasing for love, and love is what I chase also when I have to do like an installation for Bisazza, being a director of an Italian company called Bisazza, and I used to do these kind of installations for fairs of tiles. Can you imagine, fairs of tiles? Coming with this, you know, people must really think I was crazy! Or when they approached me in order to design a handle. I hate doors, so that I only could turn a handle in a manifesto, you know, in a manifesto thinking, so that the title of this door handle is Love Opens Doors. You know, because you could only hold to love in order to open barriers.
And I’m interested in barriers, I’m interested in doors, even if I hate them, because, you know, this was for a beauty salon that I made in Milano. I made all the door handles like a big hole that you could see through. Because, you know, you have to use your eyes. Eyes are your interpretation of things - this is another showroom for Bisazza - or, if you take off the eyes, you have to wear a mask. You know, I did this for the same showroom and to me it was the mask of the guard that you had to wear yourself, because you don’t need a guardian, I mean you can be your own Messiah if you want. So wear the mask of the guard. And actually it came out the same thing.
You know, Oscar Wilde once said people usually lie, but put them a mask on and they will tell the truth, so that I started from a 1960s sketch from Gio Ponti, which is the blue one, and I designed in 2010 that chair called Nemo.
Nemo means nobody. Nemo is the Latin word for nobody. And it’s also actually the name used by Odysseus when he's on the island of Cyclops, when he has to hide from the Cyclops that is searching for him, that’s looking for him. And he says, “who are you?” “I’m nobody, I’m nobody, I’m nemo, nemo,” and so he confuses the Cyclops and it’s a trick... But anyway, wear a mask or get naked to be real.
This is another artwork which I’m really fond of, it’s from Michelangelo Pistoletto from 1967, it’s called the Venus of Rags. And I used the same rags when I had to do an installation for the city of Milan for lights in the street. I hung this lighting, they were made with diodes, you know, lighting rags on the street, like as if I was in Naples. You know that Naples has got this kind of atmosphere of the city.
And opposite to Naples there is a beautiful island called Capri, and there, there is my favourite architecture in the world, it’s called Villa Malaparte, and Villa Malaparte is a great example because I took it exactly the same and I turned it into a Bisazza showroom almost ten years ago.
And it was interesting because, to me, Milano needs water, you know, 70% of our body is made of water. So that when I had to design something for Bisazza in Milano I said we need water, we need to take an example from the best architecture in Italy, actually in the world.
I like also to talk about the Villa Malaparte, because here it was shot in 1963, it’s the same year of Eight and a Half from Fellini, Le Mépris from Jean-Luc Godard. It was a movie with Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot. It’s very interesting, I want to show you this, because it’s about censorship. You know, look at... Brigitte Bardot is naked with a book on her beautiful bottom, okay? And look at the movie posters that were around. It was 1963, they put underwear, they put bikini on her butt. But when I have to make my shooting for the place, I used exactly the same atmosphere. But there is an Hitchcockian detail, because that book was actually a book that I wrote as my thesis in my university, and the preface was written by Ettore Sottsass. Ettore Sottsass is one of my heroes, he has taught me a lot of things, and probably also his objects have taught me a lot of things.
This is a vase called Shiva, it was designed in, let me check, because I don’t remember, in ’73, okay, 1973, and, you know, the big lesson of Ettore was you have to put seeds into things in order to grow. So that when I had to do another space for Bisazza I planted trees in a place. But I’m really interested in seeds, because seeds become flowers. You know, in Italy there is a beautiful song called To Make Anything You Need a Flower. That was actually also the title of a show that I did a couple of years ago.
And this is a vase I designed, inspired by a street in Beirut called The Green Line. It was baptised by the population, The Green Line, because it was the street that was dividing the city, when there was the civil war, into the Christian part and the Muslim part. Nobody could go through that street, because they were shooting at each other from one side of the street to the other. And so through the asphalt, through the street, the flowers were growing, you know, so that in a way this vase was inspired by the fact that flowers don’t give a shit about the fact that we are fighting each other, we are shooting at each other and that we hate each other, they grow anyway. They are a big lesson for us.
And this is Banksy, I really wanted to put Banksy in the presentation, I love Banksy actually, and these are flowers that he throws, and I imagine that they end in the entrance of this hotel that I did in Florence a few years ago, and these flowers grow, these flowers create volumes. All these flowers create levels. This is the show I was talking to you about, it’s called Il Fiore de Novembre, The Flower of Novembre. And really this was inspired by the fact that flowers - this is still images of the show - flowers are inside us.
I mean think about the flower, the flower is a fantastic symbol. The flower is something apparently absolutely un-useful, but it’s essential for the process of reproduction, because, you know, the pollen from the flower is taken by the insects and taken all over, so that it’s beauty that attracts and make reproduction. So it’s a fantastic metaphor, the flower, so that you have to open your heart and search for the flower that is inside, or for the tree that is inside, because the flowers become trees eventually.
This is another fantastic movie that you should see, I have a lot of movie references, as you can see! This is the last movie of Peter Sellers in 1979, it’s called Been There. In this movie he’s a gardener and it’s all beautiful metaphors about being a gardener and taking care of the things that you like.
And this is actually a drawing that I did where the lungs were becoming roots and were becoming wings, and it was the decoration that I put on the back of this vase that I designed a few years ago. This vase, actually, has got a meaning. I believe that... I was raised as Judeo-Christian, okay, so imagine angels are really part of my imagery. But if I have to think of modern angels, contemporary angels, who are the real angels on this planet? The angels are the trees, you know, unavoidably.
I mean think about it: all we need is oxygen. I mean we sometimes forget about it, but we breathe, that’s the only thing that we cannot do without. You know, we can stay without eating for a few days, we can stay without drinking a few days, but we can’t stay more than a few minutes without breathing. So who produce oxygen? The trees. The trees are definitely our guardian angels in a way. But we should protect them nowadays so that I always think about trees and I did this work which is Cinquecento with a tree inside, and that’s another Maurizio Cattelan work inspired by trees, that’s actually the installation in Milano about the cars.
I don’t have a car, I hate cars, actually. That’s not very Italian, no?! But I was asked by the Mayor of Milano a few years ago to design some structures for putting trees on the Via Montenapoleone, one of the main streets in Milan. And I designed the shape of the vase as a car in order to say, you know, what are cars for nowadays? Probably we should, you know... And the funny thing is that it was sponsored by Fiat. You know, strange things happen! But anyway I’m also interested by what you can read in a tree, you know?
Trees have a lot of meanings, I mean these are fantastic examples: one is the cover of Pink Floyd, the other is another work from Sagmeister and another one is the Big Fish poster.
And this is my house. You know, I made my house, only because I found my wife, because otherwise I would live under a bridge. I’m really like that, you know, I think that men in a way are gypsies, men don’t need to have a base, men need to make a nest only when they find their soul mate. So that when I met her I was feeling like Adam, and she was Eve, and what I really didn’t like about the Bible was the story of Adam and Eve kicked out from paradise for eating an apple.
You know, I always thought it was a terrible story, so that my house is actually the forbidden tree, and we live on the forbidden tree, we don’t want to be kicked out, so we squatted on the forbidden tree, basically. And that’s us in the drawing of my fantastic illustrator, who’s name is Emiliano Ponzi, so that's me, my wife and our two daughters. And that’s the kitchen because we live together with the snake, it’s our beloved snake, you know? For me snake is good, and he gives us apples, and we love apples, you know? The Beetles loved apple, Steve Jobs loved Apple, we all love apples. You know, one apple a day keeps the doctor away, they used to say, no?
And, you know, let’s take these apples, and actually apples are a fantastic symbol. I mean this is René Magritte, that’s the symbol of Macintosh, and that’s the Pistoletto and, you know, he was like... that’s a fantastic work from Pistoletto, it’s like, excuse us, God, let’s try to go back to where we were.
But apples also fall on your head and give you ideas, you know, the Newton story, you know, the gravity theory came with the apple falling on his head. And the ideas are that basically you and your wife are really the first man and the first woman on Earth, you always have to feel like you’re almost colonising the world. I mean the whole race will start from your love. So we write our initials on our house, and it’s actually on our house, and Adam and Eve can go walking in the forest, you know, they can take responsibility of their task, in a way.
But naked bodies for me are very important. I was asked by an Australian magazine a few years ago to say what art, what architecture and what design were for me. So that I asked my wife to get naked and took this picture. This is art for me. I mean think about it. We all love the bottom of women, okay? I mean I’m talking for men. And it’s something to support the body when you sit, you know what I mean? It’s fat if you have analyse it in a scientific way. So how is it possible that we love so much some fat cushions? It’s art. That’s the power of art in a way, no? And what’s more architecture than this? Because, you know, that’s the architecture par excellence. And what’s design? This is really form and function.
I mean think about the legs, they really are form and function. And I mean they also probably were form and function when I did this showroom for an Italian fashion brand called Anna Molinari. And that’s also my beloved photographer Helmut Newton. Probably, you know, everything goes together, everything goes together, we are all going in the same direction and searching for the same thing. And you see the shadow of her inspired for me this shelving system I designed a few years ago, it’s called Robox. But you see that it’s got a human shape, he casts a human shape.
But this, to me this is women, sorry, this is women and these are men. We are squared, we are simple, you know, men are squared. You know, I can see my daughters and their friends, their male friends, okay? The male friends are like ugh, ugh, ugh, and the daughters are like, oh, oh. They’re fantastic, they really are curved, and men are squared. This is another work I did a few years ago, one year ago, whatever, it’s a light called Bang. This is the maximum of my emotion, you know, but I’m a man, I’m a man. Even this is like, this is my being pregnant - this is a shop I did for another fashion brand - this is my idea of being pregnant, but I’m still a man.
I was asked a few years ago to design my concept of a house, and I was still doing the shape, the squared shape of a house with a foetus inside, but the foetus, of course, was fake, you know, because men are simple and squared, and the future is in women. And the future is this, okay, the future of Italian design I want to imagine that it’s my pregnant wife, she was pregnant with our first daughter in this picture, and I would like to imagine these are the future of Italian design. So, going back to nudity, going back to pureness, in a way, you know, I really feel like Adam and Eve, and we still have to start a new race, especially after Berlusconi. But these are things that we can discuss together, especially with you, my beloved Marcus, I’m so happy to have you here.
It was quite hard to be so fast, you know, my God! I had to speak fast in another language, it was quite tough! But anyway, let’s go.
Marcus Fairs: well, we gave him 20 minutes knowing that he would take about 35 minutes, but I think...
Fabio Novembre: I took 35?
Marcus Fairs: yes, but there was no way I was going to interrupt you because it was quite breathtaking in its kind of width of references. I mean you’ve shown us there’s a lot of you in the presentation, and there’s a lot of Italy, and you’ve shown us everything from the Baroque up to the present day.
And I wanted to ask you first of all, if you compare you to great Italian designers that came before you, great architects and designers like Sotsass, Mendini, Rossi, Gio Ponti - you’ve mentioned a lot of them - were you accepted in Italy by the manufacturers, by the community? Because your outlook is much more, as an English person would think, typically Latin, typically... you’re very gestural, you’re very sensual and very sexual, but you always think of the designers that came before you as quite pragmatic - poetic, yes, but focused on getting the job done. When you walk into an Italian manufacturer and start showing them pictures of ladies’ bottoms, do they think this is a bit strange, or do they understand it, are they refreshed by it?
Fabio Novembre: nowadays I believe they think you are a bit strange. Because, you know, it’s not the ‘70s any more. You know, we were talking before, I saw a few days ago in Milano the concert from Paul McCartney, okay? He’s not really my favourite, but, you know, he was the Beatles, so that’s chapeau! I mean these guys, four guys, you know, Paul McCartney’s 1942, okay, and the Beatles started in 1960; he was 18. And the Beatles started in 1960 and finished in 1970. Can you imagine in ten years they changed completely the music forever? When he started he was 18, when he finished his experience he was 28. Can you imagine? Those were incredible years.
Today I was speaking with a taxi driver who was from 1942 as well, and I was saying, but how was it to live those days? Because to live our days, it’s difficult. It’s difficult to have inspiring people for us. You know, that’s why adore Steve Jobs, because he really was like a fire in the darkness. You know, it was not only a candle, it was a fire, it was a big fire in the darkness. And that’s why also actually he was obsessed, because things link to each other always. You know, that’s why Steve Jobs was obsessed with the apple. You know that he had big legal problems with the Beatles, because he took the apple as a symbol of his company, because he was obsessed.
You know that when he enrolled in the college, he enrolled with a fake name, and the fake name was taken by a Beatles song, so he was really obsessed. But you see what they could do with music from ’60 to ’70, he did it with technology. I mean probably Steve Jobs is the only reason that makes me thank God for living our days. Because, you know, how could we live without being connected? I mean I love this thing of my years, for example. In the ‘70s, probably in order to communicate something you had to write a letter and, you know, send it with a Valentine, I don’t know!
Now it’s fantastic, for example we are both big Tweeters, okay? And I can see what he’s doing all the time, I read his tweets and it’s like living with him, and he does the same with me. This is fantastic of our time. We should enjoy it, we should really take advantage of it.
Actually we take advantage of it, I mean think about the Arab spring that there was in Africa, in the northern part of Africa, you know, now it’s turning into something weird. But in the very beginning it was fantastic, these people could kick off some horrible tyrant that had been there for ages. So there is some stuff that we love from our time, but it’s unavoidable to say, as you were trying to say, that these times are conservative.
I mean now Ettore Sottsass is substituted by Antonio Citterio, and Antonio is a friend of mine, but the fact that they are so different and that they are expressing such a different poetic, in a way makes you think, you know, it’s like flatten everything. You know, there were huge peaks at the time, now it’s like, bang. And you know why, if you talk to them, I talk to Antonio, I talk to Piero Lissoni - they’re all friends, I really have a good relationship with them - and they say, “Fabio, but this is what people want, because these things sell.”
Yeah, but if you have to go after what people want, we wouldn’t have invented the wheel, eventually, you know, because people didn’t know what the wheel was. They used to push big stones, you know, and "come on, let’s push this stone". I would’ve said, hey, let’s make the wheel. So probably it’s our task as designers to come up with new things.
Probably I’m not the most modern of all, you know what I mean? I know that my language hasn’t got a lot to do with technologies, and stuff, but I’m inspired by ancient meteorological things. I mean you’ve seen my presentation: I don’t fake things. I mean if there is one thing that really represents me, that has always been leading in our relationship, it's that I’m real, I’m really what I show, I’m really what I do. But I do my part, you know, I write poems that probably nobody will read.
Marcus Fairs: having spoken about heroes, and you’ve spoken about the maestros, like the Italian maestros, and people like Steve Jobs, and you’ve spoken about things that are inspiring like the Arab Spring uprising, but you talked about mythology as well, and do you think, in a way, Italian design, Italian creativity has been mythologised? Because you had a lot of heroes that you could look up to when you were growing up, but what about the young people in Italy now? In design there’s you, there’s a few others, but it’s not this rich collection of people that are changing the world as it used to be. Or is it?
Fabio Novembre: but also because their reaction to Berlusconi has been a reaction of conservatism. I mean, you know, I was telling you before, in the beginning of this month I went to the opening, here actually I have the t-shirt as an homage to him, I went to the opening of Maurizio Cattelan’s show, he just has a solo show in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And I went there first of all because Maurizio’s a friend, but also because, to me, in such a dark time for Italian culture, it was so important to go and homage someone like Maurizio Cattelan, that really puts Italian culture at the top level in the world.
Because, you know, I mean there are many ways of being Italian. I don’t think that Berlusconi’s not Italian, Berlusconi’s actually very Italian, but Maurizio Cattelan, as well, is very Italian. It’s just two opposite ways of being Italian. And we go back to the sentence of Longanesi, you know. I mean really in this sentence there are Berlusconi and there are Cattelan, but there are... it’s so good to have Cattelan, you know, because it really shows you that, if you don’t work on yourself as an artwork, as we were saying before, you turn into Berlusconi.
And it’s all about money for Berlusconi, you know, it’s incredible how all those references are cheap in his interpretation, and they are noble in Cattelan’s interpretation. But, you know, still Italy has got these two souls, and I believe they are two sides of the same coin.
Marcus Fairs: and Maurizio Cattelan, he’s a joker, he’s a prankster, he creates situations, and that’s not really something that, outside of Italy, we think of as being particularly Italian, but do you think that the nature of Italy is changing? I mean you mentioned that people don’t go to piazzas any more - which surprised me, actually - you said only the foreigners go to piazzas, because here we think, oh the Italians have this fantastic life, they go to the piazza, they have a gelato, they hang out with their family. But what are you saying, they stay home and watch TV?
Fabio Novembre: okay, let me tell you this, because really that’s what I thought. In Milano we just changed government, okay? It was six months ago. And the last time I was in a piazza with a multitude of people, it was six months ago. We were celebrating the new Milanese government, it was a left wing, of course. And I realised very clearly, very clearly, that the right wing sits on a sofa in front of a television, the right wing voting people. The left wing voting people, they suffer in their house, but they would like to go to piazzas because they want to stay together.
And it was very interesting how you could see people that you usually don’t see in that manifestation for the left wing government. But it was so interesting. Really these are the other two interpretations, you know? The people that vote for Berlusconi, they stay home and watch TV. The people that eventually want to be like Catellan, they live outside, but don’t meet in the piazza because nobody goes to the piazza. But they live outside, they want to see things, they want to, you know, meet each other and stay with each other. There is really these two souls trying to combine.
Marcus Fairs: and how do you see the future for Italy then? What are your predictions? I mean first of all for Italy as a country, as a people, and then also, secondly, for its creative reputation, for its designers, for its artists, for its manufacturing.
Fabio Novembre: it will take time, Marcus. I mean I should be more positive. I am usually very positive, but I think it will take time. It will take time to cancel all the damages that this guy did to our country, you know? Because, in a way, it’s like he killed the dreams of the young people.
You know, the young people don’t dare, they don't have examples, they don’t have fantastic examples. You know, that’s why I searched for them in the past, you know? Young people should go deeper into history, you know, like having old references, the same way I do, because the tools are there, they can get enthusiastic about things, it’s just how you search for things.
Marcus Fairs: you make it sound like a large percentage of Italians have become quite passive, and it’s something we always worry about our children becoming passive because of too much TV and computer games. But are you suggesting that this nation that we think of as being proactive, expressive, experimental, have become a little bit lazy?
Fabio Novembre: no, for example, Marcus, if you have to talk about something, I always felt, since I was a student, that something that was really making the Italian universities different was studying history. You know, studying history is very useful, especially studying an evolving history, it’s a dynamic history, because history is dynamic. You cannot study that Napoleon was winning the war, without knowing the political conditions, the scientific conditions of the time.
I mean history is something very dynamic that you have to connect the dots, you know, to understand how it works. And anyway, history was something that was really defining the way Italian culture was spread by the university. Nowadays, going to universities, I can see that it’s less and less important, because kids are forced by their situation, probably, to be focused on one thing: now, what’s happening now? I want to be skilled about what I do, my job, I want to be the best in doing this. But if you don’t have an idea of what came before, probably you will come out with something that already exists, you know what I mean? It’s like history’s very important.
You know I must tell you that I see myself as I see history, as a race where, you know, a relay race. You know, you make one part, then you give the stick to another, and you have taken from another one, it’s like that’s history, you know, you have to accept that you have to run that phase, and the stick, you take it from one to the other. You know, don’t damage it, don’t lose it, because that’s what history’s about.
Marcus Fairs: do you think there’s a danger, though, that you can use Berlusconi as sort of the bogey man and blame everything on him? Because, for example, Italian manufacturing has been massively threatened by cheap imports from China. I’ve heard that a lot of the Italian designers, they didn’t invest in training the young designers, they were so proud to be the maestro, they wanted to keep everyone else down.
Fabio Novembre: but when I talk about Berlusconi, of course I’m not talking about the person, because, you know, to think that only one person could do all this, it’s stupid in a way, of course. But I would talk about the Berlusconi as more... actually, not thinking about Berlusconi, let’s talk about the bad example. I can see it with my daughters, and you can see it with your children, the example is the only way you can educate people. You cannot say to your daughters, don’t do this, don’t do that, and then I do it. Of course they would say, father, it’s not fair, you know what I mean?
So it’s a matter of example. And the example in Italy has been destroying the new generations, because the example is take advantage, you know, skip the queue, whatever the bad examples have been, a bad root for the growth of the young generations. And that’s why I think it takes time, because now we need a lot of good examples, and we are there for that, I mean I’m 45 years old, I know that it’s... my God, if I don’t take responsibility now, when? But we are all aware of it. But you know it will take time.
Marcus Fairs: I’m going to throw it open to questions in a minute, but give us some examples of things in Italy - Italian designers, artists, or movements, or whatever - that are encouraging. What should we be looking out for? What’s going to come out of Italy that’s going to make people think, wow, this country is still electrifying, it’s still capable of adding more layers to the incredible layers of history it’s already created.
Fabio Novembre: it’s not an easy question. It’s not an easy question because... it’s hard. I mean we are... you know, I shouldn’t say this here in England, because we used to be more patriotic, you had to be like, no, we defend Italy, but I’m very realistic. It’s hard, I mean you can see that there are not... I mean I talk about Cattelan, but Cattelan, of course, was born in 1960, he’s another generation. If I have to... ah probably Vezzoli, for example, you know, could be an Italian important character in the art world.
But okay, let’s accept something. We’re talking about Italians, English, Australians, French, it’s also a fake, and that has been like that for ever. You know, sometimes you can have a larger number coming from a country, for example, let’s talk about the Netherlands in these days, you know, I mean from the Netherlands a lot of smart people have come. Probably because, you know, there was the humus for these seeds to grow, but... and so the humus in Italy is not so fertile.
But we can only talk about individualities. I mean we cannot talk about Australian design, we talk about Marc Newson, we cannot talk about Spanish design, we talk about Jaime Hayón and so let’s be fair. Talking about Italian/English is also not so correct. You know, in a way it’s like the Olympic Games. You know, there are a few champions that bring the flag and they represent their nation, it’s like that. You know, then, you know, you must accept it. You don’t arrive first, you arrive second, you arrive third.
Marcus Fairs: that’s a good way of getting away from the question! So we can talk about just design, yes? Or European design, or even just design as a global phenomenon. And creativity...
Fabio Novembre: but even design as a global phenomenon, Marcus, sometimes I think design is not a global phenomenon. What we call design is something for very few people. You know what I mean? Most of the people on the planet, when we talk about design, they don’t really understand what we’re talking about. So that it’s like a private courtyard, you know, very full of flowers and beautiful, but it doesn’t have a strong impact on the reality.
Marcus Fairs: you say that, though, but Italy has given the impression that design, not design on its own, but design together with manufacturers, together with great engineers, together with, you know, clever marketing, managed to turn itself from a ruined country after the Second World War, into one of the most important economies in the world. So either that’s a myth, or design was important.
Fabio Novembre: yes, but that was a country after the war, and I hope there is not a war that we have to come out in order to recreate the same enthusiasm! You know what I mean? I mean things change, conditions change, and it’s also fair that now new markets are uprising, and that probably the epicentre of the planet moves to Asia, you know what I mean? I think it’s fair, you know, we can go to Athens and say, this is the centre of the world: it used to be the centre of the world. You know what I mean? We have to accept that. We can only work on ourselves, trying to give a good contribution to the whole planet, because that’s something that comes form the theory of chaos as well. It’s called the butterfly effect.
You know, it was from Edward Lorenz, he used to say that the butterfly wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas. And so the contribution of every individual can really change the world. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. You know, I was born in Italy, you were born in England, your wife was born in India, and my wife was born in Argentina. Probably we are the new generations, you know, it’s like we are mixing things together. You know, there was a fantastic book by William Gibson, it was Neuromancer, you remember? It was a fantastic book, anyway. And the main characters in Neuromancer were saying, you know, the world used to be divided in countries, there were divisions on the maps, but it’s not like that any more. And I hope we’re going towards that kind of situation, where talking about Italy, England, will not be so important. I don’t know.
Marcus Fairs: but we must say that Italy still does produce great beer. Does anyone have a question? I think we may have some questions from Twitter, as well. But we have a roving microphone, so if you have a question from the audience, just like to put your hand up. Do we have a question anywhere? Okay, yes, the girl in the grey top.
Audience: I’m just curious to know how did you start when you were young and finished studying, you finished university with so big hopes in Italy, and how did you start your practice? How did you get noticed? In Italy it’s not always so easy to find a bursary like in other nations to go on with your own project. So how did you do that?
Fabio Novembre: basically there is not a recipe. It’s a lot of luck and a lot of persistence, I would call it. You know, it’s like... actually, if I talk about myself when I took the degree in architecture, still the studios were with the pencil and pen. And I couldn’t draw, I was really bad at drawing, so that nobody would have hired me in an architectural studio. So I moved to New York and I moved there to study movie direction at the New York University. As you can see in the presentation, I love movies very much, and they have become so much part of my work.
Anyway, in New York I used to work in an art gallery, the Holly Solomon Gallery, and I was studying at the New York University, doing the two things at the same time. So you can see, I was coming from an architectural background, I was working in an art gallery and I was studying movies, so trying to put the disciplines all together. And then it’s up to luck, total luck. I mean I was hanging around with very cool people, and once with us came out Anna Molinari, she is a fashion designer, Italian fashion designer, she was crazy enough to offer me her first shop in Asia, in Hong Kong.
Actually, at that time, when I did it, it was 1994, it was not so important for European producers, the shops in Asia. You know, nobody could see them, the Asian market was not so strong, so that she wasn’t risking so much, you know, it was not the main shop to promote or to communicate. So she was crazy enough, and she dared enough to invest in a new person who’d done nothing. But it was, let’s say, fascinating, you know, I was telling stories, you know, that was coming from the movie thing, because I’m good at writing. And anyway, I convinced her, you know, and from that I started to do other things.
But one takes the other, it’s like cherries, you know? In Italy they say when you start eating cherries, one takes the other. And work is like that, if you do in a very good way the first work, the other will come as a consequence, because that becomes your business card, you know? Very good work becomes your business card for the rest. But, you know, I sincerely believe that all of us have a lot of occasions, it’s just a matter of looking at them, being able to recognise them, that’s very important, I believe. You know, in 1990, before even taking the degree in architecture, came in Milano, in the architecture faculty, the school, an artist, an American artist called [unintelligible].
Anyway, he was looking for an assistant, he came to make a lecture in the university, and he was making a lecture like me today, and he had to go to participate in the art biennale, and he was looking for an assistant. And it was examination time, you know, it was very hard to move from the university because we all had to make a lot of exams. But I raised my hand, and I said, I will come, I will come.
I didn’t know anything about the world, it was 1990. I went to Venice and through this guy I met a lot of people, I met Jeff Koons, and did work with Cicciolina, it was 1990, it was made in heaven. Jeff Koons was not so famous at the time. And, you know, saying yes opens a lot of doors. You know, I believe that when you are in your learning period, you usually try not to be distracted from other things. I think that’s bullshit. In a way you have to be distracted, because distraction is so much part of who we will become.
You know, I really remember that for exams I had to study a list of books like this, and I was studying two or three off that list, and the others... I mean it’s like you have to make your own path, that’s very important. You have to understand who you are. You don’t have to be what people want you to be. And usually the maximum votation for a professor is when you look like him. You know what I mean? When you take the maximum vote from a teacher, it means you completely understood what I meant. But it doesn’t have to be like that, you have to understand what the subject was about.
Marcus Fairs: so to paraphrase Fabio’s answer: how did you get started and sustain your career? Charisma!
Fabio Novembre: no, not even charisma. No! No, charisma is something that you may have, may not have. Persistency, I would say. Really go for it, you can move the wall if you want, you know, a tiny bit.
Marcus Fairs: one of the favourite anecdotes of yours, that you told me, was that you don’t draw, you design with your hands and your mouth, so he was explaining how he was telling the builders or the craftsmen how to shape the inside of the hotel lobby, for example, and instead of giving them some plans, he sort of stood there and went, “well I want it to be like...”
Fabio Novembre: from there to there, you see, like this, like this! You know, when I had no people, like I say, I was by myself, of course, and I still couldn’t do drawing, so I was on site all the time, you know, relating to the craftsmen, to the carpenters and trying to explain my way.
Marcus Fairs: show us how you do it.
Fabio Novembre: some journalist called it action designing, you know, from the action painting from Jackson Pollock. It’s really like you find your way for expressing yourself, you know, it’s just... Now it’s super easy for me, I have people in the studio that do the best drawings. I mean to go to a client is super easy for me. But of course, you know, it wasn’t easy in the beginning, I know that, I know that.
Marcus Fairs: but just, go on, quickly, just for us now, show us how you would ask the builders to make maybe the legs from the Anna Molinari show.
Fabio Novembre: you know, my daughters always say, “who wants to have an ice cream, raise up your legs!” Because it’s easy to say raise up your arms!
Marcus Fairs: do you have another question? Yes, the girl in the middle here.
Audience: hi, do you accept students as an internship, even if they don’t know how to use computer programs?
Marcus Fairs: did you hear the question? Are you looking for a job, by any chance?
Audience: no, I’m a design student, and I would love to do an internship, but the biggest problem is they want us to know how to use computer programs like Rhino or 3DMax. But I don’t know.
Fabio Novembre: and can you use those kind of...
Audience: we’re just learning right now, I’m just in the beginning of learning...
Fabio Novembre: ah, first learn it, I mean now it’s such a tool. I mean for the design work it's something that you need to know. I mean I can see it’s like a natural selection. I mean if you cannot use these kinds of tools, it’s really hard. It’s like when I couldn’t draw and I had to do another thing, you know, I mean it’s like you cannot be taken in a studio now if you can’t do those kind of things.
Plus, actually, I have a strange approach in my studio. I don’t take internships, because I believe that you need to build up a relationship. I mean I think that people, when they come to my studio, they stay with me for a long time, because I believe that if you do an internship, it’s like the new slavery. Seriously, it’s like the new slavery, you stay there for a very short time, they only ask you to make photocopies, I would say... now you don’t use photocopiers! You know, the simplest things, make me a coffee, you know?! I don’t think it’s respectful towards people, so I don’t do it usually. And I also pay people who work for me properly, and that’s also something that you don’t do with internships, so I don’t do internships.
But I understand that it’s important to share all your luck and what you probably have learned, have seen all your life. Actually, that’s something I’m seriously thinking about, I’m thinking about teaching in my studio, asking the schools in Milano to co-validate them as exams. You know, I’m seriously thinking about a new formula, because I don’t want to teach in schools, but I would like people to come and breathe the atmosphere. So I’m really working on a new formula to give back.
Marcus Fairs: and would that be a new formula, or would it be also maybe returning to the apprenticeships of the...
Fabio Novembre: that’s something I really feel, I mean I know that I’ve been very lucky and, you know, seriously, that’s something that I usually say. When I see falling stars, you know that falling stars you have to make a wish? When I see falling stars I don’t have a wish to make. You know what I mean? It’s like I consider myself so lucky. And I feel like I have to give back all this luck. And that’s something that really people should feel more strongly, you know, to give back all the luck you have had, because some of us have been very lucky.
Marcus Fairs: one more question from the audience here, and then we’ll have a look and see what Twitter’s thrown up.
Audience: do you consider yourself an artist or a designer, and why?
Fabio Novembre: artist or designer? You know, I believe that nowadays it’s very hard to say what is an artist, what is a designer. I believe that the approach changes, you know, when you talk about, I don’t know, yesterday I was watching the movie The Future from Miranda July. What is Miranda July, a movie director or an artist? What is Sofia Coppola, movie director or an artist? What is Maurizio Cattelan, an artist or a designer?
I mean everything is mixed and confused. I believe it’s like a vibration, you know? If you can make things vibrate, it goes on another level. And you can talk in different languages, you can talk the language of design, of art, of movies, but it’s a matter of vibration. I mean you can really feel when it’s something that goes beyond. And I can recognise it now, I definitely can clearly recognise it. And it can be expressed in art galleries or in furniture fairs, or in movie theatres, but I really feel the vibration now, and it’s something that you don’t confuse.
But it’s something, actually, you learn how. Because I remember when I was your age, going to galleries, or places where there was supposed to be art in it, and I’m saying, “but what’s good, what’s bad?” When you grow, you know. When you grow, you feel that vibration, you really feel it, it becomes clearer to you. You know when it’s real, when it’s authentic. I don’t know if it happens to you as well. Does it? That’s a question.
Marcus Fairs: no, I’m doing the questions today! We’ve got a few questions from Twitter, because people have been following this discussion. We’ve kind of maybe covered this already, but Emma tweets, “do you think the change in Italian government will have an impact on the creative output of the country?”
Fabio Novembre: for sure, for sure.
Marcus Fairs: in a positive way?
Fabio Novembre: in a positive way. It’s a matter of examples, you know? They were comparing the styles of the actual prime minister to the style of Berlusconi. The actual prime minister arrived to Rome with a train, you know, Berlusconi used to fly only with personal airplane. And the next prime minister doesn’t have bodyguards. Berlusconi, you could see the bodyguards before and after ten minutes, because it was like, you know, it was like Gaddafi. Styles make a difference.
Marcus Fairs: Emily T I, or Emily T1 is asking, “which British designers inspire you?”
Fabio Novembre: many, I mean from Tom Dixon, who is a very good friend, and I adore him, to now my favourite is Thomas Heatherwick. Thomas Heatherwick is a maverick, fantastic. I really love his work. But there are many.
Marcus Fairs: and Jo Payne 12’s asking, “what is the main threat to Italian design heritage, and how might this change over time?”
Fabio Novembre: the threat is the threat. You know, the threat is that the art director of B&B is Antonio Citterio, so that he filters everything through his sensibility. You know, we need more Patrizia Moroso, probably, to go back to something. You know what I mean? It’s like, Moroso, for example, is testifying a heritage, nowadays in Italy. Or Edra with Massimo Morozzi. You still see some signs. But they’re tiny compared to the volume.
Marcus Fairs: well it’s been a fascinating conversation, and I think we did capture a little bit of the spirit of some of the times we’ve spent together discussing Italian design, but also an interesting time to have the discussion because, as we’ve referred to throughout the last hour, the Italian government has changed, so maybe this can be a new beginning.
Fabio Novembre: and, you know, as you can say, as you can read in papers, you know, the conditions in Italy, interrelate with the conditions in all the other countries. We are interrelated. You know, you cannot think that pushing a button takes you out of the responsibility of exploding a bomb on the other side of the planet, you know? We have to take responsibility. Responsibility is a chain, and you have to feel all the rings of that chain. And also, you know, if Italy collapses, Europe collapses: we are all interconnected. You know, if I cut a tree, all of us will suffer. It’s not my personal election.
You know, our actions have reactions on all of us. It’s the butterfly effect I was telling you before. So that’s why we have to think about all the actions that we do. You know what I mean? When you say, I throw a paper, yes, but it’s one paper, it’s from one trunk. No, start from yourself, close the taps. I mean, you know, for example, something amazing, I feel guilty when I see bath tubs. Can you imagine how much water you waste to make a bath? And there’s people in Africa that walk ten miles to go get the water. You know what I mean? It’s like we have to be aware of our actions. Our actions have a lot of influence on the rest of the planet, so that, you know, let’s try to think about it.
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