This is, in short, the meaning of the new ‘interpretation’ of the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, the fourth one since its creation in 2007, this time curated by Alberto Alessi. The title really says it all – Dream Factories: People, Ideas and Paradoxes of Italian Design.

The visitor is confronted with a point of view that is, for once, the opposite of what – since Romanticism – people are used to: the glorification of the sole creator, the deus ex machina that, alone, has a vision and turns into a reality.

In Alberto Alessi’s intepretation, on the contrary, objects are used as mere icons that the audience is encouraged to actually use, feel, touch! – to bring the visitor’s thinking beyond their physical presence and towards the appreciation of the fruitful, cultural relationship that they originated from: that between designers and innovation-led entrepreneurs; a characteristic that originated in Italy after World War II.

Curve’s European editor, Laura Traldi, recently spoke to Alberto Alessi about Dream Factories: People, Ideas and Paradoxes of Italian Design.

What qualifies as Italian design?

Despite the presence of so many foreign designers in our companies’ catalogues, there still seems to be a common thread running through all objects that makes them significantly Italian, a typical expression of our culture. I think this thread consists of the cultural project that is the basis of our work.

The project is largely implicit, and was created in the course of six decades, following the encounter between paradoxical entrepreneurs and many designers, including the great masters of Italian design.

These masters have had a profound influence on the firms they met along their way by helping them to establisha their distinctive identity as artistic mediators in the field of design and construct their history.

This is an outstanding phenomenon, and not because of its quantitative dimensions, given that these companies all lumped together have low total sales. But this has not prevented them from becoming progressively a significant part of the banner of Italian production, an industrial case that the world continues to watch with interest.

What do you mean by the term Dream Factory?

I refer to a group of long-established companies that developed mostly after the war. They are small to medium-sized and concentrated almost exclusively in older product sectors such as furniture, lamps and small decorative objects. They are mostly located, with a few exceptions, within 100 kilometres of Milan.

Even today, their output seems to be characterised by fine craftsmanship, though often produced with the aid of machinery. By this I mean that even if the technology, the instruments of work are contemporary and industrial, their deep practice, a practice precious and worthy of preservation, has remained craft-based.

What characterises the approach of a Dream Factory?

What all these companies have in common is the fact that they have made design a fundamental element in their business. For them, design is a real mission. It is an activity that has gradually moved away from the simple formal design of products to become a kind of Weltanschauung underlying all their business practices.

Although they are private companies operating in a capitalist system, engaged in the manufacture and sale of goods, aiming to produce profits and, therefore, attentive to the cost-benefit ratio, outfits of this kind are also aware they are acting in a context of material culture, in a daily confrontation with what once used to be called the applied arts.

What is the relationship between design-led companies and those dealing with mass manufacture and can the two be connected?

The work of an Italian Design Factory has always been very different from that of a mass-production company. For example, we never shared what I think is one of the leading characteristics of the latter kind of company: the desire to avoid risks. By contrast, the need to take risks (often many risks) has become an inseparable part of our work.

The desire to avoid taking risks is certainly comprehensible in the case of the mass-production company, because failures can have serious consequences, but it also means that products tend to become inexorably more and more uniform, more standardised. Their markets tend to become saturated and then companies are faced with increasingly difficult market conditions.

In an attempt to explore this difference of outlook more deeply I then realised that there are two ways of viewing the kind of design that clearly emerged at the end of the 20th century; two very different approaches to design that actually contradict each other. On the one hand, there is the interpretation of design typical of mass manufacturing, which sees it as just one of many tools placed at the service of technology and marketing.

This interpretation tends to minimise the role of design, which is understood simply as a means of helping industry to produce more rapidly and cheaply, or to produce a larger number of more functional products, or to confer a more attractive appearance on products so as to impel consumers to buy.

This, in my opinion, is a gastronomic vision, in which design finds itself used as a sort of rare spice, a superficial condiment to make the industrial preparation tastier, or to make products more appealing.

This way of defining design by reducing it to one of the many tools of technology and marketing does not suffice to explain its current reality, much less to make good use of its potential. We just have to look around to see the results of this vision. We are increasingly surrounded by a world of anonymous products, of objects that are largely boring, lacking in emotion and poetry.

The other vision, typical of the Italian Design Factories, understands design as a new form of art and poetry typical of our age.

What role do objects have in consumer society today?

I also asked myself some hard questions. Why do we need a new chair, a new lamp, a new coffeepot? Aren’t they superfluous? And isn’t the activity that designs and produces them superfluous too?

My masters, the architects and designers with whom I have worked – Sottsass, Sapper, Castiglioni, Mendini, Venturi, Rossi, Graves, Branzi, Starck, Mari – have had a great influence on the general development of working methods at Alessi, as on all my colleagues in the Italian Design Factories. By working with them and talking things over I began to intuit certain ideas that were to grow gradually clearer in the following years.

Today, through the clinical experience of our work, we are aware that people want our lamps, coffeepots, chairs and tables, and buy them not so much because they shed light, make coffee or are useful for sitting on, but principally for a whole range of other reasons. What are these reasons? And what is the status of these objects?

The first point to make is helpful, though it may seem obvious. It’s that the objects embody other values apart from functional ones. Without, of course, forgetting their functional value or use value, which ought to coincide with their reason for existing, the reason that justifies their existence, it is necessary to point out that other values in our society are equally, if not more, important than functional values when it comes to explaining the existence of the objects around us.

For example, products have become the principal channel through which we convey our values, status and personality to others. As Jean Baudrillard has admonished us, the possession and use of objects is basically equivalent to an exchange of cultural and social signifiers. In freely choosing the objects they surround themselves with, people tend to give them important social meanings.

They use them as signs to communicate visibly and intelligibly the values they have embraced and that distinguish them. I am speaking of objects as signs, signs of a certain status or a certain style. I am thus referring to their signic value, which may take the form of status or style value.

But there is more to it than that. There is a further value that defines the poetic value of objects. Experience has taught me that people also use objects to satisfy a profound and hidden desire for art and poetry.

This is a desire that the classic media by which artistic expression is still conveyed (namely museums for art and books for poetry) are no longer able to fulfil exclusively. This need for art and poetry emerges strongly from society (and the market), but industry, mass-production industry, has so far failed to understand it. In short, we also need objects in order to furnish the stage set of our private, everyday theatre.

Are you saying that Dream Factories are not actual industrial realities but, rather, applied art labs?

I believe the Italian Design Factories can be considered the latest spiritual heirs of the Arts & Crafts movement, which were all distinguished by a general orientation to the production of objects, but also had a strong cultural and intellectual connotation.

A common feature of all these phenomena is the fact that they believe, even in their orientation towards design for production and sales, that they are mediators in a new artistic field, that of design.

In this sense, their role is artistic mediation, basically very close to the activity of a gallery or a museum curator, or a conductor, or even a filmmaker. The Italian Design Factories are essentially artistic mediators in the field (or rather a number of fields) of industrial production.

I believe that our true nature today is closer to an industrial research laboratory in the sphere of the applied arts than to a true industrial company in the traditional sense. We are research laboratories whose role is to engage in a continuous mediation between the most advanced and inspired expressions of international creativity in product design, on the one hand, and the public’s desires and dreams, on the other.

A laboratory, which by definition, has to be distinguished by the utmost openness and receptiveness to the world of creativity.  

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