Virtuous Nineties

text and icons by Marco Romanelli
We believed, for a long time. We didn’t even imagine what would happen at the end of the decade. After the downfall of the Postmodern, the world of design, in the early 1990s, was going through the refined serenity of the Minimal.

The great masters grew old, with aplomb and spirit, especially Achille Castiglioni and Vico Magistretti, producing masterpieces. With the difference that now they could observe without voracity, and with new curiosity, the design scene that precisely in those years was being invaded by an extraordinary tribe of barbarians (i.e. inhabitants of some unspecified elsewhere). Hungry for opportunities to produce not supplied by their countries, these young, extremely talented and above all highly variegated young people were entering Italy and grabbing all the positions the old guard could no longer defend. That Italian old guard that preferred ‘defeat’ across the board rather than passing the scepter and forming a class of disciples. But we will analyze this destiny of the Italian designers further on.

In the meantime, we can watch Jasper Morrison, Ron Arad, Ross Lovegrove, Tom Dixon, James Irvine from England, ‘Les petits enfants’ of Philippe Starck and the ‘unaligned’ Martin Szekely from France, Marc Newson from Australia, Konstantin Grcic from Germany, Maarten van Severen from Belgium, Hannes Wettstein from Switzerland, Martin Ruiz de Azua from Spain, Fernando & Humberto Campana from Brazil, Johanna Grawunder from America, Thomas Sandell from Sweden, Marcel Wanders and Hella Jongerius from Holland, as they move surefooted through Brianza, the Veneto and nearby Tuscany. They are the ones who shape the new reality of companies like Cappellini, Moroso, Edra, Flos, Driade. A few other protagonists arrive at the end of the decade: the Bouroullec brothers and Pierre Charpin from France, from Japan Tokujin Yoshioka, from Finland Harri Koskinen, from Sweden Claesson Koivisto Rune, and Patricia Urquiola from Spain. All adored by the press, far from academic concerns, totally immune to issues like the relationship between architecture and design, between design and the decorative arts, they move nonchalantly across our territory.

Their masterpieces come from an inseparable union of individual talent and Italian manufacturing prowess. So they are masterpieces that always speak two languages: Italian and English, Italian and French, Italian and Portuguese. An indisputable fact, though that is no consolation for a generation of Italian designers substantially crushed by the mechanism. Between the great masters ‘of the past’ and these new ‘barbarians’ the leftover spaces are reduced to cracks. Few manage to express themselves in such a suffocating situation: Paolo Rizzatto and Alberto Meda, thanks to the control of Luceplan and the entrepreneurial ability of Riccardo Sarfatti, Antonia Astori in the gilded limbo of Driade, and then the so-called ‘young designers’ (it seems odd to say that today, when they are no longer young), namely those for whom there was still time... Marco Ferreri, Marta Laudani, Giovanni Levanti, Paolo Ulian, Riccardo Blumer, i.e. the Italian generation that came prior to the already luckier crowd of the 2000s (Iacchetti, Ragni, Damiani, Paruccini, Pezzini, Fioravanti, Contin). Alongside all this, four designers, very different from each other but sharing a capacity to transform the design of a single piece into a project of corporate identity. I am referring – it goes almost without saying – to Antonio Citterio, Paola Navone, Rodolfo Dordoni and Piero Lissoni. Their role as boatmen and at the same time unconscious transformers of Italian design will be carefully analyzed by critics of the next generation.

But what will the critics of the next generation be like? What tools will they use? Because – and we should never forget it – the golden decade of 1994-2003 and the extraordinary success of the people we have mentioned were also strongly influenced by a critical system that is unique in the world, constructed first of all by the Italian magazines (Domus, Abitare, Interni, Modo) and therefore by the work of Italian editors and curators (including, among others, Beppe Finessi, Manolo De Giorgi, Cristina Morozzi, Enzo Biffi Gentili). 1994-2003: 10 fundamental years prior to the major crises, the boom of crafts and self-production, the obsession with reissues, design for galleries and 3D printers.

The last 10 years of that 360° project that had characterized design from 1945 on… and today? Today we are waiting, and have been waiting for over 10 years, for a new imaginative ‘fury’ to come along, a new messiah, a new desire to design, or to destroy the world and recreate it in a better form.