20 Feb 2021 • What I've Learned
Paola Navone: 'Good design starts a conversation'
The Italian designer recounts formative career experiences and explains the value of sociability, travel and curiosity.
‘My adventure with design began when I was at the Polytechnic University of Turin, where I studied architecture. I didn’t necessarily want to become an architect. I wanted to learn about new possibilities for the future. I’ve always been very curious. Why did I study architecture? Well, there weren’t many other options at the time. Design education as we understand it today didn’t exist.’
‘During my studies I discovered, somewhat by accident, that there were groups of architects doing something very different from what I was being taught. They were not interested in designing “normal” buildings, like the ones I was learning to build, but rather fantastical ones, utopias. I was so fascinated by their ideas that I started to physically run after them. I travelled all over the world with the objective of meeting everyone creating this type of conceptual work. I went to see Archizoom Associati, Superstudio, UFO in Florence, Archigram in London, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti in Arizona and so on.’
‘Those early encounters eventually became the basis for my master’s thesis, which focused on an alternative architecture, a phenomenon that Alessandro Mendini later dubbed l’archittetura radicale, or radical architecture. As soon as I graduated in 1973, I left for Africa on another adventure. Then, one day when I was back in Turin, I got a call from Mendini, who at the time was working as the director of Casabella. He told me that he had read my thesis and asked whether I would consider coming to Milan to rewrite excerpts of it for his magazine. I said, “Certo!”. I had nothing else to do in Turin, so I moved to Milan. I’m still here, more than 40 years later.’
‘The move to Milan was a natural one. It wasn’t the city that I was attracted to, but its people. There were plenty of interesting people in Turin, too, of course. Those were the years of the great gallerists and Arte Povera. But to me Turin was art, and Milan was design. And so I went. I worked alongside Mendini for about a year, adapting my thesis for his magazine. Together with Bruno Orlandoni, we published a book called Architettura Radicale. It was around this time that I joined Studio Alchimia. Other members included Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Guerriero, Andrea Branzi, Michele De Lucchi and, of course, Mendini.’
‘Our mission was to understand what we could do for tomorrow. In 1978 we presented our first collection, Bau.Haus uno, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, an event that attracted thousands of visitors. Nobody bought our collections, but we didn’t care. We were trying to imagine a new way of working – a new kind of design. By then Italian design was already famous, but it was all black and made from leather and steel. We wanted to propose something different. We worked with colour, pattern and asymmetry. We covered furniture with designs and patterns, when most of what was on the market resembled a blank canvas.
‘From that point I started to focus on “design primario”, which touches the senses. While designing surfaces and patterns, I met the people from Abet Laminati and started working with them. They were my first big client. It all happened a bit by chance, like everything in my life. In the beginning I designed laminates. Slowly I started to work more closely with the company, eventually becoming art director, a title I’ve held for many years. I sent my very first invoice to Abet Laminati – Invoice #1 – and I’m still working with them all these years later. If you stop to think about it, it’s an incredible story.’
‘So much has changed since I started with Abet Laminati. The approach to design and the history of design have changed enormously. Production is very different now. The use of digital printing has completely changed how we produce, communicate and sell our designs. Because data sharing is so fast, we can go quickly from design to production. Before, every collection we released had a huge economic impact. We had to sell thousands of metres of laminates in order to make it pay. It was unthinkable for an architect back then to ask for a custom laminate. Today we can print almost anything.’
My method is that I have no method
‘I didn’t really have a breakthrough moment. I’ve always jumped from one thing to the next. It’s a kind of chain; you finish one thing and start another. I always find myself falling into new adventures, new challenges. I don’t have a method. My method is that I have no method. I don’t keep a notebook or anything like that. Sometimes I take photographs when I travel or bring something home with me. I mostly collect things in my mind.’
‘The design process has two phases. During the first phase, which includes analysis, research and discovery, I collect forms, colours, thoughts. The phase of synthesis is when some of these references become a project. One idea sticks to another, and they become a shape or a project. The second step happens very quickly. The first phase of analysis, of looking around, is constant. It continues night and day. It is almost like a sickness or, better still, like breathing. All the little pieces of information go into a container, where they live in chaos, waiting to turn into something.’
‘What advice would I give my 20-year-old self? Although I don’t pretend to have anything to teach, I’d probably tell myself to travel more, even more than I did as a young woman. I’ve always been a globetrotter, but I could have seen even more of the world. I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia and North America, but I’ve never been to South America. Travel is important because it gives you a chance to collect things, forms, colours, everything. Travel is a richness, and being rich is better than being poor.’
‘We’re very fortunate to be in a profession that allows us to have a lot of fun with our work. I’ve always tried not to take life too seriously. You can choose to see things from an optimistic stance – a glass of wine half full – or from a pessimistic perspective – a glass half empty. Both are right, but one is heavy while the other is light. Designers who take things too seriously give too much weight to their work. Lightness is more important than heaviness.’
I often compare design to cooking. It’s a bit like making a frittata
‘I often compare design to cooking. It’s a bit like making a frittata. You start by gathering the right ingredients: eggs, potatoes, zucchini, shrimps, et cetera. You determine the right amount for each ingredient – a bit of this, a bit of that – and mix everything together. You put it in the oven, and in the end everyone is happy because they’re enjoying a nice frittata. A good meal promotes sociability. It brings people together and gets them talking. Good design works in much the same way. It starts a conversation.’
‘Home is everywhere. I wouldn’t say that I’m rootless but that I have many short roots, some here, some there. I’m happy everywhere. I spent 21 years splitting my time between Milan and Hong Kong. Even then, I was constantly travelling to other countries, such as Thailand and the Philippines, where I worked with local industries. At the moment I live in Paris. My office is in Milan, in Via Tortona. I’m very lucky to have work that involves so much travel.’
‘The world is much more complicated than it used to be. I think people today are looking for reassurance and for an escape. Fantasy can help us escape the difficult moments that we all face, but people don’t escape through design anymore. They find an escape through experiences like travel or good food. I’m constantly going out to eat. It seems everyone is always hungry. It will be interesting to see how our means of escape will affect the world of objects in the future.’
Keep thinking about what you can do for your profession tomorrow
‘Will we even need objects in the future? I imagine a future where things take place in a way even more immaterial than what we have today. Young designers ought to understand how the digital mutation of our world will continue to change the way we live in the future, when there will be less need to give form to our surroundings, and spaces will be emptier. Designers have to adapt to this new reality, which I can’t even imagine, being a massive collector of objects. I’m addicted to things. My house is filled with them. I suppose a person like me – someone who’s passionate about texture and form – might come across as being somewhat archaic, a bit medieval.’
‘My advice for today’s designers is to stay curious. Create an identity; do things that are different and unique to you and your time. Don’t try to redo what designers have done in the past. Instead, do something new that only you can do. And keep thinking about what you can do for your profession tomorrow.’
This interview was originally featured in Frame 126. Get your copy here.