Cesare Griffa, A conversation with Giovanni Cutolo
Sant Cebrià de Vallata, 26th July, 2019
Giovanni Cutolo is the author of a book on industrial design entitled L’edonista virtuoso – Creatività mercantile e Progetto di consumo (The Virtuous Hedonist – Mercantile Creativity and Consumption Design), published in the 1980s. The Virtuous Hedonist is a curious book, certainly as much so as its author, Giovanni—an eclectic, an economist, a salesman, businessman, self-taught philosopher, translator, street urchin in 1950s Naples, clandestine revolutionary in 1960s Brazil, and hedonist on the Milanese design scene in the 1980s. Giovanni turns eighty this coming Christmas, and lives in his beloved Catalonia.
I first met Giovanni about ten years ago in connection with an urban installation he was curating for Santa & Cole in Turin. What struck me most about him was his amazing verve. We have been friends ever since, and I thought it would be interesting to map out his book as though it were a tourist guidebook to an archipelago of thought.
So on 26th July, 2019, I paid him a visit at his home in Sant Cebrià de Vallata, located between Barcelona and Figuera, to record an interview. Wandering across the map of the Archipelago of the Virtuous Hedonist, our journey took us into a dimension exploring the meaning of life and the world, the relationship that lies in the folds of the human soul, ways of being human, and planet Earth. While we were at it, we also discussed design. And the future. What emerges is a levity that may not always be tenable at times, but which is full of promise for a pleasant world.
PART 1: HUMAN SOLIDITY
CG: There are three islands on this map. One is the Isle of Hedonism, another is the Isle of Virtue, and the third is the Isle of Design. The islands are connected by three bridges. Hedonism and Virtue are spanned by the Bridge of Wisdom, Virtue and Design by the Bridge of the Planet, Hedonism and Design by the Bridge of Aesthetics. A bay of tranquillity lies placidly in the middle of the three islands. Beyond them rage oceans too frightful for us to approach—the Ocean of Boredom, the Ocean of Recklessness, and the Ocean of Ignorance. Let’s start from the Isle of Hedonism. Here, the main town is Pleasure City, the place of gratification. What is the greatest hedonistic gratification shaping the virtuous hedonist that you theorize?
GC: The permanence of pleasure. Pleasure is a quest that gives life meaning, but ideally you want to be in a permanent state of pleasure. In having drawn up this map, I can only assume that you must have read the Virtuous Hedonist. Naturally, I appreciate that, but it’s curious that you should have read it so well, because what you have drawn out of it graphically is really very good. I mean, there’s almost more in your map than what there is in the book. Which only strengthens my belief that in any virtuous cycle, just like design is, any creativity in it will become a product, which will then be distributed, and then ultimately consumed. The creativity lies as much in who creates the design, triggering the process and producing the initial project with intelligence, as in who distributes it and who consumes it. An intelligent consumer will consume any sort of product in a creative way. So that means you’re entitled to do what you’re doing because as a reader of the Virtuous Hedonist you have read it in a creative way, going so far as to give a graphic representation of the thoughts that I presumptuously sought to convey. You have enhanced the value of the creator, of the designer of the book, which is me.
CG: So in this case, I’m exactly the sort of consumer that you theorize in your book. But let’s speak of pleasure. Of pleasure as a thing that doesn’t necessarily come from knowledge, but which is strongly rooted in the present. It makes me think of Ecclesiastes, the book of the Old Testament, in which the only true denominator is time. The only thing anyone really can do is think in the present. Pleasure is in the present. But pleasure can lie both in consumption and in the project, that is in the future. Then there’s also the past, but the past is part of the present.
GC: Life is all in the present. As Heidegger says, the past has been, and so it is. Before being a “has been,” it “is.” The only past there is is what is, which isn’t the whole past because we forget a lot of it. What survives in us in the present survives because it is. The future is another story. Look, I’ve always believed—and what I have read confirms this intuition of mine—that pleasure is something natural. That pleasure is first and foremost a right. Around 400 years before Christ, Aristippus of Cyrene was an adversary of Plato’s. Plato set sail and was shipwrecked once or twice in his attempt to track down Aristippus, who was in Syracuse to sell his philosophical services to the local tyrant there, who paid much better than the Athenians did. Aristippus of Cyrene preached pleasure as the fundamental goal of life, but his idea of pleasure wasn’t how the Church would later present it, for obvious reasons, as the debauchery of a never-ending orgy, but pleasure for yourself and for others. When pleasure is for yourself, when it is egoistic, it has its own ethic and is concerned with not harming others. Pleasure is not about reducing harm, as Epicurus held. Epicureanism teaches that the greatest pleasure is obtained by eliminating displeasure, that is, harm, which is the zero point. But pleasure comes in peaks. I’ve always thought that pleasure can’t be a constant platform. For pleasure to be enjoyed as pleasure, it’s like happiness—it is not like a state, it has its moments, its peaks. And just like in any cardiogram, you’re alive because you have peaks. If it were constant, you would probably be sick. I don’t know where I learned it. I think I’ve just always had a natural attraction to pleasure.
CG: The relationship between egoism and altruism strikes me as interesting.
GC: I speak of an ethical egoism, in the sense that egotistic egoism is when someone only thinks of himself. We all know that’s reprehensible. And not just because it’s contrary to the dictates of religion, but because it’s annoying—when there’s an egotist in the family, it’s embarrassing. But I believe that egoism can be ethical and that it’s necessary, in the sense that I can help my children only if I have helped myself first. If I’m not egoistic enough to make myself into a strong, healthy person, then my altruism has little chance of succeeding because I’ll be too fragile. I won’t be strong enough. Egoism can and should be ethical. For being to be complete, it has to encompass the other. Each and every one of us has to shape himself as an individual being, but there comes a time when you consciously have to join with the collectivity, not like a child in relation to his parents, but to join with the other, with all that is external to you. The task of a lifetime is to build a person, and then from a certain point on to build a system of relationships between that person and the world that surrounds him, others. I’m not sure what’s harder, or what’s more problematic: finding an answer to the dictate “know thyself” or, once you have built and know yourself thoroughly, addressing the problem of interacting with others peacefully. As goals, they’re not unreachable, but once you reach them, they’re hard to maintain, because it’s hard to always be yourself in a balanced way. If you manage to, then you discover that you’re slipping, that you’ve lost ground. But it’s also hard to maintain a peaceful, serene relationship with others in the world around you. You can manage to at times, but then at a certain point you realize the mechanism isn’t working any more.
CG: It’s a bit like the story of the oxygen masks on aeroplanes—first the parents and adults have to put them on, then the children. If the adult is safe, the child will be safe, but not necessarily vice versa. In other words, you have to be solid first, before you can help others. In today’s world, especially in Western culture, there’s an overriding concern for the outside world, for the planet in particular. A new awareness is taking hold that we have to act responsibly, ethically, and in a certain sense altruistically. But there’s also a world out there that is more Confucian than the other, where the emphasis is on the self, something that we tend to forget about in the Western world, giving us all the insecurities typical of American teenagers, but not only. I find your concept of hedonism interesting. To know ourselves and understand what is good for us in the present, and then later, when we get to the Isle of Design, we can develop that in the future, looking forward. A hedonistic person like that seems a pretty solid person to me, in the end.
GC: Maybe, yeah. I know this isn’t a straight answer, but I think the diversity that has marked the development of the Easterns with respect to the Westerns goes back to the time of, or perhaps a bit earlier than, Aristippus of Cyrene and the pre-Socratics. It’s no coincidence that the psychoanalyst, which is an important figure, just like Freud was important, emerged in the West. Freud was Austrian and psychoanalysis is unthinkable in Asia or in Africa. Freud could never have been born in Asia or Africa. And why could the psychoanalyst never have emerged in Asia or Africa? Precisely because written on the temple of Delphi, in an era dated I believe between 700 and 800 before Christ, was gnōthi seautón, or know thyself. It was the first instruction given by the deity to the people who came to visit her. You have a task, which is to know yourself. Curiously, that admonition, which came and emerged in the West, in that corner of Europe which was Classical Greece, would travel and establish itself firmly in the East, where it became a foundational element of Eastern culture, founded on the knowledge of one’s self. The Easterns meditate on who they are and through the search and understanding of the self find their strength. That principle would spread and be developed by Confucius, Buddha, and so on. Whereas instead, the Westerns, the inhabitants of the West where the temple of Delphi stood, instead of focusing on the “self,” were distracted and preoccupied by other things. Instead of concerning themselves with knowledge of the self, they focused on everything that is knowledge of what is “outside the self.” In other words, they concerned themselves with nature, with the external world, with others. The results of such a divarication were, until recently, quite evident. To sort out the problems they had with themselves, the Westerns had to invent psychoanalysis to get help from a psychoanalyst. The Easterns instead don’t need psychoanalysis because they analyse themselves, shaping themselves through their own self-analysis. The Westerns, in concerning themselves with everything that is not the self, but outside the self, went on to build a world that, until fifty years ago, was completely different to the Eastern world.
What’s happening now is something that, under many aspects, can be considered catastrophic, and that is the unification of those two worlds, of the West and East. That unification is happening under the sign of technology—a Western sign, and one that implies a paradox that sees the great tradition of Eastern thought seduced and charmed, drawn to a world as flawed as our own to learn how to build a washing machine, how to build a mobile phone. The East appears to be yielding to a world that has neglected and forgotten how to build people and that, in an attempt to rebuild them, has to go to a repairer of people called a psychoanalyst. The Westerns are a broken people, but while they were breaking they accomplished a great many things, causing a great many problems in the meantime. Because doing all those things led to the development of technology and so, among countless other things, the invention of plastic and the lethal refinement of weapons, which today are a source of great concern.
PART 2: FREEDOM AND TRUTH
CG: Before moving onto the next island, which is the Isle of Virtue, there’s still another question, which is that of truth, which I would like to look at in contrast with virtue. Virtue has to do with responsibility. It could be argued that, as a concept, virtue came about some ten thousand years ago with the agricultural revolution, when humans abandoned the freedom of their hunter-gatherer ways to become farmers. Perhaps Adam and Eve were hunter-gatherers in a free world, where conquest was unnecessary, if not that of the hedonistic gratification that comes not just from pleasures, but from the daily needs of the single person or a small core of people. The moment humans became farmers is when all the problems began, all the responsibilities, the state, the government, and freedom ended. Would you agree to put it in these terms?
GC: I’m not sure. In the book that lies behind this graphic illustration of yours, namely the Virtuous Hedonist, which I wrote over the summer in 1988 and published in 1989, the hedonist is virtuous. But then, how can you be a hedonist if you’re not virtuous? Ça va sans dire. Anyone who isn’t virtuous can’t be a hedonist. But my hedonist is “virtuoso” in the dual sense of the original Italian word, a dual meaning that the word lacks in other languages. A “virtuoso” in Italian can be someone like Paganini, but also someone like Saint Francis. Paganini is “virtuoso” for his diabolical virtuosity with the violin, whereas Saint Francis is “virtuoso” for the virtuousness of his actions. The attempt to translate the book resulted in L’Édoniste virtuoso et vértueux, because in French Paganini is virtuoso, whereas Saint Francis is vertueux. Same thing in English. The ambiguity of the word “virtuoso” in Italian, which I really love, perfectly captures the kind of hedonism I’m talking about. A hedonism that is shown in virtuosity and in virtuousness—the technical virtuosity of playing the violin and the ethical virtuousness of behaving impeccably. Someone who brings together ethical values and aesthetic values is someone who walks on air, accompanied by fantastically virtuous/virtuoso people like himself.
CG: You play with these double meanings, and that’s one of the reasons why the argument is so rich and full of inspiration. I associated “virtuoso” with the virtuousness of Saint Francis, but also virtue in a technical sense. The virtue of the violinist lies in the disposition that guides him, but also in the fact that he has studied at length. The idea is that the sense of responsibility that leads to knowledge contrasts with the concept of freedom. That famous concept of freedom that the Western world espouses so emphatically is in certain ways a thing of the past.
GC: Freedom doesn’t exist. Freedom is one of those Western words like soul or free will. They’re all things that don’t exist. They’re constructions that belong to the Real, which is imaginary and theoretical, but not to Reality, which is concrete and practical. We’re the only mammal that thinks of itself, of what lies outside itself, and of thought itself. All that thinking is built on words. And words, as Wittgenstein dramatically explained, are the source of all that is “human”—of all our equivocations and all our misunderstandings. Words live on a slippery slope. Living with words is like jumping on a toboggan and sliding downhill. That’s life. Because words are what distinguish us as humans, for better and for worse. I mean, cows don’t go and see psychoanalysts, and one of the reasons why they don’t is probably because they don’t use words. They’re immersed in instinct and have no words—what a fantastic life! They don’t have time. The fact is that words are traitorous in themselves. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger were two great philologists who founded and built much of their thought on philology. Heidegger, for instance, dwells in particular on two words: the word time and the word truth. In relation to truth, he notes that the Greek word for truth, “alítheia,” is not about truth but about falsehood. “A-lítheia” begins with the prefix alpha for negation. Truth doesn’t exist in Greek, there’s only non-falsehood. Is that a truth? I’m not so sure, at most it is a non-falsehood, which casts a rather sinister shadow over the existence of truth. What’s sure is only that falsehoods exist—and that’s true, falsehoods certainly do exist. So there is a word for falsehood but not one for truth, which means that if I ask you if that’s a truth, you can only reply by saying that it isn’t a falsehood. There is no word to tell me that it’s a truth.
Another key word is “time,” but we generally understand it in a chronological sense, because for the last two hundred and fifty years, ever since the Industrial Revolution, our time has been chronological time. But in Greece they had four words to say time. The strongest was “chronos,” but then there were another three to denote other dimensions of time. All this here, like the word freedom, goes to show the ambiguity of words. I think it was Nietzsche who said that facts don’t exist, only interpretations exist. We state facts with words and words give an interpretation to facts. What remains are interpretations, not facts. Even for the people who experienced those facts, because they were there on the battlefield, all that remains are interpretations. I’ve never stood on a battlefield, but I once went to see the Formula 1 Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in England, for instance. To work out who won I had to go home and turn on the television. Because I was there where the facts happened, but it was too damn complicated to understand the facts, in part because of where I was standing, in part because of the deafening noise of the engines, and in part for the incredible crowd. With each lap that went by I had no idea who was one lap behind and who was one lap ahead. Conclusion: being present at the fact doesn’t guarantee knowledge of the truth of the facts. It makes me think of Akiro Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon, where a fact is related through the accounts given of it by five or six people who all saw the same fact, but their accounts are all very different. That’s what truth is.
For me, truth is a human construction, just like lots of other human constructions that enrich what can be called the Real. It’s different to Reality, which is made up of this table, this curtain, the machine you’re using to film me, and all the things that we can touch and which constitute the reality in which we live. That is until we start thinking, and by starting to think we start to imagine, and we imagine things that then take on value, even if they don’t have any physical tangibility or substance. There’s a moment in which our perception of reality mixes with all that is real, the imaginary, made up of things we can’t necessarily touch or see. Such as religion, or joint-stock companies, or all those things that humans have imagined and which, paradoxically, then become more important than the things that reality presents us with when we come into the world. The difference between reality and the real is something Lacan plays on. We effectively live in a world made up of reality and of things that are real but not reality. That is, I’m all the things that I see, know, and touch, but I’m also all of my imagination, all the images I have constructed, all my thoughts. The two things come together as one and it’s then hard to separate them. In short, reality isn’t necessarily made up of just three-dimensional things. It’s also made up of things that aren’t three-dimensional, things that can’t be touched and have no weight.
PART 3: THE FOUR-LEAF CLOVER OF DESIGN
CG: Virtuous knowledge, which then becomes an inherent characteristic of design, can be made up, as you say, of a material part and an immaterial part. A tangible part and an imagistic part, which mutually enrich each other, where one without the other takes you nowhere. The knowledge needed for virtuosity is a knowledge that is very practical, pragmatic, and realistic on the one hand, but on the other it is also speculative knowledge. Together they form a whole. If there’s only speculative knowledge, the reasoning might well be interesting, but it will be abstract, having no contact with reality. Vice versa, if there’s only the pragmatic component, the risk is that of being overwhelmed by the weight of the quotidian. Putting these two things together gives us the figure of the virtuous consumer, one who is interested in objects, things, processes, and systems that have that same characteristic of being in part material and in part immaterial. Or highly imagistic, at any rate.
GC: I started working in industrial design without thinking about it. I was looking to sell, because I’d become sales director at Artemide and so the problem for me was to sell more products. I had no knowledge of design or markets, or anything. I knew loads of things that apparently served no purpose at all if not to reflect and amuse oneself with ideas—the works of poets, tomes of great futility, of sheer abstractness. I sought to use them because they helped me deal in a way with the concrete necessities I was faced with, which fundamentally were to raise sales and earn a bit more off each piece sold. Searching randomly among the books that could help me, I came across and read Renato de Fusco’s Storia del Design (History of Design), a book from 1985. I started working in industrial design in 1972. Fifteen years had passed between 1972 and 1987, when I read De Fusco’s book, fifteen years of feeling my way forward by intuition. And I was lucky. The non-speculative but practical part of me in the world of industrial design had developed almost entirely around high-quality, high-value products that were really strong, strong enough to shape the entire process. I could have started out in a big manufacturer of industrial lighting, where matters of design and aesthetic appeal don’t count. Instead I wound up in Artemide. What’s more, the first thing I found myself tasked with was to launch a lamp called “Tizio,” a quintessential object for what we are talking about. So then I developed a practice that then proved quite decent in the world of industrial design, working in several companies. Then I set up my own business and continued dealing with the premium sector by choice, choosing always to engage with high quality products.
Then I read De Fusco’s History of Design. His history of design is important—it certainly was for me—not so much because it tells the story of industrial design well, but because to do so, De Fusco came up with what he calls a “historiographical device,” which is the four-leaf clover. And this a nice story because then, with De Fusco’s permission, I completed the four-leaf clover by adding something to it. The four-leaf clover is the fundamental assumption that De Fusco makes to analyse the history of industrial design. In short, it explains how and why we can talk about a complete phenomenon, given that design is just one of the many phenomena that make up the world. The phenomenon of design encompasses four stages: creativity, which is the work of the designer; production, where the work of the designer is transformed into an object; distribution, which is the systematic organization for the marketing and sale of the producer’s work; and consumption, which for De Fusco, initially at least, was a passive end-point, the mere reception of what the designer creates, what the manufacturer (or editor) produces, and what the distributor, merchant, communicator or whoever enables to be gobbled up.
In 1989 I sent my manuscript to De Fusco. He read it and replied to me, saying, “Well done Cutolo, this is an interesting book. But, if I may say so, you have to understand that people don’t have all that much attention to give when they read. They have other things to do, like answering the phone or their wife when she calls out to them. There are too many concepts in your book, too many ideas all put together—people are not so attentive when they read. What is more, it is a waste—if I had had all those ideas that you explain in your book, for instance, I would have written three, four or even five books! Because when you have an idea, you write a book, and then when you have another idea, you write another one. Thin it out, thin it out.” And I replied, “Professor, what am I meant to thin out? I wrote this book on a Saturday, Sunday, and overnight, taking advantage of the summer holidays to stay at home and write instead of going swimming every day. I’m busy, I have other things to do, and my work in industrial design is not that of a professor’s. So no, I can’t thin it out. I had things to say and I have said them.” In any case, he wrote me a magnificent preface, but stating one fundamental reserve: “Cutolo holds that in truly complete industrial design, there must be creative quality in who creates, but also in who produces, who cannot simply reproduce the project, but must cooperate and produce it well. And then also in who distributes, who is required to market the product creatively, by analogy, because if the product is creative at its origin, it must be creative in its production and distribution. And even who consumes has to have a form of creativity, he has to take the thing and then use it creatively, without constraint.” In the first preface to the book, De Fusco speaks of hypostasis and substantially says that it’s unacceptable that a consumer can “create” consumption by consuming. The consumer just consumes.
Twenty years later, the book was reprinted by a new publisher and so I asked De Fusco for a second preface to the new edition. Surprisingly, he wrote a preface that began by saying, I quote from memory, “What with one thing and another, twenty years have gone by and it has taken me twenty years to realize that Cutolo was right.” And so he accepted that consumption can have some form of creativity to it. Further on, he also accepted my proposal that his four-leaf clover—a sort of aerial image where you don’t understand what it rests on—should be furnished, like all four-leaf clovers, with a stem. I believe that the stem can serve to represent design education—which doesn’t just come from schools, but from formative experience. Rooted in the earth, which contains creativity, the stem transmits that creativity to the four little leaves—the “designer,” the “producer,” the “distributor,” and the “consumer”—all of which are imbued with some sort of creativity by the stem, which is education. De Fusco ultimately accepted this deformation or completion of his four-leaf clover.
PART 4: GAMBLING ON THE FUTURE
CG: We have crossed the bridge, or perhaps taken a ship, from the Isle of Virtue to the Isle of Design, and we are landing now in the Socio-Political City.
GC: There’s an Isle of Hedonism and by crossing the Bridge of Wisdom you come to the Isle of Virtue. On the isle of Hedonism there are the Mountains of the Present, the Forest of Egoism, the Valley of Freedom, Pleasure City, and the Ethical Plains. Then, crossing the bridge you come to the Isle of Virtue, with its Fields of Moderation, Mountains of Imagination, Knowledge City, the Valley of Hidden Things, the Desert of Wisdom, and the Lake of Morality. Then, across the Bridge of the Environment…
CG: I’d say more the Bridge of the Surrounds, because Environment always this connotation of sustainability, which is reductive though. The word Surrounds denotes the planet, of course, but also the cultural framework.
GC: Okay, we’ve sped through it a bit… This island here is surrounded by the Sea of Temperance, the Sea of Prudence…
GC: The canonical four virtues.
GC: The Jesuitical virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. Prudence is, of course, extremely important. Then from the Isle of Virtue we skipped over to the Isle of Design.
CG: Where on one shore we have the four leaves you speak of: design, production, distribution, and consumption. One the other there are a series of landmarks that are of a socio-political nature, for instance. Or they can be economic. Or again, they can be tied to research and development, which in other words means the future. There are constraints, limitations. There are lots of things that relate perhaps to that famous stem you speak of. De Fusco’s petals are all moments and characters, the actors in this play. While these other factors are the input feeding those actors. Another intrinsic aspect of the word project is that it propels us into the future. Before we spoke of the present. Now let’s talk about the future. It brings to mind a discussion I had some time ago with a researcher from Volkswagen’s foresighting group, who told me that the problem that pretty much all car makers face is that from the time when a vehicle is first conceived to when it finally arrives on the market, on average it takes between five and seven years. And that’s a problem for the designer. Designers can’t design vehicles for the consumers of today, they have to imagine how things will be in five, seven, or ten years’ time. So we need to talk about the future. We have crossed the Bridge of the Planet, with the environment on one side and culture on the other. Nobody can peer into the mythical crystal ball, nobody can know for sure how things effectively will be, but it’s necessary to accept the challenge of understanding what may come. In your view, can the present encapsulate a bit of the future?
GC: The present is future. Just like it encapsulates the past, the present encapsulates the future. What will come “to be” can only come from what “is.” What “has been” “was” in the past and hence “is” in the present. What will be has its origin in what is, not in what is not in the present. So everything unfolds in the present. The problem is that design, at this point, strikes me as though it were too ambitious. Perhaps it is. There’s a world of design that, when I made my entrance on the scene, was all about making objects. I entered design not through the back door, but by what is depicted as the main door, that of furniture design. Design, in its highest acceptation, goes well beyond furniture. But I think it’s worth stressing how furniture design has been a powerful vector in spreading design as an ideology and as a methodology, because furniture is something that concerns virtually all peoples. There are problems, of course, when we take our furniture product to Japan, because the Japanese already have everything designed for their houses. But in other parts of the world, industrial design has come to be known thanks to furniture. Furniture has been a major driver for industrial design thanks to its capacity for dissemination and promotion, superseded only recently by telephone technology and computers. Steve Jobs, that Leonardo da Vinci of modernity, was maniacal in giving form to objects, those that Apple manufactures and sells, and which are the best expression yet of industrial design in three-dimensional objects.
Industrial design has even expanded into the design of what is not three-dimensional, what is intangible. One recent revolution in design—not the latest as such, but recent—has been that of applying industrial design to intangible things. Because the real value lies in design, not in the material, the richness of the material, to which design is applied. So design has taken on transformational value, because it gives form to materials and a valency that is aesthetically relevant at the same time. I turn them into objects that don’t just function, but which function and are also aesthetically appealing. From there you move to an industrial design that doesn’t make objects, but which becomes pure “methodology” in designing something that can be a service, an event, a concept—something that has no material in it.
CG: In that case there, then, the famous educated consumer that you talk about uses the design process as a tool to exercise his creativity as a consumer and in so doing obtain a final product.
GC: I know it’s a bit of a rhetorical exercise, but what I hope to see is a design sphere where you have consumers who, by rejecting on the one hand what is presented to them, and expressing what they want on the other, help distributors understand what they are having trouble selling and listen to what their customers are asking for. Distributors, in turn, can then pass all that on to producers, who can then talk to their key designers and encourage them to produce what is requested from the bottom up.
Turning back to the future, our relationship with the future is naturally subject to being proven wrong with time. In the sense that the future, when it becomes present, can make us realize that what we thought was wrong, or maybe it was right but just never turned out. Because there’s a tendency to judge as right what the majority considers to be right—what Luciano Canfora calls the “canker of the majority” in democracy. Things all become shaky here because the Bay of Justice was placed on the Isle of Virtue. But if what is just becomes just and legitimate because laws legitimize justice or because the majority believes it to be just, then the idea of truth collapses, because what is just can no longer be true.
The problems encountered by Heidegger are well-known in this regard. Born in 1889, as a brilliant young professor he was given his chair in 1927 in a Nazi Germany that had yet to witness the events of Kristallnacht, so the, let’s say, more progressive part of Nazism had not yet emerged. In that context, he was elected (in 1933) Rector of Freiburg University. Heidegger accepted and gave an inaugural speech in which he invited young people to follow the Fuhrer. Eight months later—after Kristallnacht, after he stopped making any personal references to Nazism, and after the collapse of what may be assumed the least toxic aspect of Nazism, leaving behind the pure hard-line Nazism that would lead to the outcomes we all know—Heidegger resigned from the University, risking his career by doing so as the Nazis didn’t take it all that well. Then the war ended and the Allies didn’t take it all that well either, barring him from university teaching, though he would later be accepted back into the fold. In 1963, Heidegger gave an interview to the weekly Der Spiegel, with the proviso that the article should be published only after his death. And in fact, Der Spiegel published the interview in 1976 (when Heidegger died) under the title “Only a God Can Save Us,” in which he explained his position. He states that in the end it proved to be a mistake, but that it would never have been a mistake if the Nazis had won. However, seeing that the Allies won, it proved to be a mistake. He was wrong, and he explains why he was wrong.
Heidegger relates that in his formative years, Germany, which had lost the war in 1918 and under the Weimar Republic had known famine and disorder, as of the nomination of Hitler first as prime minister and then as Fuhrer, without a coup d’état but by democratically winning the elections with the Nazi party, in just five years was transformed and put back on the march. Economic solutions were found to all the problems that had not been resolved in the ten years following the end of the war. He lived in that world in which Hitler had got Germany back on its feet not only economically, but by giving every German a new purpose, a future that seemed radiant, a prosperity that was perceptible, he relaunched education, etc. In short, it was a time of great flourishing for the country and for Nazism. And alongside Nazism, two other models were flourishing. One was a system he found horrifying, that of Stalinism, of Russian Sovietism, which didn’t strike him as something desirable for the world. It meant the loss of a series of attributes of humanity, of the individual, to the benefit of a collectivity organized for God knows what purpose. The other was instead a world in which everything appeared to be done to exalt individuality, the advantage of being free. An apparent freedom that brought the washing machine and television set, but in a world that lacked any form of culture and thought. A world that seemed to bring humans to their knees before productivity. Faced with those two models, the miracle of Nazism, which had got the country back on its feet in five years, led him to believe that it was the path forward. Or in any case, that it was a better path than the other two, convincing him to take a gamble on it. And, after all, he was German. But after eight months he realized he had been deluded and he took a step back. At that point, nobody could save us.
The problem is that to design a project, to pro-ject your future is extremely difficult, even for someone like Martin Heidegger, who was hardly a nobody, to the point that even he got the project for his own future wrong. He laid his bet on the wrong horse. And you can’t just say that at the time it looked like the most promising horse in the line up. Heidegger almost lost his mind, and certainly fell into depression, also because of his mammoth, decades long work on Nietzsche. Nietzsche was the author of a book that struck me greatly in my teenage years, called Ecce Homo, but the real title is given by the subtitle: “How One Becomes What One Is.” Even Heidegger “became” himself. The Heidegger of 1933 was not the same Heidegger of 1945, 1960 or 1975. When he died, he “became” another. And he became another thanks to the fact that he had lived through phases of the present that covered the entire time of what he had experienced as the future, and when you survive your future, by living it, and find yourself in a new present, you discover that the world has changed but also that you have changed as a person. So now, if we put all of this complexity back into his fundamental work from 1928 entitled “Being and Time,” design is a “being” that has to reckon with the becoming of time.
PART 5: A PLEASANT WORLD
GC: I started working hands on with industrial design in 1971, but I consciously discovered what the word “design” was in 1965, when I found myself grappling with a book that was way too complicated for me, which was Opera Aperta (Open Text), a work on semiotics by Umberto Eco. I read it and, naturally, understood what a building surveyor by trade could understand of it, as although I later graduated in economics, I had no classical education. Nevertheless, I came across a passage in which Eco writes, “only design can save us” from the problem—a significant one at the time—of alienation. Now, remember that there are two types of alienation: one that’s structural and another that’s contingent. Structural alienation is inherent to humans. When a woman gives birth, she “alienates” herself from what she bore in her womb. When someone makes a movie, paints a picture, or writes a book, he alienates himself from the time he spent on the task that is transformed into the work that stands there in front of him, which contains his time but is no longer his. That sort of alienation can’t be eliminated. You’re stuck with it, you become conscious of it, and you know you have to live with it. Then there’s another kind of alienation, inherent to industry. Industrial manufacturing unveiled to us a new sort of alienation, which is that of human production—the production of humans in factories, who make but don’t know what they are making, what its purpose is, how it’s used or who will use it. Eco says that this second sort of alienation could perhaps be resolved by Marxism and by a new organization of society. Certainly, though, there’s a world out there made up of things produced by us but which aren’t pleasant, which risks becoming a world full of unpleasant things and hence an unpleasant world. And that’s where he steps in with something that changed my life. Eco says, “perhaps industrial design could resolve this problem,” which is this world made up of objects alienated from us but produced by us, ungainly like the typewriter he was writing on, hard with sharp edges, or like a whisk, which could be a bit more pleasant.
The first thought I had was that a luminous object, which as a luminous object we call a lamp and which functions as a lamp when it’s switched on, if it’s well made will work properly and give a good light. But when that object we call a lamp is switched off, it’s a bit far-fetched to call it a lamp. It’s an object that gives no light and so it’s not a lamp. It’s an object that spends three-quarters of its life switched off and only one-quarter as a lamp. So, it serves its function for only a quarter of its life. For the other three-quarters, and perhaps also the one-quarter it’s switched on, it’s either ugly or appealing. If it’s ugly, it’ll be yet another ugly thing around me; if it’s appealing, then it’ll be appealing even when it’s switched off. So it has a second function that betrays it’s true function, seeing that we call it a lamp. That was a knot I really got stuck into and thought about over and over for the three or four years I stayed in Brazil, which led me to translate Eco’s Opera Aperta in Brazilian—to understand it better, because the best way to read a book is to translate it into another language. Understanding is itself a translation of a book into your own language.
So I ruminated on it for four or five years until I then arrived back in Milan, ending my exotic adventure abroad. There I worked for a pharmaceuticals company where I had got ahead with my career and if I earned 100, let’s say, I had accepted to work for 40 in Milan (I was already married with a child) for a design company. Because it just seemed a dream come true to be able to deal not with the things I dealt with then—suppositories, pills, freeze-dried phials and so on—but with appealing things. And I was lucky as all hell at the start to see myself given a lamp like Richard Sapper’s “Tizio” and be told “well, we need to sell it.” A lamp that for years just didn’t sell—they were selling about a thousand pieces a year around the world, including all the 58 international branches. Then, at a certain point, sales rose to 50 or 60 thousand pieces, which is huge for a lamp. “Tizio” turned into a sort of business within the business as consumers slowly, over the slowness of the years, began to appreciate the explosive charge of innovation contained in that lamp. Innovation that was material, formal, and technological—there were thousands of surprises in that lamp. It would go on to become not just the progenitor of a whole family of lamps that reference it either explicitly or indirectly, but a symbol of Italian design.
Earlier I spoke of Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, and all that crew, but I should add how significant it is that all of them had on their desks lamps designed in Italy. In particular, when I was working at Luceplan with Riccardo Sarfatti, it turned out that Jonathan Ive had Paolo Rizzato’s “Berenice” lamp on his desk and was looking for a spare part that he couldn’t get from the American distributor, so a letter arrived one day saying that Jonathan Ive, etc. etc. Naturally, Riccardo Sarfatti’s son, Alessandro, took off with the spare part in hand to deliver it personally to Apple.
Design, like music, is a universal language. It doesn’t use words but the eye, just like music uses the ear. It’s a universal language. And it works as a universal language because it chimes with the assonance of celestial senses. People who work in industrial design all have lamps on their desks—design objects—that don’t just serve to give light. Jobs didn’t want his mobile phones and computers solely to fulfil the functions that Microsoft and others quite egregiously fulfilled. He wanted them to be things that, when not used as a PC, you could become enamoured with like a fetish, turning it over in your hand, stroking it on the table, where you couldn’t see a single screw! I mean, that’s fantastic! That aspect of industrial design is almost entirely contained in objects for my generation, but for yours it lies in intangibility, and for your children’s it will become something else altogether. My friend Carlo Forcolini was right when he’d constantly say, and me with him, that “design is a methodology, and like all methodologies it can be applied to everything.” It can even be—and perhaps for me it has been—a methodology that has helped me be who I am and live how I live.
When Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani published a chapter of the Virtuous Hedonist in Domus in 1989, he attributed an autobiographical intent to the work, saying that I was the true virtuous hedonist. That’s not true, not true at all. The true virtuous hedonist is probably my son, who retorts that I’m the one who wrote it, but he really is. Because the author of the Virtuous Hedonist had to go to the effort of writing it. He lives that way. Maybe he’s given it a quick read, but more likely he listened to me and has strived to live like a virtuous hedonist. He’s a professional in an unstable job and he’s happy with that instability; he doesn’t try to overcome his instability, but considers it a natural way of being. I don’t. I was born and looked for a stable job and found one at eighteen years of age because someone “pulled the strings” for me, which in Naples was essential, the essence of the fact itself. You couldn’t get a stable job without pulling strings.
So I had someone pull the strings for me because I wanted a stable job. And I had a stable job until, at the age of thirty-five, Gismondi asked me to take a pay cut to stay on at Artemide, as my salary was, in effect, stratospheric, much higher than my counterpart at Cassina, or at B&B or Flos. It was embarrassing. He asked and I naturally refused and found myself with the problem, the drama—no, that’s exaggerating, it wasn’t a drama—let’s say the complication of not finding anyone willing to pay me what I believed I was worth, which was what Gismondi was paying me but wanted to cut. So, finding nobody, I became my own boss and for two or three years worked without managing to earn the salary I wanted to earn. Fortunately, things then got better.
But I was a terrible businessman; I’m just hopeless at being a businessman. A businessman is someone who has virtues I just don’t have—granted that the virtues of a businessman are actually virtuous. I played at being a businessman and managed to make money, but then since I’m not much good and don’t show the respect for money that money deserves—granted that money deserves any respect—I managed to live a peaceful life and I’ve been happy with that. I’ve had the good fortune of being born poor and not managing to remain rich. I was born poor and that’s a lucky thing because it gives you that itch to move, and when I got rich, having no respect for money, I just used it and aimed for a peaceful life. I’m at peace. I hope you can see it from the photos. Eighty years and not a single wrinkle. That, they tell me, is a sign.