Dezeen and MINI World Tour: in our second film recorded at the MINI Paceman Garage in Milan last month, MINI head of design Anders Warming describes the centrepiece installation in the space and Joseph Grima, editor-in-chief of Domus magazine, reflects on a difficult period for Italian design.

"An era is drawing to an end for Italian design"
Kapooow! installation at the MINI Paceman Garage

"We wanted to create a sculpture that shows the development of MINI as a design product," says Warming of the installation, which features the new MINI Paceman. "From an idea created by people in dialogue with engineers, at the end of the day [it] becomes innovation for the road."

"An era is drawing to an end for Italian design"

Grima of Domus is the second interviewee in our Dezeen and MINI World Tour Studio, which we set up within the garage. He believes that Italian design is going through a period of transition.

"I think it's interesting that at the Triennale the annual design museum exhibition is very much on the theme of the great masters and the past and Italian design almost searching for comfort in its own history," he says. "I think everybody realises that possibly an era is drawing to an end and a new era is beginning."

"An era is drawing to an end for Italian design"
Joseph Grima, editor-in-chief of Domus magazine

Grima believes that Italy's economic and political problems are hampering the progression of its creative industries. "It's one of the paradoxes of Italy that on the one hand it's one of the most innovative, creative countries in the world," he says. "On the other hand the actual governmental, bureaucratic [and] economic framework of the nation… one would be forgiven for thinking it had been designed to suppress any sort of creative, vital energy."

Despite this, he detects a spirit of optimism in the city. "There's a collective hope that a new idea will be born, something new will emerge," Grima says. "The digital technologies that we talked a lot about last year, they lend themselves also to being combined with traditional knowledges regarding materials, the kind of hands-on skills of the artisans that exist in this region and are unrivalled anywhere else. I think some manufacturers are really seriously beginning to think about how they can engage a completely different model of design industry."

"An era is drawing to an end for Italian design"
Dirk Vander Kooij's Endless Robot at Domus's 2012 show The Future in The Making

Unlike many cities, such as London, the education system in Milan is based on an apprenticeship model, which Grima suggests could be another reason the city is struggling to keep up with it's competitors. "The great tradition that was born here was not born from the tradition of schools, it was actually the direct contact between the masters and the craftsmen," he says. "That's something that's now in a little bit of a crisis because it is not as easy to perpetuate and the world has moved more towards the schools model."

The system has also failed to produce a new generation of great Italian designers, with the major Milanese brands choosing to import talent from around the world instead. However, Grima does not think this is necessarily a problem. "I don't think you can expect to survive by perpetuating the past," he says. "I think Milan still has an undisputed role as the design capital of the world and as long as it is able to look out to the world and capture, be the arbiter in a way of what is interesting and what is innovative in the design world, that's something that can be equally as important."

"An era is drawing to an end for Italian design"
Our Dezeen and MINI World Tour Studio

See all our stories about Milan 2013.

The music featured in this movie is a track called Konika by Italian disco DJ Daniele Baldelli, who played a set at the MINI Paceman Garage. You can listen to more music by Baldelli on Dezeen Music Project.

  • Alessio Molina

    I’m not surprised by this post. Indeed for a while I have been disappointed by the substantial lack – apart from few exceptions – of posts here related to Italian designers.

    I must admit Italy has progressively lost its leading role in design, at least if we think of the ‘golden era’ enjoyed by the Bel Paese from the ’60s through the ’80s. In fact such a trend has been occurring over the last 15-20 years, during alternation between economic growth and recessive scenarios, and not just over the last 3-4 years of economic downturn. Why? IMHO this result is due to the combining effects of 3 key factors:

    1. limitless access to information
    2. hi-tech design processes
    3. globalisation.

    1. Limitless access to information. Up to 20 years ago a Chinese designer had virtually no chance to analyse an Italian sofa or view home interiors by Italian architects. Reciprocally, Italian consumers were nearly unaware of interesting solutions featured by traditional Chinese furniture. Nowadays websites like Dezeen.com help disseminate inspiration worldwide, hence closing the potential information gap between an Italian architect and a Chinese one.

    2. Hi-tech design processes. Up to 20 years ago design technology was substantially limited to 2D CAD stations, and conceiving an innovative piece of furniture or a striking building required a designer to imagine it thoroughly in their mind prior to sketching it out on paper. A method Italians have always been quite good at, and which is very close to what an artist does.

    With the emergence of systems for 3D modelling and structural analysis, however, design has moved from art to process. This has eased up a designer’s life, but at the same time it has somehow flattened skills and killed local differentiation. Today, intriguing objects more often than not result from algorithms, heavy computational analysis and ultra-realistic renderings, and you could hardly tell the country of origin of them.

    Moreover, this scientific approach – as opposed to the artistic way described above – is not so common with Italian architects, and requires investment (other than knowledge) to be implemented. Something Italy can’t count on, given the current economic outlook.

    3. Globalisation. To make design you must own know-how. Well, the delocalisation of manufacturing towards then-developing areas has provided local economies with the power for them to embark on ambitious projects (e.g. the CCTV HQ in Beijing). Since BRIC countries originally lacked proper knowledge to tame such challenges, they necessarily attracted the most renowned architects and designers from Western countries.

    Unfortunately many Italians are neither very keen to leave their own homeland nor eager to speak foreign languages, and so they have missed the bandwagon. As a consequence, we are witnessing more and more talented designers from the Far East and Eastern Europe learning from masters (e.g. OMA), embracing the hi-tech design processes depicted in point 2 above and unleashing their creativity by founding independent design firms, replacing the Italian-based ones, which are still mainly focused on local markets and on being retrospective.

    Conclusion: Probably we’ll hardly see the resurgence of Italian design, and it’s likely its lifecycle is coming to an end sooner or later. But I’d like to mention what happened in Italy during the Renaissance: wars, poverty, diseases, foreign dominance and many other plagues. Nevertheless Italy made masterpieces in arts and architecture that no other power of that time was capable of making, despite their economic power, political stability and social advancements.

    Alessio Molina
    Milan, Italy

    • ber

      Thanks for your views on Italy. What I don't quite understand is why 3D modelling etc. supposedly kills a regional design language.

  • bix

    In fact, at present I don't see design masters in any country.

    • ber

      But is that a bad thing? I am not a fan of hierarchies where country X is number one in this and designer Y is a master of that. I quite like the democratisation that took place in a now globalised design world.

  • Nick

    I agree with Mr Molina’s observations on some points.

    Surely the limitless access to information has changed things quite a lot, but I do not see this particular example in design as a positive change: today anyone can see what’s happening on the other side of the globe almost at the same time of its happening, often closing the gap, and showing people different realities. In theory this is one of the greatest advances in history, brought to us thanks to the Internet.

    But if we look, for example, to China, I believe this has resulted not in innovation, not in helping creating a new, contemporary Chinese style, but in copying a style that didn’t culturally belong to them, moreover uprooting the specific quality of artisanal design production, which has always been and still is the case with Italian design, creating ugly (because fake) and bad (on a quality level) products.

    This, together with unfortunate economic circumstances in Europe has, over the past two decades, helped the spread of these products, because they are generally much cheaper but not that much different looking, therefore preferred by the majority of customers.

    In my opinion these factors evolve to become the current influence of IKEA, with a 2011 turnover of around 21 billion euros. Recent estimates of the turnover of the Italian design system value it at around 24 billion euros.

    In my opinion this is one of the major causes of this possible transition of Italian design: people don’t buy it. People read it, people love it, people talk about it but don’t put it in their houses. Who nowadays, even among Dezeen’s readers, when in need of a new furniture, be it a table, a chair or a sofa, would first think about buying a B&B, Molteni, Cassina, Poltrona Frau product?

    Regarding hi-tech processes, in my opinion this should only have made Italian design stronger. It is, unfortunately if you ask me, true that design has recently moved from style to process, much more mirroring art than what Italian design had done during its peak.

    We, being a young Italian product design student myself, are not good at doing this kind of design. It’s not ever been the italian approach to anything, therefore it’s difficult to ask us to move along.

    What this new process centered approach to design has given us is, most of the time, remarkable. Very beautiful and innovative products, but not design. In my opinion what this wave of process design has done is to build up a more glamourous allure behind the whole world, to fill magazines and tumblr blogs. Their influence is more conceptual than anything.

    Who has ever sat on a Carbonell chair? Most likely nobody.
    Who has ever enjoyed a Baas table? Most likely art collectors.

    Italian design has never been this. If our “decadence” means that we cannot keep up to that, then I’m afraid it is a true decadence. If Italian design is a synonym for great, quality products, developed and produced in Italy thanks to well fostered artisanal abilities, then I dare anyone to find any possible close competitor to our heritage.

    • ber

      Hi Nick,

      I can not agree with your view on Chinese design and manufacturing. The best example for well-built products are MacBooks and other Apple hardware. If you let them produce high-quality they will do it, if western companies want cheap stuff – they can do that too.

      To generalise and label Chinese designers as copycats is quite insulting. I assume most designers in the west hardly know what’s going on in China or other Asian countries. Copying takes place (and always took place) among European/American designers as well.

      I don’t see how the worldwide need for consumer goods can be managed with artisanal manufacturing. Companies like Ikea simply serve those who don’t want to wait months before their sofa arrives and who can’t spend half a year’s salary on it.

      You were raising the right point by asking who would actually buy a sofa from B&B etc. The situation for a large amount of people in Europe (especially younger ones) is almost the same: unstable employment (if any), low wages (if any), the need to be “flexible”, high rents and insane property prices… Who would and can spend thousands of Euros on a piece of furniture in this situation?

      The well-off middle class is eroding (and ageing) and I guess the upper class has either too little taste or does not create the amount of demand. Therefore Italian (and other) companies with well-crafted, high priced goods face a dilemma.

  • japr

    The smaller number of visible Italian designers might be due to the fact that Italian companies are still on the world top 5, that’s why every designer desires the best skilled breeders to make grow their ideas.

    Add that the annual world cup of design takes place in Milan, and that’s how it goes. Why italian companies do not priorize Italian designers? That’s a good thing – flags and passports are XXth century symbols.