PRINCIPAL, DAVID CHIPPERFIELD ARCHITECTS
Last year, Chipperfield was appointed artistic director of Driade, an Italian brand known for its idiosyncratic furniture collections. The position, to essentially reinvent what had become a somewhat staid, financially distressed company, may seem an unusual—or at least unnecessary role—for an architect and designer already in his prime. But Driade’s history befits Chipperfield’s penchant for distinctive, well-made things. Founded in Milan in 1968 by Enrico Astori with his sister, Antonia, and wife, Adelaide Acerbi, Driade was the first company to put into commercial production Philippe Starck’s Café Costes chair, in 1984. Once a powerhouse of edgy and unpredictable furniture and accessories, Driade had fallen on hard times by 2013—until the Italian Creation Group rescued it. Now, as the CEO Stefano Core says, Driade seeks “to reinforce brand awareness with a younger, international audience.” Chipperfield, who conceived the brand’s new interior concept and organized its newest collection, is a crucial part of this.
His firm remains as in-demand as ever: Chipperfield has been chosen to extend the Metropolitan Museum in New York, to redevelop the Royal Academy in London, and to design the Nobel Prize Centre in Stockholm, even as his latest museum to open, the Museo delle Culture ( MUDEC)in Milan, has been the subject of a clash with the Italian Minister of Culture Filippo del Corrio. Here, Chipperfield speaks about his work for and with Driade and beyond.
Why am I tied in with Driade? The reason for accepting the role of creative director is complicated and based on an appeal from its founder, Enrico Astori. I’ve been operating out of Milan for 17 years, I know him well, and they had hit hard times. The whole furniture industry in Italy is struggling, and Driade has been struggling with it. It’s a very personal company, a family business, and both Enrico and his sister are in their 80s—and his wife had died. So there was this crisis of heritage.
The question is, how do you build upon a slightly idiosyncratic heritage firmly based on an extraordinary design culture after the world of Albini and Ponti? The answer: Go back to the archives.
The interesting thing about Driade is that they didn’t go through corporatization. If you think of design labels, they so often do. Take Skandium. When it first appeared, it was fantastic. Now it’s like a blanket; it all hangs together nicely, but it’s not passionate about any particular thing. Take a company like B&B Italia, which has a coherent idea at a very high level. They’ve got a nearly coherent sense of taste. Driade does the opposite in this culture of uniformity and branding. How to deal with diversity is profoundly important. I’m trying to hang onto this idiosyncratic approach, to discover whether you can be a curator of a collection and go back to new investors and ask, “Where do we go from here?” Before looking at Asia and at new designers, why not look at what we’ve got?
Instead of the rejuvenation of Driade being lots of new designers, I thought, let’s first of all reassess what Driade has achieved in the last 50 years—and remind people that this is the origin of the company, and also the origins of design in Italy. And what furniture was like in the 1960s and what it is now. In the new showroom, an entire floor is dedicated to the historic pieces of the company dating from 1968 to 1982. I think there’s a certain originality and freshness in those pieces, which is missing in so much contemporary furniture.
For this year’s Salone del Mobile, I put back into production two pieces from the ’70s—Enzo Mari’s Sof Sof chair  and his Elisa sofa —and reissued from the ’90s Konstantin Grcic’s Zigzag bookcase  and my own design for the cone-shaped adjustable Evelyn light, which I designed 15 years ago for the Shore Club Hotel in Miami.
I like Enzo Mari. His Frate table designed at the end of the ’70s sells as well today as it did then. It’s a great example of original design and is so appropriate for Driade today because of its independence of spirit. He didn’t come up with a table like that to fill a market slot. He doesn’t give a fuck; he’s not interested in appealing to the customer. He may be the grumpiest man on the planet, but his designs are still bestsellers, really market-friendly though not market-placed. What’s so nice about his Elisa sofa is that he made the prototype and lived with it at home, sat on it every day. When we borrowed it to put back into production, we asked, “Why, when it was originally made, was it upholstered in brown?” He said, “No, no, the original colour was white!”
Konstantin Grcic is a friend of mine, an independent spirit, not a slick formalist, His Zigzag is a really nice contribution to the collection. When you see the Zigzag shelves, you see that Konstantin was just trying to work something out; it’s old-fashioned in that way. It’s a combination of an idea, technology and the tectonic, a real piece of furniture making.
I would say that the whole tradition of Italian design is no longer there. It’s much more formalist. The makers are still there, teams of people, skilled workers in metal, stone, marble. Yes, the whole dynamic of manufacturing furniture in Italy is fantastic, and yes, it is still there. You couldn’t dissemble it, that tradition of father and son passing on their skills and heritage. Whether it’s with Driade, B&B Italia, or Valentino, there’s a healthy understanding between the designer and maker in Italy.
For 18 years I committed to Italy, building an office there, designing shops for Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana. I never got any architecture commissions in England—Issey Miyake’s shop was the first thing I ever did followed by Joseph and Katherine Hamnett. I ran my office on frock shops; I built a brand. Those kinds of interiors could be built quickly and interleafed with big projects as we grew. I won competitions abroad, and I began designing for Italian companies in the ’90s, when there was the “clean hands” initiative, which led to a series of public scandals as alleged corruption was exposed. The competitions were well-organized and judged. I’m still building three of my winning projects: the cemetery of Venice, where we’ve completed one courtyard in 12 years; the Salerno Law Courts, which I won in 1999; and the Ethnography museum in Ansaldo, the last part of MUDEC due to open in October.
We had a row earlier this year over MUDEC, the Museo delle Culture in Milan. If the city doesn’t want to do what you want to do, it’s up to you to act. It’s a long story. It was building against all odds. The building isn’t bad, but you can’t compromise on fundamentals. A director of works started to compromise two years ago, and in the last 18 months, the floors—50,000 square feet of basalt—were laid wrongly, during which time I did not take one penny of fees. Calling in a stone company for analysis, they said after tests, “Give us six weeks to fix it, and 300,000 euros.: The city, having ignored the fault, said to the stone company, “We thought you might do it for nothing!” Six weeks ago, the Culture and Arts minster said in front of 30 Italian journalists, “We’re sick and tired of working with Chipperfield,” siting the stone laying. I didn’t bring it to the public. The Anglo-Saxon journalists, as usual, accused me of being in a tantrum and were told that David Chipperfield Architects got three million euros for the project—but it’s not true! We got one million euros in three years. Online sites need headlines to get the hits, so around the world went the news that David Chipperfield hits the roof in Milan. It just wasn’t true.
I always say, “Don’t wrestle with the chimney sweep. After an hour, both will be covered in dirt.” After 15 years, you can’t take your name off a building, but as a citizen I’m pissed off. —As told to Nonie Niesewand