Portrait of S.G. taken during the interview
I didn’t get much sleep the night before I met Stefano Giovannoni. The internet is bottomless source, and scratching the surface of the first page of Google results, Giovannoni was no longer talking about design as aesthetic research, but about abstract reflections and intellectual references: the passing of the dialectic between culture and business, the object as merchandise and consumption.
Moving from one question to the next, from link to link, I read more interviews, happy to give up a few hours's sleep. Giovannoni quoted Jean Baudrillard (the postmodern theorist who wrote "Communicate? Communicate? Only vases communicate") as he designed cheeky and seductive objects for the mass public: nutcrackers, toothpick holders and chairs shaped like animals. And I wondered: what is this man hiding behind a rabbit?
🤔 Alberto Alessi defined you as a methanoic designer. I’ve searched online for the definition: you must know that you’re the only methanoic designer. The only one in the world. I’ll ask you directly: what is a methanoic designer?
😎 It’s true, methanoic is Alberto Alessi’s definition. Methanoic and paranoic designers. Let’s say that paranoic designers proceed on the basis of their own convictions, convinced they’re right. Methanoic ones, conversely, always seek comparison and synergy with the market and the world of consumption. This is what I’ve tried to do and what Alberto Alessi attempted to describe.
Stefano Giovannoni was born in La Spezia, graduated in Florence and has lived in Milan for some time. In the course of his career he has founded and dissolved a movement (Bolidism) but, above all, he has left a lasting mark on Alessi and Magis. And in the homes of millions. He’s been called the King Midas of design, and his magnificent studio-home, a four-storey building with a terrace in the Milan design district of Tortona appears to confirm this.
🤔 Some see in your work hints of Jeff Koons: Warhol’s heir and an artist who seeks, stimulates and obtains the consensus of the public. The methanoic artist. Are they right?
😎 Jeff Koons is a great artist and was one of my influences too but, even though we’ve both designed a rabbit, our affinity is not in superficial aspects, it’s having a concept as a starting point. Jeff Koons’ method is to transform an inflatable object into one made of steel. The concept behind my work is a rabbit whose own ears turn it into a seat. I don’t think the two can easily be compared.
🤔 We could say that both of you are playing around on the borders between art and design, but in different ways.
😎 That’s right. Because if it wasn’t different you could say the same, on the other hand, of Takashi Murakami, who started work after my most eye-catching products in the nineties, the ones closest to the world of comic strips and science fiction.
🤔 So, what lies behind the rabbit, then?
😎 What interests me primarily is the conceptual aspect of design: in this case, the ears that become the backrest of the chair. I would never design a chair in the shape of a cat. If I design an object in the shape of an animal, it isn’t because I want to design the animal. It’s a game of functionality and structure. In every one of my designs - even in my first objects for Alessi - there’s always a clear difference from the world of gadgets. They’re never produced for their own sake. The nutcracker has the shape of a squirrel, but if you turn his ears, he cracks the nut. Or the plant-fruit bowl, Fruit Mama: there are ingredients of the game even in the choice of subject and name.
🤔 You have said: I tried to understand the latent desires of the public in order to satisfy them. My anthropology studies confer a specific meaning on the term latent desires. Is it the same for you?
😎 Today the public no longer wants designer objects characterised by one particular detail. We live in a world that’s saturated with objects, and the public seeks strong signs, products that really have a quality of immediate communication, that stand out from all the rest. From Ikea to more sophisticated design firms there's an uninterrupted continuum. Perhaps this is what the public perceives: characteristics become homogeneous. In a media-driven world where virtual reality and communication are increasingly important, the public demands something stronger, more meaningful; an explicit gesture.
🤔 A rabbit-chair?
😎 Yes, that too. Because people are looking for something that gives identity to their homes and themselves. There’s a need for identification with the objects, and it’s no longer petit-bourgeois or middle-class Good Design that responds to that need. It’s a demand that’s a bit more progressive and sophisticated.
🤔 Something that lies within a wider - heightened - quest for identity?
😎 Of course. We buy certain objects because we want to create a link with them, something that constitutes our identity in the eyes of others. In my home I display a series of objects, I wear a certain type of clothing and buy one particular car rather than another because I want to construct my identity in an increasingly…scientific way. Today every daily paper has a section devoted to design. Design is regarded like fashion, an element that characterises you and your home, your most important habitat.
🤔 This, then, is the context a designer must work in. But what does Qeeboo do?
😎 I’ve worked for many years with major firms. I was the first designer at Alessi and at Magis. Then at a certain point I felt the need, first, to change these companies - but that was extremely difficult - and to build a story of my own; my own firm. I believe this is part of every designer’s evolutionary journey.
🤔 Evolution towards what?
😎 In the fashion world, every stylist has his or her own personal brand. Every stylist is distinguished by her/his choices and her/his surroundings, which characterise her/him and her/his label. Even if there’s an investor in the background, it’s the stylist who’s responsible for the image of her/his products. In the world of design this rarely happens.
🤔 For instance?
😎 If we look at the work done by Marcel Wanders with Moooi or Tom Dixon with his firm, these are among the most successful ventures in the past 20 years. I believe that this is a growing need in the younger generation too: to build your own identity through your own brand.
Stefano Giovannoni often talks about identity. Of the consumer’s identity, to be fed. Of the designer’s identity, to be built. Like his own, which is already well-established. The King Midas of design. Or the architect: this is the term used by his entourage to refer to him - giving him another identifying aspect.
🤔 Andrea Branzi describes Qeeboo as the Dolce Stil Novo of design. When I read Branzi’s definition, two things came to mind: it’s a provocation; at last, content that’s not self-referential. But what’s Brandi alluding to?
😎 My interpretation of his definition is linked to the fact that Branzi has founded various groups, various movements, from the Radicali onwards. But he’s always found himself working with other men. In this case he realised that there are several women in our group - Nika Zupanc, the women at Front - and noticed that this female component resulted in an expressive language that’s different from an exclusively male approach. Like Nika Zupanc’s Ribbon Chair. Nika has the ability to express this femininity.
🤔 The Dolce Stil Novo - I checked last night - abandoned coarse poetry for a gentle, harmonious style. It was a repudiation of excessively contrived and tangled forms: is this what Qeeboo is?
😎 In our collective imagination, Branzi has seen something that can be connected to a new narrative hypothesis. A language that no longer refers to the slightly technical, mechanical lexicon of design, but to stories to be told. A more appropriate language for the expression of emotion. And that’s where the definition came from: the desire to give things a name.
🤔 A new narrative: like the K Chair? I saw the presentation, where it’s spoken of as the future archetype - in plastic - of the kitchen chair. Why plastic?
😎 Plastic is first and foremost a democratic material, because it allows a larger section of the public to access design. At Alessi, for example, plastic was crucial in the growth of the brand during the nineties, because it truly revolutionised the target market of consumers for a leading firm in the design world.
🤔 It was a bold move.
😎 For the first time an established brand shifted its attention away from the intellectual, adult consumer and towards a younger audience. Plastic had the power to create a link with the new generations, who began to collect this kind of object. Although they were expensive, they were more accessible. I fought hard for Alessi to take this stap at a time when the marketing department feared to cause a problem of brand identity. Yet it was the winning move, allowing Alessi to triple its turnover and become the most important firm in terms of figures.
🤔 Why is plastic so important?
😎 Plastic places the project into a real industrial circuit. It carries a logic of mass audience. Naturally, it involves a greater degree of professionalism and more experience: it’s one thing to design a wooden chair that the carpenter round the corner can make, and it’s quite another to design a plastic product for which you need steel moulds and tens or hundreds of thousands of euros in investment. What happens if you get it wrong and don’t reach the audience? With plastic you see the real entrepreneur and his capacity to invest in a product, in an idea. Not in an object that needs no investment, that anyone can copy a couple of days later.
🤔 But isn’t plastic bad for the planet? I’ve read the criticisms for my support of the material.
😎 There’s a lot of confusion. Firstly, in the consumer world, plastic used for furniture is really a microscopic amount. Just think about PET water bottles, which we could very easily do without. Besides this, there are some plastics - like PVC - which produce harmful smoke when they’re burned. But most of today’s plastics are materials that burn very efficiently and leave no trace. From the waste disposal angle - I’ve had several conversations with people who know about this - a good plastic is really the least of our problems. And then we should make one thing clear: if plastic ends up abandoned in the environment, it’s a problem of education, not plastic.
Portrait of S.G. taken during the interview
Stefano Giovannoni and I have been sitting at his kitchen table for at least half an hour. We’ve had a coffee each, and I’ve drunk a couple of glasses of water. Although he’s the one doing the talking. Our intermittent interview has turned into a conversation; at times a harangue, at other times a dissertation.
🤔 You and Jean Baudrillard - the writer you’ve often quoted - have given me a pleasantly sleepless night. I noted down this claim by the French philosopher: The driver of capitalism is not production, it’s consumption. Is this your Baudrillard?
😎 Yes, consumption and goods. Qeeboo objects are far more invasive, they have a much stronger appeal than items of Good Design: and this property should not be underestimated. They’re much more of a product, they’re consumer goods. They’re media products. They're certainly not the old-style good design items which these days only appeal to the Compasso d'Oro panel and a handful of out-of-touch intellectuals. Today we’re living in a media world, a scenario in which the major forms of communication are Facebook and Instagram: we need objects that can communicate on these platforms, and it gives me pleasure when Qeeboo products appear in photos posted by the people who buy them. Everyone wants to show how they’ve interpreted the Rabbit Chair. And so the Rabbit Chair is no longer an object that’s closed in on itself, but leaves room for one or more interpretations which are utterly dependent on the consumer.
🤔 I’ve seen the video of the rabbits on the escalator. The video is mesmerising but, besides the product itself, what message are you conveying?
😎 It’s obvious that you couldn’t make that video with a couple of Magistretti chairs, right? Because it would be impossible to understand the meaning. But if you put two rabbits on an escalator, you’ve already created a story. It's not the story of two chairs, it’s the story you imagine.
🤔 Cultural and commercial production: it’s an issue everyone avoids, except you. But I don’t understand whether you believe the cultural and the commercial are separated by a line that can remain stable, or if you think this division no longer applies today?
😎 In my view, I’ve always tried to combine the two aspects. Most designers see a contradiction between their language and the expression of commercial aspects. I try from the outset to make sure there’s no such conflict, and that the two aspects work together and advance at the same pace. This determination of mine explains why I’ve made so many products that have been hugely successful top sellers. The public has always been at the centre of my work. I've always worked to trial products, in order to understand what they actually were: not the appeal I had in my head, but what they were saying to the public.
🤔 Even in what they say, it always comes back to the person, the individual. To the consumer, since we’re talking about goods.
😎 Yes, because that’s what really interests me. The concept of goods is a cynical one, and the fact that I design a rabbit or another appealing object, that winks an eye at the consumer, is something that really winds up the self-righteous Good Designers. When my first family of products for Alessi came out - which turned out to be enormously successful - the entire design world, all the holier-than-thou minimalists raised their hackles that Alessi should do such a thing. But they didn't realise that these items were more forward-looking than they thought.
🤔 So were you and Alessi creating, or listening?
😎 Both. But the public buying the products - and this should be clearly stated - is the best endorsement. The world of consumerism has become highly differentiated, which means there’s room for everyone. It’s implicit in an advanced society that there should be so many faces, so many languages, and that identities can be found in a wide spectrum of possibilities. What’s the point of everyone dressing like a monk and tearing things down for the sake of those who have least? This a concept that’s slightly ridiculous nowadays, it’s an anachronism in the consumer world, the world we all need in order to survive in this ever-changing society.
Giovannoni’s house is pleasantly quiet. The window next to the long table where we’re sitting looks onto an indoor courtyard: wooden decking and walls covered in flowering jasmine, a Rabbit Chair in the centre. The busy Qeeboo offices are on the floor below. Upstairs, on the roof terrace, my colleagues are doing a photoshoot with the new products: Killer the shark umbrella stand and Kong the gorilla lamp. Perhaps I now know the answer (or the question) that’s closest to his heart: what’s the point of design if it doesn’t communicate?
🤔 Kong, the great gorilla. Why?
😎 Before Kong, I was always a little wary of working between an object’s function and its identity. I’d never have dared to make the Moooi horse with the lamp on its head, as Front did - and they’re part of Qeeboo. I’d buy it, but as a design it was a bit too simple, right on the border with the world of gadgets. Conceptually, it’s a slightly weak operation.
🤔 So the difference lies in bringing two things together and creating a third? If there’s no synthesis, there’s no novelty?
😎 Today I’ll do a cat, tomorrow a rabbit, the day after a pig.
🤔 Meanwhile, in your work there’s a rabbit, then a chair, and finally a third thing: the Rabbit Chair.
😎 Exactly: my piece isn’t a sculpture of a rabbit, it’s a rabbit-chair. Maybe I went a bit further with the gorilla; the torch is an extension of the gorilla’s body and it gives the product a functional purpose. In any case, there's a fairly sophisticated interaction with the identity of the object. And even if most of the public don't get that, for a designer it's really important.
🤔 Maybe with the internet and direct contact between designer and consumer, some of all this might be communicated. I’d like to ask you what you think of design on internet, but I also want to ask you what design was like before internet.
😎 Design before internet….yesterday I went to a lecture by Roberto D’Agostino at the Triennale, and afterwards we came here with him and some other friends. All evening the conversation revolved around the new communication mediums, and I was thinking about the possibilities offered by the internet for Qeeboo. On the one hand the internet is extreme transparency: it’s a means of seeing the world and finding what you’re looking for. On the other hand, there are so many obstacles: there’s a viscosity in the system, an entropy, which renders the transparency opaque. If in some ways we live in a society that contains all the elements to let us intuit this projection into the future and into transparency, in other ways the present remains sticky and opaque.
🤔 And where’s the greatest resistance to be found?
😎 We’re still a very long way from the flat, transparent world described by Thomas Friedman. In order to gain visibility, firms have to take part in the design sector fairs, which involves a huge outlay of energy. This year, Qeeboo has appeared in two venues at the Salone del Mobile, not to mention other minor sites around the city. Then there’s Maison Objet. Then Shanghai. But we have to go beyond all that. It doesn’t match up with the logic of the internet’s ubiquity and transparency as a medium. To be honest, fairs are obsolete, a thing of the past.
🤔 Whose fault is that?
😎 The way firms that operate online - even e-commerce sites - act in relation to both producers and consumers is the same as their way of operating in retail, with identical multipliers, and the only difference is that instead of displaying the product, often all they do is show a picture of it. As yet there isn’t a new system yet. The internet opens the possibility of creating something completely different, but firms are based on the old retail system and their websites are still operating as shops. The possibility of doing things differently doesn’t yet exist, not even for e-commerce sites, because the great majority of the system is still functioning according to the same old logic. If we could manage to reduce prices without insulting consumers with ridiculously discounted flash sales, prices could realistically fall substantially. Instead there’s a kind of hypocrisy: capture the consumer and, when the firm needs to, offer them the mirage of a 50% discount. It’s a backwards way of doing things. It's nothing new.
🤔 We have to create alternative ways of discovering and communicating?
😎 From a certain point of view, the internet represents the great revolution of recent decades, just as the printing press once was, and, later on, television. Technology creates prerequisites in the story of mankind that force innovation to leap forward: it's a question of small steps. Then there’s a whole system that has to be adjusted and dismantled. It’s not an immediate process, it takes time.
🤔 So in your view, the complexity of the real world has been dragged into the online world, and now we need to get rid of this complexity in order to effectively move forward?
😎 Traditional firms and their connected and annexed system often curl up into a ball and create a protective barrier to hold onto what already exists, while with the internet there's the possibility of a shift in scale, in dimension, which in a more transparent world would make access easier for startups like Qeeboo. But I’m an optimist, change is on the way!