Domus Academy

Domus Academy design school launches salon-style teaching system

News: Italian design school Domus Academy has recruited leading creatives – including Patricia Urquiola, Joseph Grima, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Alice Rawsthorn – to form a panel that will help the school "revolutionise" its teaching (+ interview).

Launching today, the Domus Academy Metaphysical Club is named after an influential academic philosophical group formed in the 1870s in America, and will meet twice a year at the school in Milan.

"Basically it's a salon that gathers twice a year in Milan and thinks about and conceives themes, subjects, and ideas – and those themes, subjects, and ideas will drive the school more than disciplines and classes," explained Gianluigi Ricuperati, who was appointed creative director of the school earlier this year.

The group assembled by Ricuperati is described as including "some of the most important and innovative international personalities in the modern world of culture and education".

Among its members are designers Patricia Urquiola, Italo Rota and Clemens Weisshaar; curator and director of London's Serpentine Gallery Hans Ulrich Obrist; publisher Jefferson Hack; botanist and landscape designer Gilles Clèment; illustrator Leanne Shapton; and curator and researcher Joseph Grima.

Architects Manfredo di Robilant and Benedetto Camerana, writer Adam Thirlwell, and Cristiano Seganfreddo, artistic director of Italy's Marzotto Prize for "intellectual activity" complete the group.

Domus Academy launches salon-style teaching system

All the participants will deliver lectures and workshops at the school on top of their "salon" duties.

"In addition to their presence, the club's members also bring an entire network of opportunities and ideas, as well as collaboration with some of the most prestigious institutions and companies in the world," said the school.

The institution will also create a complementary group of 35 young designers called Tomorrow's Club to work with the more established names and help teach students.

Ricuperati said that he had focused on recruiting individuals who were still "in the battlefield" with their careers and that the overhaul of the school's academic infrastructure would "revolutionise" its teaching.

"This salon concept is also a way of injecting possible diversions from what the school is supposed to be. So it's also a sort of virus in a way," Ricuperati told Dezeen.

"We chose to be experimental but also very focused on the fact that we have, in this particular moment, to invent new jobs. So it's theoretical, it's experimental, but it's also focused on students' outcome," he added.

Ricuperati is also relaunching Domus Academy's visual identity, and has worked with web design firm Pomo to develop a site with two characters – a Memphis-themed nighttime version and a calmer Gio Ponti-themed daytime version. Ricuperati said the themes referred to "two icons of Italian design which are in the DNA of the school."

Domus Academy launches salon-style teaching system
Invite showing the Gio Ponti-themed daytime colour scheme

Domus Academy was founded in 1983 by Maria Giovanna Mazzocchi, owner of the Italian design magazine Domus, with a group of Italian design industry professionals and critics. It was intended to be a unique institution, focusing on postgraduate education and academic research, with an international student body and teaching staff.

Mazzocchi appointed Italian architect Andrea Branzi as the school's first director. Teachers included Postmodernist designer and Memphis Group founder Ettore Sotsass, designer and architect Alessandro Mendini, industrial designer Vico Magistretti and Bruno Munari, and over 500 visiting lecturers and professors.

In 2010 the school was sold to American education firm Laureate Education Inc in a deal worth an estimated €10 million (£7.9 million) that also involved the acquisition of Milan's NABA (New Academy of Fine Arts).

Ricuperati said that the school is now making an active decision to be more daring – both as a return to its roots and to counter an "over consumption" in design education.

"There is a crisis of over production, probably, of over consumption [in education]," said Ricuperati. "Crisis means choose. A school has to choose what it wants to become."

"[Domus] was one of the best schools in the world. And my ambition is to make it more cross-disciplinary, more daring and again relevant."

"The real struggle now – the real challenge – is to be daring in a system that has to make money and, at the same time, make culture – create culture – and create education."

Ricuperati added that schools and teachers had a responsibility to their students to give them realistic expectations of the industry.

"When you see people betting and paying and investing part of their lives, you have to tell them that, probably, they won't be designers like the kind of designers that they worship in Milan furniture fair," he said. "They will be another kind of designer. And this is very important – to be responsible. They have to invent their own jobs, and inventing your jobs is also a very visionary task."

Gianluigi Ricuperati profile picture
Gianluigi Ricuperati

Read our interview with Gianluigi Ricuperati:


Gianluigi Ricuperati: I'm Gianluigi Ricuperati. I'm currently serving as creative director of Domus Academy in Milan.

Anna Winston: Can you tell me a little bit about what you're doing at Domus?

Gianluigi Ricuperati: I'm curating the vision, the strategy, which means I'm focusing on what the school will be in two years, in one year. I'm working also on the conception of the website – so what the school will be and how the school will communicate itself. I choose the professors, basically.

Anna Winston: Can you tell me about the Metaphysical Club?

Gianluigi Ricuperati: On December 17th we will launch a new infrastructure – a material infrastructure – for the school, that will revolutionise the sense of the school itself. It is called Domus Academy Metaphysical Club. The Metaphysical Club was originally in 1872 a club of intellectuals that gave birth to philosophy, to pragmatism, to William James, and Charles [Sanders] Pierce. So we took like a joke – but also an homage – this name. Basically it's a salon that gathers twice a year in Milan and thinks about and conceives themes, subjects, ideas – and these themes, subjects, and ideas will drive the school more than disciplines and classes.

Anna Winston: Who is involved?

Gianluigi Ricuperati: Quite a bunch of nice people, from Hans Ulrich Obrist, to Giles, Clement, Patricia Urquiola to Clements Weishaar, Alice Rawsthorn to Manfredo di Robilant. It's people that are really among the best – from Jefferson Hack, the Dazed & Confused founder and Benedetto Camerana, who is a very good architect. Also Leanne Shapton and a very nice British writer Adam Thirwell. So it's a very diverse group of people, who are curators, thinkers, architects and designers, and they all will debate and also give lectures to students. We will be meeting twice a year, but we will also create a bridge between those very high-minded people and students who will probably benefit from them.

Anna Winston: And what's the logic in this move? It's quite different from what design schools have been doing recently.

Gianluigi Ricuperati: It's not an advisory board; it's exactly the opposite because an advisory board stands on the top and never communicates. We created a double structure – this Metaphysical Club and another called Tomorrow's Club, which are like very young talented people under 35 who will be working with this club and taking windows and ideas and transmitting it to students and to the faculty.

This salon concept is also a way of injecting possible diversions from what the school is supposed to be. So it's also a sort of virus in a way.

Consider the fact that usually on advisory boards of schools you find people that are at the end of their career – the hard struggle here was to bring in people who were all in the middle of what they're doing. They are in the battlefield still. For me this is very important. It's taken a year of hard work [to put together].

Domus Academy launches salon-style teaching system
Invite showing the Memphis-themed nighttime colour scheme

Anna Winston: You're working with Pomo on the school's new website?

Gianluigi Ricuperati: I brought in the concept and they made it possible visually. Also on a code level – on a programming level – because it is very tough. The website is divided in two: a nighttime version and daytime version. The nighttime is volcanic, is saturnine... it is the moment in which the mind is compelled to see things. And the daytime is the moment in which the design process takes hold, and so you have to be on duty, you have to realise things, you have to be Cartesian. The palette of colours on the daytime version refers to Gio Ponti in the '30s and the '40s, so very quiet and beautiful, gentle colours, while the nighttime version looks at Memphis. So two icons of Italian design which are in the DNA of the school.

Anna Winston: And one is for parents and one is for students?

Gianluigi Ricuperati: This is also a side thing – it came after the idea. And yes, in the nighttime kids are awake. And in the daytime parents can see that this school is also something in which not only visions are encouraged, but visions are encouraged to become actions. And obviously we do it for the students involved in order to make it a game at a school that is as relevant as it was when it was founded. It was one of the best schools in the world. And my ambition is to make it more cross-disciplinary, more daring and again relevant.

Anna Winston: There's been talk recently about there being a bit of a crisis in design education. What's your take on that?

Gianluigi Ricuperati: There is a crisis of over production, probably, of over consumption. I think the only possible move in this crisis situation is taking the origin, the philological or the etymological origin of the crisis word, which is a Greek word that means choose, originally. So crisis means choose. A school has to choose what it wants to become.

We chose to be experimental but also very focused on the fact that we have, in this particular moment, to invent new jobs. So it's theoretical, it's experimental, but it's also focused on students' outcome. Domus is at a 100 per cent job placement rate, thanks to hard work of internal staff and excellent industry relations.

I'm not a designer, I'm not an architect. I'm a storyteller, and that's probably why they chose me. Because you have to tell a story that is consistent and that is responsible. When you see people betting and paying and investing part of their lives, you have to tell them that, probably, they won't be designers like the kind of designers that they worship in Milan furniture fair. They will be another kind of designer. And this is very important – to be responsible. They have to invent their own jobs, and inventing your job is also a very visionary task.

Domus Academy launches salon-style teaching system
Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

Anna Winston: Is there a sense of something new happening in Italy? It's felt a little like the industry isn't sure where it's going.

Gianluigi Ricuperati: Well, there's been recently a series of acquisitions and sell-outs, like Cassina and Poltrona Frau being sold to Haworth. I saw Flos is being sold to a fund.

Apart from the financial thing, what is happening now is that a very courageous group of people are taking very seriously the situation of crisis. They are rethinking what a designer should be and what the design industry should be. The core of the furniture design industry is in a remarkably small area – in the north of Italy. But it's very important now that we don't just focus on brand and industries, but we focus on minds. The new challenge for Milan and the Italian design field is to bet again on the human software. Because everything starts from the human software. And that's what schools are about. If schools don't contribute to this it's a failure of the system.

Anna Winston: In the UK, education is changing very rapidly for financial reasons. This seems to be changing the output and the quality of the students as well.

Gianluigi Ricuperati: This is true, and we also rely on a lot of students from outside Europe. I'd like to have more European students in the school, but let's also consider the fact that this could be a very Eurocentric way of thinking.

Schools are a machine for storytelling sometimes, and in a globalised, very high-speed world, an ever-changing complex world like we live in today, there are many things that have unexpected turns and twists. For example, in the last month we have witnessed the collapse of the rouble. We have a lot of Russian students, and this is a sort of interesting take on geopolitics, because they depend on their parents. And the exchange rate is now so bad that they have to literally starve in Italy while six months ago they would be out shopping.

Sometimes schools are geopolitical cradles, or geopolitical lenses. Obviously I believe that schools should be – idealistically – schools should be public. In Italy, the budget cuts and the slowness of bureaucracy do not allow, in this situation, to be a public school and an experimental school at the same time. So the real struggle now – the real challenge – is to be daring into a system that has to make money and, at the same time, make culture – create culture – and create education. This is a contradictory but interesting challenge.

But we are struggling to do that. And it's something that you take great care in, day by day, minute by minute because if you start thinking about the whole, if you start thinking about the big picture, you'll get depressed. And we don't want to get depressed because running an education enterprise is like being a father. You cannot allow yourself the luxury of being depressed with your children. Even if I'm basically 10 years older than the students, I feel a sort of responsibility. I am not an academic – I'm like a strategic director, so I don't spend every day there. But that's why I take the responsibility so seriously.