Q&A: David Chipperfield

We sat down with David Chipperfield at the Salone to discuss his vision for the company and his ideas about design in general.

Driade’s back. And everyone entering the Italian furniture brand’s booth at this year’s Salone del Mobile got swept up in the vibe. More energetic and coherent than in recent years, the company’s presentation felt like a fresh start after its bankruptcy in 2012. It’s the result of a financial injection of €7 million by investment company Italian Creation Group in 2013 and the appointment in September 2014 of architect David Chipperfield as creative director. We sat down with him at the Salone to discuss his vision for the company and his ideas about design in general.

You’ve been appointed creative director . . .
David Chipperfield: Yeah, whatever that might mean.

. . . for Driade. Do you know why they asked you?
Good question. The company went through a sort of generational change. Enrico [Astori] is now at the point where he believes he can’t do what he’s always done, and Driade is a very personal company. It is a brand, but one rather fabricated by Enrico’s particular taste, which is quite diverse. Then you get stark things and things that to me are on the edge of . . . [Laughs.]

. . . what design should do?
Yes. On the other hand, it’s very much based on the post-war Italian design ethos, which includes being experimental. Enrico wanted someone to help safeguard the heritage of the company, and for some reason he believed I was the only person to do that. I kept arguing that I wasn’t, but I’ve known him for a long time, and he felt that even though I’m not a furniture designer I’d understand the cultural implications.

You have a good eye, and you also have an eye for the past.
I’m interested in what things mean and in where they come from. For me, that’s the basis for going forward, as opposed to seeing everything as a blank sheet. The other question is: why did I accept the offer? That’s a bit more complicated. They were persistent, on the one hand, and Enrico’s always been very good to me. I’ve had a long relationship with Milan. I’ve had a studio here for a long time, and we’ve been involved in a lot of architectural projects in Milan, most of which never got built. You can’t wind back the clock, of course, but I do have a connection that goes back 20 years. We do a lot of interiors, such as the Valentino stores; all those designs originate here.

Working in London means one thing; working in Berlin means another; working in Milan and Shanghai yet another. You gradually learn to understand what’s good and bad about each location. Italy is super frustrating in many ways, but it’s still a cradle. It still has the greatest patrimony of art and cultural objects in the world.

Why is it so frustrating?
Because the country’s history is one thing, but its contemporary condition is another. Italy remains this sort of cultural area of design. And even of architecture. So the strange thing is that even when they don’t produce good architecture, somehow you’d still say that Italy has a cultural ownership of architecture. Domus, Casabella – they’re still the best architecture magazines. The architecture biennale in Venice is still a leading event. So even if they’re useless in the production of architecture, the culture of architecture is still Italian because of the country’s heritage – because of 2,000 years of culture.

The design world didn’t get lost in the same way. You don’t need a government permit to make a table. You need a permit to make a museum. In Italy, as soon as you get close to the administrative powers, it’s a disaster. But furniture, fashion, this whole commercial culture – as well as design, craftsmanship, people making things – the Italian mentality is unique in the world. You can find people with a cultural sensibility for making things that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a phenomenon.

Yet design is in trouble. The market is oversaturated, and we’re at the dawn of an era in which sharing is more important than ownership. Things are becoming more digital, less material. How should design respond to that?
You’re absolutely right in the sense that in my lifetime we’ve seen a shift from need to want. When I was a kid, I had a pair of black shoes, a pair of brown shoes, a pair of long trousers, a pair of short trousers and a white shirt. In 1958 we still had food rationing. Now my kids say: I need a new pair of trainers. And I say: you don’t need a new pair of trainers. You’ve seen a pair that you want.

So what is design doing? In the case of post-war and early international style, the idea was to apply design to production and use it to make objects of the greatest beauty, the lowest cost and the highest quality. And now design is there to stimulate our appetite. On the basis of ‘we don’t need anything anymore’, it’s trying to remind us that we might want something. But there is a danger that design has become a tool of consumption, to make us buy things that we actually don’t need.

To some degree this has always been true. In society we’ve always had more than we need, and we always lust after things. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we know now that we’re at some sort of tipping point. We know that we should be producing less, eating less and consuming less. But from an economic point of view, we’re being told to keep shopping, otherwise the market collapses.

We’ve got two messages coming at us at the same time. One is: buy less, buy things that last and look after them. The other is: keep buying things because it’s the basis of our consumer industry, our ideology and even our political stability. It’s very difficult to disentangle those messages.

However, I disagree with what you said about us being more digital and less material. In a funny way, we’re just as material as ever. We still have a lust for physical things. You could nearly argue that we’re even more interested in everything material, because our world has become so synthetic. I think we’ll have to rethink quality, although it’s not gone away. And the challenge that will confront us in the future is to reassess how the whole industry works with consumers.

What’s the answer for a company like Driade?
Interestingly, as we tried to regroup in the last year or so, my idea was to go back to what Driade had been. Let’s look at its history first before we go forward. Let’s look at the back catalogue. Who were the great characters? Which were the great objects? I’m fascinated by the fact that objects which seem to have a lasting quality emerge from their own autonomous ideas. I’ll give you an example: Frate, a glass table designed by Enzo Mari in 1974. It’s one of our bestselling tables. It comes in different versions, but all of them have black steel legs. [Chipperfield looks up and sees Mari walking by.] There’s the man himself. This is amazing. He’s a genius. Grumpiest man on the planet.

Mari didn’t design that table for the market. He didn’t think about what people might want. What’s happening now is that we’re having to anticipate consumption, so design is becoming consumption-friendly. Investors within furniture companies are saying: we’re not sure if this will sell. That chair by Alias sells for ₤48; we need something like that.

Within such a culture, how do you get an exceptional object that will be as good in 40 years as it was when it was conceived? How do we create the autonomous idea? It’s not that Enzo Mari didn’t want anyone to buy his table. It’s just that he didn’t address people’s taste with his design. He’d be even grumpier if nobody bought it.

We have too much stuff. When you buy a piece of furniture, you probably don’t think of replacing it in five years. You really shouldn’t want to throw furniture out, but there’s a lot of furniture that you might like to throw out after five years. I’m guilty myself.

It’s not that we should think we don’t need furniture anymore. We should just be more careful about what we produce. It’s the same with food. I prefer to have one really good tomato instead of a dozen that don’t taste like anything.

As a creative director, would you rather not brief a designer?
I haven’t had to brief anybody yet. What I did was to find a sofa [Elisa] that Enzo Mari did in 1974 and Driade never produced. There was only one copy, and it was in his living room, where he’d sat on it for 40 years. We just said: let’s redo it.

Why this particular piece?
Because I think it’s one of the freshest things I’ve seen recently.

But it looks rather . . .
Cheap. And that’s a paradox, because the sofa has a sort of deluxe freshness, which is a bit of an issue. But that’s what I’m saying in a way: why should that be an issue? If I buy a good tomato that costs four times more than a bad tomato, it marks a moment when I say: that’s the best tomato I’ve had in my life. We have to reconsider the idea of mass-producing low-quality things, when most of the time, especially in the furniture industry, it’s about leveraging value. We make something that costs ₤2 and sell it for ₤20 pounds. The problem with Mari’s sofa is that the leveraging is not quite so visible – at least it looks as if it didn’t cost very much to make. But I’m not sure whether that should be a design-related concern anymore.

Of course I will brief designers, but so far I haven’t had to. I took the Mari and Grcic pieces [the Zigzag shelving system] not necessarily for commercial reasons, but because there’s a DNA in there that I’d like to see become the DNA of Driade.

So how do you put things together that are not only about taste, but also about some sort of intelligence? The issue for Driade is that is has been built up in a slightly eccentric way. Enrico did collect a wide diversity of designs. The collection’s not got a convenient umbrella over it, which makes our job more difficult. On the other hand, homogeneity is also a weakness. Take Skandium, whose shops offer Scandinavian design. It used to be fresh and exciting. Now you go in, admire the taste, but can’t decide if you want anything – somehow it’s all too coherent. For the market, it’s better to have an identifiable monoculture, but in practice you want to maintain a certain diversity. How do you do that? Driade has an interesting diversity. Going forward, we’ll find it difficult to maintain, because the filo rosso has always been Enrico Astori, who loved that chair [points at Nemo by Fabio Novembre] and loved Enzo Mari. I can’t love that chair, but I do respect that it’s part of the place.


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