Italy was a design powerhouse throughout the 20th century. Regional fabrication techniques made it an innovation hub, and Italy’s staggering emphasis on family-run businesses has more than once staved off the short-sightedness of profit-driven design in favor of risk and beauty. But with the Futurists looking dated, and the dolce vita icons of the postwar boom–—think Olivetti’s groovy typewriters and all those putt-putting Vespas–—wafting a whiff of kitsch, what’s in store for Italian design now?
It’s been almost a century since the first iconic products started flying off assembly lines. Bialetti’s 1933 octagonal Moka coffeepot ushered aluminum into the kitchen. Alessi’s cold-pressed steel wares, made in Piedmont, followed. In the 1950s and ‘60s, family-run production houses embraced postwar materials and technologies creating a golden age of dazzling household objects. B&B Italia, Kartell, Flos, and countless others embraced the unexpected: Gaetano Pesce’s mammary-inspired inflatable UP chair; Anna Castelli Ferrieri’s stacking storage cylinders; and the Castiglioni brothers’ now-ubiquitous Arco lamp with its marble-footed, sweeping cantilever.
But today, thanks to feckless leadership and a sluggish economy teetering on the brink of crisis, the Italian stallion is looking rather like a gelding. Many small-scale manufacturers are struggling into oblivion, while others have yielded to corporate mergers that too often embrace the bland over the bold. Some notable exceptions—Moroso, Flos, Venini, to name a few—keep harnessing their inimitable production experience to explore cutting edge materials and deliver world-class products. And with an increasingly global pool of talent, Italian design doesn’t necessarily mean Italian designers.
The good news is that struggle is often a catalyst, as was surveyed in 2006 at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum in the exhibit The New Italian Design. The next generation of Italian designers is cosmopolitan, irreverent, and sometimes angry. Guilio Iacchetti, one prominent voice among them, coined the term "disobedient objects" to describe works that the Italian website Designboom says "strengthen the democratization of design" and "suggest deviations, short circuits, and contrasts." Don’t be surprised to see the glossy sheen of history replaced with a prickly sense of engagement. The next crop of Italian icons may well confront us with ethics, politics, and a healthy dose of irony, but odds are they’ll still be immaculately made in Italy.
Click here for a slideshow timeline of important events in Italian design.
Our "Process" queen Virginia Gardiner currently lives in London, where she is finishing up a master's degree in industrial design engineering. "It has been fun but also tiring," she reports. "I spend a lot of time in the workshop with glue and other stuff on my hands and have recently been casting lots of shapes in horse poo from the horses that trot around Buckingham Palace. But we have to make stuff with a market, so I'm working on a new waterless toilet.