Claudia Donà is an Italian Journalist and Design Critic based in Milan. Over the years of her career, she has been part of some of the most memorable, contemporary, and radical projects in the field. She is also a Collection and Exhibition Curator.
With a Ph.D. in History of Modern Art from the Università Statale of Milan and the expertise on the Art Biennial of Venice, dozens of collaborations with admirable figures in Architecture and Design, I thought that Claudia Donà was the perfect person to discuss how Design has been affected by the recent COVID-19 crisis, the projects she’s undertaken over the years, the influential figures she met along the way, Italian aesthetics (of course!), and the qualities that form a GOOD DESIGN.
And I was absolutely right; our talk made me realize that, especially in a harsh COVID-era, it is crucial to stay positive, hopeful, and be a part of the change!
Elizabeth Soufli: We are really excited to get the chance to welcome you to our page!
Claudia Donà: It’s a good start.
E.S: You are a journalist, design critic, you’ve participated in a dozen (even more!) projects about design and architecture around the world, but tell me… how did everything start? Do you recall that key moment when you said “design is my field”?
C. D: I was 25 years old: behind me, the metaphysical Venice where I wrote my PhD Thesis on the Art Biennial; in front of me Milano, an active volcano: inclusive, crowded and so challenging to me, new to journalism.
Thanks to Franco Raggi, there I met the unforgettable Alessandro Mendini, who moved me away from writing on the pages of the daily newspaper La Repubblica: all of a sudden, I was adopted by the avantgarde crew that was creating the Design Magazine Modo. Much more than a provocative and refined Architect and Designer, Alessandro was the most talented magazine editor I have ever met, and Modo became the spark of New Design…
Soon after, I was captured into Studio Alchimia, a revolutionary place in the Milanese design scene. I set the sails to explore the vastness and the richness of Design far beyond the conventional one. We all ended up being explorers – it didn’t matter I was not an architect, nor a designer-, I experienced Design as a challenging border-crossing. Borders and thresholds are still my favorite places to look far away. I thought, and still do, that Design, as well as Art, are essential to life.
E.S: And since you are a design critic, there is no better person to answer this… Which are the qualities of a GOOD DESIGN?
C.D: Good Question! Design is chimeric, mutable accordingly to the historical moment, the space-time context, the available technologies, the place where you live: it interprets the Change, sometimes causes the Changes. Indeed, Design influences the future.
Some lovable objects, you can see all around or in museums, are the perfect balance between memories of the past and memories of the future. This is a key meeting point for Good Design, more complex today from what Buckminster Fuller said a long time ago to exorcise the complexity: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Today technology is running faster and faster: we are surrounded by a tsunami of garbage, with tides of redesigned objects – do we need all of them? – and by unforeseen tools losing physicality. Visible objects coexist with invisible and powerful ones. It was a long time ago, just at the beginning of this fast metamorphosis, that I wrote my essay Invisible Design for the book Design after Modernism in which John Thackara blended together Baudrillard, Kenneth Frampton, Francois Burkhardt, and other authors to spread “startling and provocative ideas on the future of design“.
Design is no longer a multidisciplinary profession, it is a transdisciplinary movement – a co-creation attitude to be rediscovered.
Because of the pandemic, we are living a difficult period, we feel we are missing a direction, it’s hard to conceive the future now, for everybody on the planet. But this is the point, this is the Good Design key: to imagine the future in spite of everything. A difficult transition from an era of change to the change of an era. Good Design needs dreams and visions, passion, culture and experimentation, doors open to emotions, optimism, poetry, cross-fertilization of knowledge, expertise, confidence with discontinuity and the unexpected, consciousness of fragility and consequences, accessibility, synthesis, responsibility. And Beauty!
E.S: Throughout your career you’ve worked with some of the most prestigious architecture and design institutions, programs, and figures. From these collaborations which are the most memorable and why?
C.D: Crossing a variety of fantastic experiences, I met many people in many countries and places. Beyond any institution or program, there were always people. They left an indelible mark in my life. It is an enormous richness, a heritage I’m proud of. My way has much to do with impossible challenges, the research for wonder: when it happens is absolutely thrilling… and becomes memorable.
Chicago and Christian K. Narkiewicz Laine. The idea for The Chicago Athenaeum Museum was born in a café, The Third Coast, halfway between his house and mine, a few steps from the moonlit Hancock Building. We were there at 3 in the morning drinking a cappuccino and talking about the Museum. The next day we were going to every possible store to look for American design objects from the 1950s, we paid 1 dollar for them at that time.
At the University, I shared the theoretical basis of the new Telematic Nomadism with the architect and designer Maurizio Morgantini (my indispensable companion of life and work)
and his researchers. I wrote articles and did Modo America, then the special issue of Abitare magazine about the city of Chicago. This is how I met Helen Doria, assistant to the Mayor and creative fulcrum of the Special Events Office of City Hall, an exceptional woman, she opened all possible and imaginable doors for me, she made me discover places and charms of Chicago that not even I suspected. Helen, the marvelous Helen, who later created that wonder that is Millennium Park.
I returned to Italy, because Manlio and Armida Armellini called me to lead the Press Office and the Cultural Events of the Salone del Mobile in Milan. This trade fair event had become so important and international thanks to Manlio, an intelligent and generous man, who knew how to look ahead, listen and delegate, qualities that are absolutely rare and even more so in a complex institution like the Salone. In 1991 he entrusted me and Pierluigi Cerri with the exhibition on the 30 years of the Salone del Mobile at the Milan Triennale. It was an extraordinary reinterpretation of how Italian design had influenced the domestic landscape on an international level.
In the meantime, I had created the Faar Foundation (now Far) to support young architecture and design students with scholarships, some of them are today leading the way in change, especially in environmental matters. To give just one example, Franco Rolle. We supported him in doing the Master in “eDesign” at the Politecnico di Milano, then he founded the studio NEO (Narrative Environments Operas) and in 2020 he received the Compasso d’Oro Award for the project “Il Mare a Milano: Yachtville,” a video installation “inspired by the stage design adopted by director Lars Von Trier in the film Dogville, where the buildings in a town are reproduced in plan view by using two-dimensional graphic borders.”
Later, I had joined the ADI Compasso d’Oro Foundation, also creating a team of young designers and graphic designers with the enormous task of enhancing the Collection. Together with the fantastic Giulio Castelli, founder of Kartell, and the ADI Foundation, in 2004, I obtained from the Italian government the recognition of the Compasso d’OroCollection as Cultural Heritage of the country of Italy. It seemed an impossible undertaking (they were not works of art, but serial industrial objects), but we did it, an unprecedented event in the world. We paved the way for the Milan Design Museum everyone was talking about, without results, since the 1950s. Among the many exhibitions of the Collection that I had rebuilt, the one at the UN headquarters in Geneva, at WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and L’Oro del Design Italiano, Royal Palace of Venaria Reale, Torino World Design Capital 2008.
A step back, again in Chicago, together with Silvio Marchetti, Cultural Attaché who came from Iran at war, we opened the first IIC (Italian Cultural Institute) headquarters in Chicago. I met him again in Tokyo in 2000. I saw him again in 2013, still in Chicago, where he had wanted to return to finish his term. Chicago had remained in everyone’s heart. Now he lives in Amsterdam.
In the last ten years I have shifted great part of my attention from the object to the territory. I believe that nothing like territory needs design today. The environment, the cities, the nature have an extreme need for design: to be developed, supported, defended, valued and above all protected. The challenge of the present that interests me the most is the construction of groups to be called on Pilot Projects, on bridge-territories of European importance. I am working on the project of a very advanced Agricultural hub that will connect Verona to Austria, Germany, and the rest of Europe, to reduce the impact of road freight transport and enhance local crops. I have studied and reconstructed the history of a very important corner of the Milan Fashion District, going back to the oldest maps, even before the Roman age, to study new opportunities for relaunching the area. Now, with the Diotima Association, I am collaborating on the New Bauhaus project launched in 2020 by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. It is Good Design that must become pandemic, not Covid! But to understand if and why any of these projects will become memorable, it takes time. We’ll see!
E.S: You are currently based in Milan. I cannot help but ask, what’s it with Italy and aesthetics? Everything, from a dome to a spoon, is so perfectly designed and crafted!
C.D: Italy is a bridge extending over the Mediterranean Sea, it is a place of confrontation, of encounter, of mediations between different cultures, of borders that generate limits but fuel the energy to overcome them.
I believe that the aesthetic sense is part of the Italian DNA, as well as competitiveness. It is an ancient story, made of craftsmanship, intuition, small workshops, and small or large industries, which have a love for the things they do and do them well, with pride, with passion, and this involves everyone, the producer, the designer, the workers in a fluid and integrated path. It can be seen in fashion, art, design, food. Unfortunately, we Italians are less good at organizing and we are devastated by bureaucracy, we are a country that has more works of art in basement cellars than exhibited in museums. It is a pity.
E.S: You sure come across hundreds of design projects annually… Can you share with us your top 5 of this year’s works? Five projects that came under your spotlight and won your admiration…
C.D: The keyword of the last year was Emergency and it still is. More than individual works or projects, I was attracted and struck by the acceleration in the commitment to create new ways of connections, relationships, and storytelling to overcome isolation, to stay in touch.
Isolation, indeed, has affected everyone, even those who have not been infected by Covid.
Of course, a design object is always the result of a process of relationships, but in this phase, the design of the relationships and its narration were more important than the physical, tangible final result. I am not referring to the use of Social Networks, nor to the many protection procedures adopted, more or less complex, which have done their part, nor to a lot of advertisements that basically tell us “hold on, trust, we will return as before, we will have our life back.” I think that whatever happens, we will not return as before, it would be anti-historical. So, I was more intrigued by sophisticated and subtle experiments, often very creative storytelling to fill the gap of the lack of “physicality.” People, media, museums, states, all have had to deal with the creation of new stories, to be heard, to be taken care of, to be seen, to speak, to work, to buy, to live.
I am thinking, for example, of the many museums that have put their collections online, inventing ways of use never used before. When we will be able to touch a design object again, to see with our eyes the softness of the colors of a painting, its shadows, its play of light, it will be beautiful but different because we will have discovered that there are many other possibilities.
So, if I had to indicate 5 projects that I believe are representative of this year but not only, I choose these because, even if they were not selected by any jury, they represent a philosophical path of thought:
1. The splendid anthological exhibition at the Milan Triennale on the friend Enzo Mari, the “critical conscience of Italian design,” as Mendini had defined him. Mari’s work summarizes in each project his absolute dedication to the analysis and research process, with obsessive rigor and ethics. The last great Master of Italian Design of the 20th century, he was fascinated by techniques but hated technology.
2. Neri Oxman, architect and founding director of The Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab (exhibition Material Ecology at MoMa in 2020) who mixes art, architecture, organic and artificial materials, science, biology, computer science to create new processes and relationships and demonstrate that today “objects, like organs, can be computationally ‘grown’, additively manufactured and biologically augmented to create heterogeneous and multifunctional constructs“. With respect for Nature.
3. The artist Federico Solmi, an Italian who lives in New York. I met him in 2017 at the B3, Biennial of Moving Image in Frankfurt, invited by its creator and director Bernd Kracke, also President of the University of Art and Design Offenbach. B3 is an initiative that involves the entire city every two years. Solmi’s narrative of history as a “conquest” based on violence is both terrifying and magnificent, a bewildering blend of video animation, painting, 3D, kinetic technology, augmented reality and music. Even now, if I look at it, my wrists tremble from what is so merciless and true. Between November 2020 and January 2021, another of his denouncing works, Bacchanalian Ones, was presented in the Rowan University Gallery in Glassboro, New Jersey.
4. The architect, designer, painter, and writer Luigi Serafini, a precursor of storytelling. In 1981, after two years of working closed in his studio in Rome, he published the Codex Seraphinianus, an authentic encyclopedia that spans the entire world, from algae to architecture, all designed, with an invented language that still today some people are trying to interpret and decipher. It was published in all countries (there is no problem of translation!). The CRAC-Occitanie, Center for Contemporary Art of Sète, a beautiful port in the south of France, has just dedicated to him the exhibition Sur Terre et sur Mer avec le Codex Seraphinianus (until June 2021), a tribute, after 40 years, to a “universal alphabet because illegible “, therefore without borders. When I see Luigi in his studio in Milan or Rome, I am overwhelmed by paintings, drawings, objects and sculptures.
5. Lastly, an app called Zeroed Consume Responsibly, which suggests the most sustainable products to buy in the place where you live, those with less environmental impact; compares them with others based on an algorithm that takes into account various parameters, and reports them by assigning them a score. The goal is to achieve zero CO2 emissions. It is being tested. The CEO & Co-Founder Director, is the young movie-director Giovanni Fantoni Modena who lives in transit between the imagination of his science fiction cinema and the innovation in the real world.
E.S: It must be quite challenging to judge someone else’s work… What are your guidelines, let’s say, to write a piece on a new design project?
C.D: First of all, I wonder if it is a product that adds something, even a small thing, to what already exists. For me, this is fundamental, there are millions of chairs, but if a designer designs a new one, this chair must have something unexpected, unsettling, challenging.
It is the key to the project, which first of all means looking ahead, beyond ourselves, and what we already know. Otherwise, what’s the point? It is repetition, academy.
Then there are other factors: its beauty, its usefulness, its being in tune with or even beyond the allowed technological means, its cheapness, its playfulness, its ability to feed dreams.
E.S: The COVID-19 era has been a harsh time for everyone globally. What happens in design? Do you think that the way creators think and give birth to new ideas have or will change?
C.D: Absolutely yes, Covid-19 can become a great opportunity, constitute the need for a leap elsewhere, in the future, or in a different present. Fleurs du Mal? Design has to change and will change; it is an exceptional opportunity.
Since nothing will really return to the way it was before, this is the biggest challenge for design. Designers must be prepared, we will need completely new objects, or old but totally rethought objects. It is a phenomenon that is already being seen, throughout technology, scientific research, biology, energy, the economy, the migrations of peoples, everything. Airplanes, trains, ships, cars, computers, clothes, furnishings, cities, territories, places, will have to take into account what has happened and what can happen again.
We had become accustomed, in the Western world, to a long period of, how to say… “illusion”? But we have all seen how uncertain, fragile, susceptible to sudden change everything is. How many have thought of survival capsules in the last few decades? Or masks that do not create allergy or breathing problems, or hospitals where no one is condemned to die completely alone? It is an epochal change, which takes us back to ancient times, of plagues, wars, death. But we are in 2021, and we have a universe of possibilities to explore and use!
E.S: What fascinates you the most in your job?
C.D: Investigating what I have already said. Look at the invisible.
E.S: What are the challenges of the job?
C.D: The discovery. Of people, talents, attitudes, objects, architectures, poetics, finding that mix of skills I have described.
E.S: I really need to ask… You are a self-made successful woman in the field. Have you experienced gender discrimination though your way to success?
C.D: Yes, more than once of course. It is a prehistoric mindset. The greatness of the human being does not have to do with the sex they belong to. This is why I wanted to design and create an anthological exhibition (with editions in Chicago, Madrid, Puebla, Pasadena, Milan) for Anna Castelli Ferrieri, one of the first Italian women to graduate in Architecture in Milan and then become a designer.
Because she was a woman, she had been relegated to a secondary role, despite her talent. After the inauguration in Chicago, Anna said a beautiful phrase: “You gave me the best gift of my life.” In the edition of the exhibition in Puebla, Mexico, I met people who touched me deeply for their pride in belonging to the Indian culture of their country and for the conscious claim of their history.
E.S: Last but not least… How do you imagine the future of the design industry?
C.D: It will have to go through a long period of change. Industries specializing in certain products will have to convert into partially or completely different productions, some industries will disappear, others will be born thanks to the new potential offered by the web, digital, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, the change. It will be a great achievement, a paradigm shift that will help everyone enter a new world.
Two products come to my mind, they both won the Good Design Award 2020, and represent two extreme formal trends: the Osa electric motorcycle by the Swedish Company Cake, and the Vortex vases by Ross Lovegrove. Both of these objects are a prelude to organic design, which will be the expression of widespread and high-tech industry.