Alessandra Orlandoni - Your title could be the ‘Woman of Italian Design’, the woman who saved the family firm by going for creativity and intuition, taking a chance with new names and bypassing the rules of marketing. The process is as important as the result, if not more so.
What’s your story?
Patrizia Moroso - I come from the town of Udine and at the end of the Seventies, when I arrived in Bologna to attend the DAMS Faculty, I got to know a group of Bolognese comic strip artists who called themselves Valvoline. I think it was through a friend of mine, Lorenzo Mattotti, that I got to know Giorgio Carpinteri, Igor Tuveri - nicknamed Igort - and Marcello Jori, who was a painter and artist. Their inspiration was deliberately a mixed bag of references. That was where I learned to love “corrupted things”. Pure things don’t exist; purity is not constructive, and paradise, if it exists, is for times past, and so of no interest at all. I love contamination, interference, intermeshing. In those years, the Bologna scene was vibrant; it was a powerhouse of art, music and fashion. I played the part of the Little Match Girl, rubbing out the drawings for Igort and filling Indian ink pens. There were no computers back then and everything was painstakingly done by hand. Then in the morning when the hero had collapsed into bed, I would leave for Milan with the illustrations, delivering them to Linus and other publishers. Work had to be handed in every month but of course things only got done in the last three nights! It was in this crazy, creative environment that I met Massimo Iosa Ghini, he too a Bolognese illustrator. He was studying architecture in Florence at the time and would always put one of Ettore’s (1*) pieces of furniture in his drawings. At some stage he starting inventing them himself, and became the last bright young talent of Memphis before it closed shop. At that time the Moroso company were makers of conventional furniture - well made, clean-lined, nothing exceptional - and I only gave an occasion hand when need. I would never have dreamt how things would turn out. I was asked to do something now and again but I didn’t have a precise role nor was I part of the company’s day-to-day business. At the end of the Seventies and early Eighties, the furniture industry hit a deep trough. Moroso felt the pinch too, and so we were all summoned to a crisis meeting on what to do. I had no idea about marketing strategies; mine was an instinct. It seemed only natural to me that a company making furniture should take design seriously. My father, a man with a nose for business, had worked with architects from Udine or nearby. An exception was Antonio Citterio, whom he had worked with as far back as 1968 and whose talent he had recognised immediately. I thought it would be a pity if the crisis were to threaten a company that anyway was a going concern, a good company that made good things at good prices. But that was no longer sufficient. The problem was we didn’t have a brand, a name that gave us a precise place on the design map. I kept on insisting, trying to convince everyone that we should try and do something with young designers. That was how the Dynamic collection designed by Massimo Iosa Ghini came about. In the meanwhile Massimo had founded Bolidismo and as its chief exponent, he wanted to put his theories into practice. Dynamic was just that - the application of Bolidist concepts to furniture design, and it immediately aroused interest in the media. We realised that was the road to take.
Everything grew out of a friendship, of a meeting of minds; out of love for our work and not thanks to some marketing expert, who at that time would have advised me to do something outlandish. Had we followed the strategies in vogue at the time, we would have gone to the wall! Now, of course, everyone says you have to go for design...
A.O. - If I understand correctly, you are saying that the intuition was to realise that media visibility came before any commercial assessment.
P.M. - Commercial success comes later; it’s a consequence of media success. And media success comes if the product has a reason for being, an added something that makes it worthwhile. That was when I officially became part of the company. I stopped being the daughter whose opinion was sought every now and then, and took on a more embedded role. At the same time the company changed its organisation.
The young managers who started with me investigated parallel markets and discovered there was a really large international contract market out there. So I started working in both directions because success would come from doing the two things together. The contract market is a sector
where specialists and architects go out and choose a manufacturing company they like, one that will be reliable; and that depends on whether you’re doing interesting things, working with inventive designers. The contract business took off the moment that Moroso acquired visibility for its ventures into design and research.
A.O. - Now everything is design. It’s a global phenomenon, even if much of what is passed off as design has in fact very little to do with what design should be: something with an intrinsic reason for being, the result of a search to achieve something that really does alter the essence of the object. What do you think?
P.M. - Everyone’s doing design now. But what makes the difference is the how and why. After the experience with Massimo, the project with Toshiyuki Kita got underway when we made the Saruyama sofa set. That was 1988 and it was obviously a forerunner of organic design. For a Japanese, Organicism is something natural; it’s part of their culture. The trend - how I hate that word! - of organic design took off about ten years ago and everyone got on the bandwagon. But when we first produced that set, the dominant language referred to things past and to styles very far from Organicism. We’d not even had minimalism yet! I decided to go for the Saruyama sofa set because it was a real project, consistent with everything its author was. And to think that Kita had designed that piece in 1968 as his final dissertation! It was a kind of archetype that he kept as a reference as his work developed, never dreaming it would ever be produced. Then, again with the same aim of finding things of substance, with a reason for being, and an inherent authenticity, we took a third quantum leap: our meeting with Ron Arad in 1989. I had always been one of his fans from afar, and approached him with just that feeling. I really do believe that in some ways things are destined to happen, and in some ways too they have to happen. Ron is a great artist, a strong character but someone of great humanity, and someone always ready to make something that has never been made before.
I got acquainted with him at one of his shows in which he had attempted to make a more economic version of the Big Easy in red artificial leather that would be accessible to his public. In fact he wanted to make an upholstered piece, making the whole thing more of an armchair and less of a sculpture. That was when I asked him to work with us. I also discovered he knew Moroso and liked our production quality.
At that time in Italy, design projects often remained at the prototype stage or at most, were produced in limited series without solving the quality issues. People who were trying innovative things didn’t have the backing of a real manufacturing outfit since the large firms that had shaken up the Sixties and Seventies with their innovations were now loathed to take risks. Ron took us up on our proposal and that’s how everything got started. I have always been interested in the sort of designers you could call “impure”. It’s a prerogative of the British school where people are used to doing things themselves, trying to actually make what they design and see the outcome rather than take their fresh drawings to a manufacturing company. It’s priceless from a professional standpoint as well as a great way to learn about life. I’ve always had a very tender spot for those adventurers who set to and make things simply because they believe in them. After Ron, came Marc Newson, Javier Mariscal, up to our meeting in 1998 with Patricia Urquiola. When I first met Patricia she had yet to make her mark. But here finally was a woman both strong and determined! What I really like is starting out with someone, meeting them when they are just about to emerge but haven’t yet found their place in the industry. Their energy input is extraordinary. The same thing happened with Tord Boontje. I’m less interested in people who have already achieved stardom. They have already found their way. There’s not the sense of making a discovery, that buzz you get from coming across something new even if from different points of views.
A.O. - You have said that “Talent is often not a talent for easy things. And the designers I work with are not always easy people. They are complex, talented and sensitive.” . Understanding this aspect is not for everyone. Is an Art Director to some extent a “mystic”?
P.M. - In a certain sense, yes, I agree. You have to have a certain depth of feeling to be able to connect with others. The material side of things is not something that interests me particularly. There are relations that are born out of commercial opportunity; for sure that happens. But if there isn’t a spiritual side to a working relationship, then it will die, implode. The practical aspects get dealt with quickly; what I’m interested in is that which goes beyond the mere professional relationship.
A.O. - We live in a perfectionist society where making a mistake often costs dearly. But doesn’t a mistake, a “lapsus” as Sigmund Freud would say, reveal something unconscious and incomprehensible that could open up new horizons?
P.M. - Mistakes help you to learn. It’s a good thing not to do everything always right. Theoretical errors always give rise to new things. Experimenting means having the freedom to get it wrong. To a certain extent, even a company that is not too big, one that is also yours and doesn’t belong to a financial group, can make mistakes and not go to the wall as a result. Coming out with the wrong collection, one that nobody understands, is a sign of freedom. I usually follow the most tortuous route to get to my goal. But going the roundabout way teaches me more, and has enriched my life. I like India but not China. I am not able to divide up my life between work and other interests. For me, it’s all the same variegated, highly spiced stew! And taking the extended route means you get to know other people; you come across such different types to those you would met if you were intent on getting some place in the shortest possible time by the shortest possible route. At the same time though, when you take risks, the commercial results take longer to show; but sooner or later they come. Today it’s our most out-on-a-limb collections that are the strongest sellers. I would like to work with artists. These are people who would love to work with the furniture industry. They are fascinated by the idea of reaching a vast public that art usually does not touch. Working with them was the dream of my early youth at DAMS, and I’m gradually getting there. It’s an approach and I now know the way; I know that behind that door there’s a wealth of talent.
It’s a free world, full of stimuli and spirituality. Of course, life is short and often when you’re so busy following through many prototypes, there simply isn’t the time to look into new thematic areas. But now I know that as soon as I can, I will.
A.O. - Entrepreneurs are too often slaves to marketing and statistics that force designers to go for bland solutions, with the inevitable boring results that lack freshness and any element of surprise.
You, on the other hand, have always pushed for exuberance, proving that things on the borderline between art and design can sell, and even sell more than other products. Have you any advice for that still too populous group of entrepreneurs who rely more on their pocket calculators than on their instinct?
P.M. - As you say in your question, marketing is based on historical data that come from what has already been, and so it looks to the past, not the future. Then there are scholars who study society, human behaviour - and from their theories come the suggestions for the future. That’s why I like visionary research, because society moves more swiftly than marketing. If I have to give some advice, I would say that you have to try and understand really well who you are, what you want and interpret the spirit of your company to the full. You have to try and create a real, strong rapport with your designers, and become like a single unit. For me, the company is the sum of our people and our designers; that’s the key to its strength. The many different spirits that we have incorporated into our company as designers - some 33 in all - are very different, and not always do they get on with one another. I like this lack of uniformity. There are successful companies whose philosophy is to achieve uniformity. That’s not my approach. I prefer to mix different things together and create a well-knit unit that is our winning characteristic. With a designer I always put myself in the role of the listener; that’s the first thing I do. Then he too will listen once he starts coming into the company and getting to know the people who work with him, and with whom he has to have a rapport. In fact if that mutual feeling is not created, sooner or later the designer will leave. That basic drive comes from human relations, in feeling you’re part of a team, that you’re one of a unit.
A.O. - Do enthusiasm and spontaneity always pay off? And what is talent?
P.M. - Yes, they do pay off, always, no doubt about it. And talent is a condition that has to be accompanied by other attributes; talent by itself can be madness.
Talent has to be accompanied by great sensitivity; in that way it becomes understanding, exchange and in the end, a product.