The Future of Design in Milan

13 Apr 2009|Darrel Rhea

I’m not sure how I ended up on the stage at the Design Museum in Milan, an imposing temple to Italy’s product design genius, flanked by internationally renowned Italian designers. Sitting next to me was Stefano Giovannoni (a best selling Alessi rockstar), Francesco Lovo (Pininfarina’s design head), Luisa Bocchietto (President of Italy’s prestigious design organization, ADI) and a couple of others. We were there at the DMI International Conference to debate what Milan needs to do to maintain its prominence as a world design center.

Let’s be real, I really know relatively very little about Milanese design (a subject that there is much to know about spanning thousands of years), but I do know that Milan’s design changed the course of my life and had everything to do with my being there. As fate had it, 38 years earlier I was a teenager roaming Europe on my own with a backpack seeking to find myself. Walking down the streets of Milan one cold winter day, I looked in a furniture showroom window and found the most glorious expressions of design I had ever confronted – subtle combinations of sumptuous leather, chrome and minimal form. I spent the next week going from studio to gallery in awe, and I knew that I wanted to be part of that world. I promptly changed the course of my education.

So I was thrilled and honored to…

be part of this discussion. While I could not speak to the regional issues effecting currently effecting Milan, I could explain how other regions around the world have learned from Milan and in many instances surpassed it. Great design innovation is happening around the world and quality manufacturing supply chains have globalized. The close and rich connections between designers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs that gave Milan huge advantage in the 70s and 80s is being replicated and often taken to a new level. Milan designers tend to be myopic, and they tend to want to replicate their old winning formulas.

So what can they do? Reconnect with how they infused ideology and their passion for meaning into their products. The world can now do elegant Italian style, but they can’t be an Italian brand with a soul, standing for clear values that go deeper than the surface vocabulary of luxury style. They can build brands and products that delivery their unique type of Milanese meaningful experience, and because of their smaller scale they can really be authentic. In short, they need to find themselves, not their next cool design expression.

And that is something the rest of us with companies and brands should take to heart too…

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