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Interview with Alessandro Mendini on radical design: “I’m what we Italians call a dilettantissimo”

Alessandro Mendini celebrates his 80th birthday this year—and his approach to design continues to be relevant

Born in Milan in 1931, Alessandro Mendini began his career in the studio of the architect Marcello Nizzoli in 1958. He left the studio in 1970 and devoted the rest of the decade to research and criticism, developing the design publications Casabella, where he was the editor from 1970 to 1976; Modo, which he founded in 1977 and directed until 1979; and Domus, where he was the editor from 1979 to 1985. In 1979 Mendini joined Studio Alchimia and became a driving force in its diverse activities. His most iconic work, the Proust Armchair, was produced at this time. During the 1980s and into the 1990s Mendini began working on corporate images and product concepts for manufacturers, including Alessi and Swatch. He has also curated a number of exhibitions, such as “The Banal Object” for the Venice Biennale in 1980 and “The Things We Are” for the La Triennale Design Museum in Milan in 2010.

Perhaps more than any living designer from his generation Mendini remains relevant to contemporary design practice: his notion of radical design developed in the late 1960s predates the current vogue for critical design, his interest in performance in the mid-1970s foresees the recent performative turn in design, and his continual insistence on the designer being given freedom from industrial constraints has served as an important precedent in the recent trend for design-art.

The Art Newspaper: Can you tell me about how the heated politics of the late 1960s contributed to your early thinking about design?

Alessandro Mendini: I divide my life into two parts: before and after radical design. A group of us working in Nizzoli’s studio began to be caught up in the politics of 1968. At this time I came into contact with art critics like Germano Celant, the artists associated with Arte Povera, designers like Ettore Sottsass and Gaetano Pesce, and architectural groups such as Superstudio and Archizoom. When I took over as the editor of Casabella in 1970 it soon became the official publication of the radical design movement.

Were you also in conversation with important theorists of the time like Umberto Eco?

Yes, with Eco it was easy because, like me, he lived in Milan. Eco’s book, The Open Work (1962), was very important. During this period, I was also in touch with many people outside of Italy, including Cedric Price in London, Wolfgang Prix in Vienna, and Ant Farm in the US. Out of the dialogues with these people, and with Alessandro Guerriero as a catalyst, there started the strange adventure of Studio Alchimia, which was first made public with Bauhaus 1 in 1979.

But even before Studio Alchimia was founded you were designing under your own name—one of your earliest works was the performance Little Monument for the Home (1975), which involved setting fire to a vernacular wooden chair.

That’s true. In many ways, I was much more spiritual and romantic than many of the others involved in the radical design movement. I wanted to give the object an emotional life—taking it from birth to death. This is why I set fire to the chair. Photographs of performances such as this one were used for the front covers of Casabella.

Another aspect central to your work in the 1970s, particularly Studio Alchimia, was collaboration. Did this also derive from the politics of 1968?

In principle, yes. But looking back, I don’t know if we were actually very collaborative as a group. Studio Alchimia included many strong personalities, who created an enormous amount of friction. Sottsass, for instance, soon moved on to form Memphis—a far less radical, much more bourgeois, group. Sottsass’s main complaint with Studio Alchimia was that we were too romantic and didn’t think practically enough. This was his way of saying that we didn’t make him enough money!

One interesting thing about Studio Alchimia’s output that continues with your solo work was how it treated the history of design as a series of signs. There is an interesting parallel with Eco’s writing here, as in the mid-1970s he became the first professor of semiotics in Italy. Eco’s books on semiotics were crucial to the development of postmodernism. Was semiotics important to you?

Even when Eco began spending a portion of his time at the University of Bologna, he remained important to the intellectual debates taking place in Milan. For me, the use of signs was a way to connect objects to people. Emphasising surface signs also allowed me to link otherwise disparate disciplines—such as painting, architecture, fashion and design—together more fluidly. Semiotics remains an important communication tool in design.

In the past half decade, limited-edition objects have grown in importance. Much of your work in the late 1970s was also produced by artisans in limited numbers. Rather than a calculated play for the market, this was a direct result of how their radicalism made their limited production inevitable. Do you have a response to design-art?

I work in many different fields—industrial design, graphic design, interior decoration, architecture—and one of those fields has always been what is now termed design-art. So I do feel a connection to it. But there is a danger here: when design-art becomes the only activity of the designer—which I fear in some cases it does—then the designer closes off their practice. The career of a designer is not like that of a footballer. A designer’s life is long, and you must continually renew your activities and adapt to the present to remain relevant.

For the most part, design-art was welcomed because of how it gave designers freedom from the technical and financial constraints of industry. But this freedom came at a cost: the results are for only a very limited number of wealthy collectors. This seems very much the antithesis of the ethos with which you began your design career.

Yes, it is. Take Marc Newson, for example. In the 1980s he designed some fantastic pieces. But recently he has fallen into mannerism: a piece originally fabricated in aluminium is now fabricated in marble and given an extremely high price tag by Gagosian Gallery. There is no real design sense to this.

Another recent turn in design has been towards something called critical design, with the work of Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne being frequently held up as its leading exponents. Rather than being design to be used, critical design serves to provide a commentary on design. Part of what you were doing in the late 1970s was designing objects for manufacture that also commented on design. But today these roles have been separated out: there is the critical designer generating a commentary and then there is the industrial product designer providing objects for daily use. Why do you think that contemporary designers can’t do both simultaneously?

I think that contemporary designers are very realistic.

That’s a very diplomatic answer. Can you be more specific?

Put simply: there is no quest for utopia any more. A certain degree of cynicism comes with this but also a healthy realism. It’s a funny combination. Two very interesting designers to me are the brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. Although some of their early pieces developed with Gallery Kreo in Paris could be perceived of as being design-art, the Bouroullecs used the research time these projects afforded them to develop a vocabulary that would be appropriate to products for manufacture—leading to their collaborations with Vitra and Alessi. Because of this, the Bouroullecs are a good model for contemporary design. On the subject of brothers, the Campana Brothers’ early work was very magical and initially played an important role in the design world too. But now they have started to do too much and have run into problems, especially with design for manufacture.

Can you tell me about the recent exhibition at La Triennale devoted to your work for Bisazza, a manufacturer you have had an enduring relationship with?

Collaborations with manufacturers form the bedrock of any designer’s career. Without a good relationship with them, engaging design is often not possible—and the issue of how you design something for a manufacturer that is thoughtful and provocative is certainly not possible. In this respect, I have been lucky with Alessi, Swatch, Vernini, and Bisazza. The exhibition at La Triennale traced how my relationship with Bisazza has evolved across objects, interiors and architecture over the past 30 years, including the “Furniture for Man” (1996) series and a new equestrian sculpture, Il Cavaliere di Dürer, I have just completed for them.

Finally, how have you been able to combine so many different roles—editing, art directing, designing and writing—for so many years? Recently you also returned to the helm of Domus for 12 months to help steer it through difficult waters. Most people are fortunate if they do one of these things well; but it’s not that you have done each one equally well all of the time, but the way you have managed to co-ordinate your activities across these diverse disciplines and mediums over such a long period that is remarkable.

Thank you for the compliment—I will accept it! My work is a mix of very different things. The analogy to the [conductor] of an orchestra is a helpful one. There are numerous instruments that I must help co-ordinate together to make music. In essence, no single one is more important than the others, and in order to use them I need not necessarily be equally proficient in each one, since I have help from specialists. I suppose this is another way of saying that I’m what we Italians call a dilettantissimo!