Made in Italy in U.S. market (and globally)

Analysis of the background, reasons and values of authentic Italian design.
Year 2010

Before designing interiors with the best furniture icons, I deeply studied the roots, the reasons and the values of Italian design in order to develop a cultural-strategic project for the “the Italian way” to design in the international markets. I analyzed the reasons behind the originality of Italian design, the ways people experience these objects and if there are similarities with other kind of goods. 

With this project I developed a particular sensitivity which brought me later to have relations with foreign cultures, understand their habits and eventually develop new projects.

From May 26 to September 11, 1972, Italian design was staged in New York for the first time with its best production in the exhibition "Italy: the new domestic landscape". It formalized the official overseas entrance of Italian design, which would have spread the typical expertise also in the entire world.  The curator of the exhibition Emilio Ambasz, an Argentine emigrated in the United States to study architecture, in the introduction to the catalog describes the rebirth of Italy after the Second World War as the "dominant force" in product design, mainly intended to solve problems and bearer of a counter-design that proposed new semantic revolutions.

"The emergence of Italy during the last decade as the dominant force in consumer-product design has influenced the work of every other European country and is now having its effect in the United States. The outcome of this burst of vitality among Italian designers is not simply a series of stylistic variations of product design. Of even greater significance is a growing awareness of design as an activity whereby man creates artifacts to mediate between his hopes and aspirations, and the pressures and restrictions imposed upon him by nature and the manmade environment that his culture has created".

From the catalogue of the exhibition "Italy: the new domestic landscape" at MoMA. Emilio Ambasz, 1972


To understand the reasons and the values of Italian design we need to talk about the background of this scene, the characteristics of the products and the actors of this Italian excellence. The objects produced in Italy after the war were affected by the particular condition of the companies, which during the fascist regime had undergone a policy of control without stimulation towards international competition. In fact, we cannot talk of big industries with mass productions but of medium to small workshops dedicated to artisanal productions. What it was relevant was the entrepreneurship of these family companies that devoted their lives to passion, work and eventually business. They met the other important actors in the playground of cities such Milan, which is close to the carpentry district of Brianza. Since industrial design was not a university program, architecture graduated professionals translated with their knowledge, creativity and easy to gather materials the need of new home products. Both the actors stretched their expertise directly on the field into an "holistic project".

“I was thinking of a lamp that could project the light directly on the table: there were already some, but you had to turn around. In order to leave enough space around the table, the base had to be at least two meters far. Thus was born the idea of ​​the arch: we wanted it to be made with pieces already on the market, and we found that the curved steel section was fine. Then there was the problem of counterweight: we needed a heavy mass to support everything. We thought of cement first, but then we chose marble because it had smaller volume for the same weight and therefore in relation it had a greater finish and a lower cost. In Arco nothing is decorative: even the rounded edges of the base have a function that is of not bumping; even the hole is not a fantasy but it is there to allow you to lift the base more easily".

From the interview of Achille Castiglioni by “Ottagono” magazine, 1970.

Image from "Achille Castiglioni" by Paola Antonelli and Steven Guarnaccia.

The beginning aim of Italian design can be summed up with the words of Achille Castiglioni: "A good project arises not from the ambition to leave a mark, but from the desire to establish an exchange, even a small one, with the unknown character who will use the object designed by you”. In this concept of design, the use is not the only purpose of the product. According to ergonomic studies, in fact, the "exchange" presupposes various levels of interactions that occur between the user and the object: physical, sensory-perceptive, informative, cultural and functional. This means that the same object, image or message can be understood differently according to our subjectivity which is related to our culture.

It is explained why exporting a product in foreign markets may be extremely difficult and complicate: people from different culture consider and use products in different ways. This statement is brought to extreme conditions in countries as United States, where product liability it is not assessed based on the diligence of the average person (pater familias) and exists even if the producer has manufactured his product according to the standard generally used on that market. A company who decides to sell a product in the United States should do more than simply follow the provisions of the law on trade overseas: must try to minimize the potential risks from product misusing, which may include the design review. The exporter and Italian manufacturer could also be judged not only responsible towards who bought their product, but also towards all potential users who could take part in the accident, involuntarily as passers-by or by obligation as rescuers.

When it comes the question "may we update a product to other cultures?”, the first thing to know is the nature of that product and its specific values. During this strategic project, I studied foreigner companies adapting their products or their product catalogue in order to sell globally. Well, as for its prerequisite Italian design cannot be considered just like whatever consumer good (although many different cases may emerge). We would better consider Italian products, especially the historical ones, as "usable cultural goods". Annalisa Cicerchia in "Il bellissimo vecchio (The beautiful old things)" already divides cultural heritage into two categories: one of artworks conceived intentionally, and another of objects transformed into works of art after by the "cultural selection". In the first case, we can include decorations, paintings and monuments that the initial use of mainly aesthetic admiration has not changed over time. In the other, we may have the civil and military infrastructure, housing, tools and other objects of common use that, from objects with modest instrumental function, have passed into being witnesses of the past. 

Considering the contribution by Almerigo de Angelis in "Design. The Italian way", he includes the artistic value within the definition of the Italian method:  “arte, moda, rito, manualità, industria, mercato (art, style, ritual, craftmanship, industry, market)". We may have hence a third group of objects that may be considered already as cultural heritage although a certain amount of time did not pass (in this case, a deep analysis of the product requirements is mandatory). 

Through the whole analysis I developed tools and skills to care not just Italian design but also international ones. Over time I could use this expertise in other strategic projects, treating issues as the furniture selection before interior designs in particular countries, the update of companies product catalogue to international interior moods or even advice new business models for design studios in certain cultural areas.  I have learned that industrial designers can both create their products and help others with to succeed in theirs.