Hence, when it comes down to judging objects, what counts the most is not so much what they are (or what they are capable of doing) but how they were conceived, developed and made.
After all, what makes a design timeless is not only excellent functionality and superb looks – which might well fade away – but its role as a culture carrier, as a messenger of the heartbeat of the society that created it.
In this sense, the OrienTales collection that Stefano Giovannoni and his long-time Japanese collaborator Rumiko Takeda recently presented for A di Alessi – and last April celebrated with the publication of a book entitled OrienTales: eastern stories through western eyes (published by Gli Ori, Pistoia, Italy) – could well be an excellent example of a cultural bridge between the East and West.
Not because of the objects’ forms or functions, but because they were conceived following a revelation that Stefano Giovannoni had one day in Taiwan, when he first visited the National Palace Museum.
Alberto Alessi defines this museum as the Louvre of the East, and rightfully so. The National Palace Museum was founded in 1949 when Chiang-Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan following the birth of the People’s Republic of China, taking with him precious collections from the Forbidden City.
These objects form the basis of the museum’s current collection, which includes over 700 000 artifacts representing 5000 years of Chinese culture.
As Giovannoni recalls in his preface to the book, during his visit to the National Palace museum he was struck by the art and technical skill that went into the production of artifacts of “great expressive force”.
He was moved by the way in which the “tiniest details were rendered with almost obsessive meticulousness as part of the artists’ constant striving for perfection”. Looking at those objects, he conjured up images of artists who would fall asleep and wake up in front of their creation for months or years, sometimes even passing it on to the younger generation.
“I was fascinated by the fact that these works lay in a completely different sphere compared to those of our history and culture, even though as a whole they contained features that made them seem close, almost familiar,” says Giovannoni.
What he recognised as familiar was the presence of a cultural force. “Given that the individual object must inevitably relate to the universal order, its surface acquires a permeability and a three-dimensional depth, shifting the reading towards a third dimension, from the inside to the outside of the object,” says Giovannoni.
“It almost seems to emit pulses that suck in the gaze towards its own centre of gravity and then sends it back out from the object itself.”
It’s the same three-dimensional value that western designs and artifacts can have, sure, but it is achieved in a totally different manner because in the West the creative act has always been considered “the culmination of a conceptual and intellectual process compressed into the explosive force of the gesture”.
Soon afterwards, Giovannoni started to envisage the creation of a collection developed by Alessi in collaboration with the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.
A series of objects issued from an analysis of the language and the popular culture of the figurative arts in ancient and contemporary China. The result was the Mr Chin collection in 2007, now followed by OrienTales. “In hindsight,” says Giovannoni, “I believe that this project, which arose from the new spirit of globalisation, is the first design project of this kind. A number of fashion companies have already done interesting work in this field and have attempted to tackle a theme that is becoming more and more pertinent."
That theme is the merging of eastern and western values and traditions for the development of new design solutions that fit both worlds, albeit possibly for different reasons. As westerners grow increasingly fascinated by the power of the hand-made object, the Chinese start to appreciate the value of brands as quality carriers.
This cultural merge translated into the interesting manufacturing process used for the first Taiwan Museum collection, Mr Chin (2007). Rather than using single-injection plastic-moulding technology, the objects are moulded in separate pieces and then assembled as if they were wooden models or porcelain dolls, a process that accentuated the sophisticated hand-painted decorative features.
For OrienTales, Giovannoni moves away from plastics and rediscovers bone china, a material traditionally associated with the arts and crafts and also hand decorated.
The playfulness of Giovannoni’s design is once again present in these designs, which Alessandro Mendini, in the preface to the OrienTales book, defines as “an expression that is like a ping-pong movement between the West and the Far East, a far cry from the international style that colonised Asia and the complete opposite of the kitsch of Orientalism that was once a western fad”.
OrienTales is a truly global project, possibly also a messenger of peace, which uses design to underline commonalities between cultures and to define a new connection that is here to stay.