5 Life Lessons Italian Design Can Teach Us

By Leonora Sartori, Houzz

Italians are considered some of the most stylish people in the world. And the Italian lifestyle captured in Frederico Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita — a mix of self-indulgence, leisure and fun — is a dream for many, even if just for a short vacation. But Italian life isn’t all about wearing fancy Gucci sunglasses, driving a Ferrari and eating spaghetti on a terrace facing the Colosseum (as in Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 Academy Award-winning movie, The Great Beauty). Experts on Italian-made products reveal five rules that govern Italy’s creative approach to design.

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Giacomo Cosua, original photo on Houzz
Giacomo Cosua, original photo on Houzz

1. Beautiful Is Better
(Or, serviceable items are destined to break, while the beautiful ones will remain that way forever.)

"Since the 1950s, when a group of brave designers, together with a group of daring entrepreneurs, decided to invest in design, the mission of Italian design has been to create objects that are both useful and beautiful," says Giulio Cappellini, architect and art director of the Cappellini company.

Beauty can take many forms, and you’ll find hidden jewels in all areas of Italian design. It might be Alessi’s whimsical Anna G corkscrew, beautifully crafted of metal and plastic in the shape of a fairy-tale character. Or it could be a Murano Baroque chandelier made of the more noble blown glass.

Eclettico Cucina, original photo on Houzz
Eclettico Cucina, original photo on Houzz

2. The Kitchen Is King
(Or, never underestimate the cathartic power of a plate of spaghetti.)

Much of Italian life happens in the kitchen, with the never­-ending cycle of cooking, talking and eating. The kitchen is where Italians come together each day. It's where they celebrate birthdays, sip chicken broth when they're sick, chat over coffee and exchange their news.

The first and most basic expression of conviviality — the starting point of any chat or mealtime gathering — is "Sit down and tell me about it" or "Sit down and eat."

So the chair is key. And in Italy, you don’t need fancy or expensive chairs to sit around the table together. A thread runs between the typical Italian home and the trattoria, says Alberto Bassi, author of Anonymous Design in Italy. This can be seen in the trattoria-style Marocca chair — traditional seating with a populist and artisanal past. Or in the 18th­-century wood-and-rattan Chiavari chair — an elegant piece of quality craftsmanship that inspired Italian designer Gio Ponti to create the Leggera chair for Cassina in 1951.

The coffee break. Having an espresso at home in Italy is the equivalent of sitting down with a cup of tea in Britain. It’s much more than a simple drink — it’s a mental break. As with all daily rituals, you need the right equipment. In this case, the essentials are the right cup, such as the one designed by Matteo Thun for Illy, and the right tools, such as the Bialetti Moka stovetop espresso maker, which has become a classic.

"The first prototype of a coffee machine dates back to 1933," Bassi says. "However, the Moka’s real success spread after World War II, thanks to the promotional use of the ‘little­ man with­ a mustache’ trademark."

Design expert Chiara Alessi, author of Design Without a Designer, says her grandfather Carlo Alessi married Germana Bialetti, daughter of the Moka inventor, Alfonso Bialetti. "The discussions between the two always ended with my grandfather saying to his wife, 'There's no doubt you're a Bialetti!'" Alessi says. To woo his wife, Carlo decided to follow in the footsteps of his famous father-­in­-law, but he designed his 1945 Bombé coffee and tea service with soft curves, perhaps reflecting the ideal female figure of the time. Germana, however, was the opposite: angular, like the Moka espresso maker, and free-thinking, Alessi says.

Although there have been many copies over the years, there’s nothing quite like the iconic Bialetti Moka.

Don’t forget to celebrate. "The white-and-gold Ginori plate was the important-occasion dish for every family in the 1930s," Bassi says. It has an elegant, clean design that separates the everyday from the festive. "It’s no longer in production, so you have to hunt it down in the flea markets," he says.

Giacomo Cosua, original photo on Houzz
Giacomo Cosua, original photo on Houzz

3. Family Is Central
(Or, it doesn’t take a village to raise a child, just a large, meddling family!)

Always be yourself. Remember who you are and where you come from. These statements are essential to the Italian way of life. "For better or worse, family is one of the pillars that anchors Italian design," Chiara Alessi says. "Family is a specifically Italian peculiarity that first and foremost makes design a story about people, and objects become the primordial vehicle for communicating with them."

The spare bed. One Italian product has made a big difference in the life of Virginio Briatore, design philosopher and consultant for companies including Lago and Lavazza. It’s the Pisolò pouf, a seat containing an inflatable mattress that was designed by Denis Santachiara for Campeggi. "It's been living in my small Milan apartment for eight years," Briatore says. "This ingenious inflatable bed fully responds to the concept of a 'nomadic' product that disappears when not in use and allows you to install a makeshift yet comfortable bed in a couple of minutes. In short, there is, or should be, a bed for friends in every respectable home. At least 50 guests have slept on mine."

Marcante-Testa (UdA Architetti), original photo on Houzz
Marcante-Testa (UdA Architetti), original photo on Houzz

4. Everything Should Be Done With a Smile
(Or, never forget how to be a child.)

From the Mezzadro stool, designed in 1957 by Achille Castiglioni for Zanotta, onward, "there has always been a certain ironic twist in Italian houses," says architect Andrea Marcante of UdA.

Marcante's projects always include something unexpected, such as a giant lamp beside a standard-size sofa, or antiques juxtaposed with contemporary objects. "I like to think of a room as I would a Giorgio de Chirico painting: I want to create a balanced mix between familiarity and estrangement. That’s where fascination comes from," he says.

Italian­-designed objects tell a story, according to Cappellini. Decor items shouldn’t aspire only to functionality, they should also make people smile.

This is what masters such as Ettore Sottsass and Achille Castiglioni have done. All their designs have an element of surprise, a conceptual twist that brings a smile and provides joy to those who use their products.

"Of course, for today's aspiring young designers, it's not easy to create new forms from under the burden of this great legacy. However, the pursuit of surprise elements can go in many directions, from technology to the amazing new materials that are now available," Cappellini says.

Never lose your childhood spirit. "Eclectic Italian artist­ and designer Bruno Munari said the basis of creativity is the ability to invent new relationships, and to modify the way familiar things and situations are arranged," says Laura Traldi, who writes about design for D la Repubblica.

This approach to creativity is one that designer Giulio Iacchetti, founder of the brand Interno Italiano, and his wife, Silvia, have applied to their home in Milan, where they live with their three children. "We didn't get any children’s furniture," Iacchetti says. "Instead, we chose furnishings as if they were large modules, objects to use as houses, castles, islands and so on. A living room doesn't become a playground by filling it with stuffed toys."

Italians seem to agree that play is a serious business.

5. Not Everything Is What It Seems
(Or, there is never only one truth.)

"We Italians are anything but bearers of absolute certainties," Iacchetti says. Is this a flaw? That depends on your point of view. "We specialize in the ability to see things against the light, to bring a kaleidoscopic vision, thanks to a lens that distorts reality and gives the work an ironic, fairy-tale twist.

"We instill doubt in people’s minds that objects may have more than one function, and that not everything is exactly what it seems," Iachetti says. "Although it’s a change of form, it’s first of all a conceptual change. The irony that demolishes certainties and makes us fragile is also liberating."

Design Within Reach, original photo on Houzz
Design Within Reach, original photo on Houzz

When in doubt, try adding wheels. "I learned a great lesson about the creative process, as well as about life in general, from the typewriter Valentine, by Sottsass, and the Table With Wheels, created by Gae Aulenti for FontanaArte," says Odo Fioravanti, who has developed projects for companies including Casamania, FontanaArte and Foscarini.

"I recommend it to anyone, designer or not, who’s having creative difficulties. Ask yourself: 'Have I tried adding wheels? Have I tried adding a handle?’ These are two simple processes that help you rethink in a new way what you're trying to create, and can show you a path out of the impasse."

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