Interview by Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Danilo Scarpati
Michele De Lucchi speaks softly and slowly. Sitting at his large desk on the top floor of his five-story office in Milan, the 64-year-old architect and designer wears an oxford shirt, a button-up vest, a jacket, and round glasses. He keeps the many colored pens and pencils on his desk organized and sharp. With his thick graying beard and avuncular smile, De Lucchi exudes the academic air of a design professor—which he is, at the Milan Polytechnic. He is also one of the most prominent Italian designers in the world, having created products for brands including Artemide, Alessi, Baccarat, and Hermès, as well as for his own company, Produzione Privata. His recent architecture projects include the Poltrona Frau Museum (2013), the Triennale Design Museum in Milan (2007), and shops for the Spanish shoe brand Camper and Italian fashion label Moschino.
At two of Milan’s flagship events this year—Salone del Mobile, from April 14 to 19, and the Milan Expo, from May 1 to Oct. 30—De Lucchi’s work will take center stage. At the Salone fairgrounds, De Lucchi is curating “La Passeggiata,” or “The Walk,” an exhibition that presents the importance of walking as it relates to office design. The show will be organized into four areas: “The Club,” about social contact and exchanges; “Free Man,” looking at individual work versus teamwork; “Agorà,” on conference rooms and auditoriums; and “Laboratory,” covering the creative process. At the Milan Expo, De Lucchi is designing the main entrance to the pavilions, which will be made without a foundation and will reflect his increasingly environmentally sensitive design approach.
Last month, Surface sat with De Lucchi in his office as he discussed his early years in Italy’s Radical Design movement—after graduating from the Florence Art College in 1975—and his time in the Alchymia and Memphis groups. He also spoke about his work as the former design director of Olivetti, how companies like Apple and Google should think about their new office spaces, and why it’s essential to be ecologically responsible as a designer. >
Let’s start with “The Walk.” How did you come up with the concept?
I’ve been working in the office evolution for many years. My first real professional commitment and challenge was to design office furniture for Olivetti in the late ’70s. Since then, I’ve been in touch with the evolution of the office, which has been a really rapid and very surprising experience. Nobody expected to see so many changes. After being at Olivetti as a furniture designer, I became a product designer there. I designed a lot of computers—first typing machines; after that, electronic typing machines; after that, calculator machines; and after that, computers. I designed for Olivetti something like 65 computers, printers, copy machines, cash machines, and special bank machines and installations.
At the time, Olivetti was well known and had a reputation for electronics, especially after a lot of other European electronics producers disappeared. It was alongside Phillips and Siemens. I remember I was very much tied to and continually in touch with the chief designers of Philips and Siemens. We used to meet at least once or twice every year, just to exchange information. It was very exciting, because we were continuously realizing how many new possibilities were developing every time we met. That was in the ’80s and ’90s. In the middle of the ’90s, everybody started to understand that the production of these industrial machines was no longer something that belonged to the ambitions of Europe. Olivetti later became a telecommunications company. It bought Telecom Italia and fused Olivetti into it.
Did this happen because these companies couldn’t compete in the space that they had once been pioneers in—a space that Apple, IBM, and other giants had entered?
It was especially because of the Japanese and Taiwanese companies. In some ways, IBM was always out of the competitors, because it wasn’t so much a consumer brand. Apple, yes, obviously, but Apple then was something for young people. It wasn’t for business. The competitors of Olivetti—if I remember correctly—were something like Texas Instruments, Toshiba, and Fujitsu. LG, too, which was called GoldStar [until 1995]. And Samsung wasn’t really competition yet. I never expected that Samsung would become the big company it is today.
How did working at Olivetti impact your career at large?
Olivetti was my introduction to the bank business. Just because I was the chief designer of Olivetti, I’d been invited to design the branches of Deutsche Bank in Germany. Working with Deutsche Bank was a door-opener. After that, I was invited in Italy to design banks for Banca Intesa—which now is Intesa Sanpaolo—and then the Poste Italiane offices. In my mind, the bank commissions were about designing offices that were open to the public. Just because of Deutsche Bank, I won the competition to design the ticket halls for Deutsche Bundesbank. Then, little by little, I got in touch with the most active Italian telecom companies. I designed not only offices for the public but also internal offices. Now I design buildings for offices, and I teach a semester workshop [at Milan Polytechnic] about the evolution of offices.
Over time, I realized the problem was no longer to design offices, but to understand the changing lifestyle inside of offices. What the technology evolution especially brought to offices was a change in lifestyles.
So you view office design as largely an issue of how we live, not of design itself?
Offices are not tables. Offices are not chairs. There’s no longer this official separation between office style and domestic or home style. We prefer to mix. We prefer to not be in a formal or conventional office but to be at home.
How are you framing the exhibition at Salone?
It’s to take advantage of all of these experiences, and to try to throw these experiences away. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that to understand the office today you don’t have to take care of furniture and the finishing of the room. It’s really about space. Space is the most important thing in offices: the space between the chair and the table, between the main room and the meeting room, between the desks of colleagues and the toilet. The walk from the entrance to your desk is so important. You get information that way. You feel the experience of the office. You meet somebody. You catch stimulations. To just sit at your desk with headphones on is unmeaningful. The space between things is often used for walking. That’s why I called this exhibition “The Walk.”
Walking is really what puts you in touch with a place. Walking goes back to the old Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, who were teaching while walking. They were called the Peripatetic. This, I think, is fantastic: You don’t need anything to work except the will to go just a little bit farther. This wonderful evocation is how we should behave mentally as human beings today. We should be very light, very fresh, and very willing to walk. “The Walk” is a combination of ideas and suggestions.
If you were to offer suggestions to big companies doing their offices today, like Apple and Google, what advice would you give them?
What we don’t accept in offices any longer is anonymity and spaces that have no personality—especially with repetition, where everything is the same throughout the office. Almost every office today is done with different sections: the space where everybody works alone, the space where everybody works in groups. Even the meeting rooms aren’t always the same: You have one room for quick meetings, another for long meetings, another for teamwork, others for conferences. This is happening already. It’s not being invented.
I remember we used to talk about these same topics 20 years ago, more or less with the same commitment. [Ettore] Sottsass, [Andrea] Branzi, and I did the Citizen Office for Vitra in the middle of the ’90s, and it was very much about this. [De Lucchi’s cellphone rings. He answers and speaks for two minutes.]
Sorry. That was my wife. She was calling because last night I arrived at home at half past midnight. I travel home by train, and the train station is seven kilometers away from where I live, and my car wasn’t working. I called my wife: “Sabrina, Sabrina, please, please, please.” No answer. She was sleeping. So I started walking. I had walked three and a half kilometers when finally my wife answered and came to pick me up. It was strange. To walk by night, straight, without lighting, is quite scary.
Walking seems almost comically connected to your life right now.
[Laughs] For me, this is the best thing, walking.
You were the head of design at Olivetti from 1988 to 2002, and during that time, the office changed enormously. What transformations have you seen since 2002?
Much more change than in my time at Olivetti. Everything has changed because of IT, because of social networks, because of terabytes, because of cellphones. And it’s changing even more every day. What everybody knows now is that everything is changing and will not stop changing. We’re ready to be surprised by every new tool we have. An office is no longer the prison where you have to stay for eight hours—not five minutes more, not five minutes less. For this reason, I think the office should create much more activity.
You cannot work for a company without personality. Every company has to cultivate that. A company is a community, and it should take care of the people it has. The company needs the people, and the people need the company. The office becomes the place where these entities meet. The office should be about bringing people together and creating the identity of the company. This is why companies should invest in new, updated, and efficient offices.
It sounds to me like you’re speaking about office design as a way of creating culture, not necessarily as a way of creating a setting or aesthetic atmosphere.
Definitely. This remains the big issue: what to do with the ugly, awful, horrible concepts of bureaucracy and conventionality. I’m continuously looking, because my clients always put me in front of this problem of dealing with bureaucracy, not just in a public administration but also in private companies. There are always a lot of rules and normalizations and regulations. These are the biggest constraints. Just to be safe—so that a problem doesn’t happen, to avoid something that is so small and so irrelevant to the main scope of the work—we create these unnecessary fences.
Do you think some designers would do well to enter politics?
No. [Laughs] Politics requires competence, and most designers don’t have this competence. But designers should investigate organizations in society: how communities get together and get separated, how individuals inside society become individuals.
Tell me about how you run your own studio.
At the moment, I’m very happy with my office because it’s not as big as it once was. We have between 40 and 50 people—we’re 42. This is the right number. Cannot be bigger because otherwise we face bureaucracy.
Early in your career, you were part of the Radical Design movement and the Alchymia and Memphis groups. These were design-focused but social in nature. In your mind, how did each of them come about?
It’s very much related to the spirit of the time. In the ’70s, we were very much focused on the political and social involvement of architecture and design, so Radical Design was a kind of reaction against society. In the ’80s, it was Alchymia and Memphis, which were very much about the need of creating a new image. We were very fed up with rationalism and rigid composition styles, without colors, without decoration. The idea that decoration belonged to fashion and should not be taken into consideration by designers was very unacceptable to us. We were being provocative. We wanted to bring fashion inside design. The Memphis message was that design has to be a part of the time in which you’re living.
After that, the big event, I think, was about the scare of nature’s potential collapse. This is still the time we’re in. At first, this issue was the lack of energy and oil. Now we understand energy is always an important, fundamental issue. We’re more scared than we’ve ever been about destroying the planet and worried about arriving at a condition where the planet reacts against humanity. I think this is frightening everybody.
How, then, should we respond?
For me, as an architect and designer, the real topic of the time is to investigate—and to better understand in a theoretical way—the difference between temporality and eternity, what has to be temporary and what has to be permanent. This is, especially for architecture, a very crucial question. It’s wrong to be temporary for no reason, and it’s wrong to be eternal for no reason. We cannot continue to just go in and use virgin land. I’m waiting for the moment in which we will not be allowed to use virgin land any longer.
In the region of Italy of the Po river—Turin, Milan, Venice—we lose 20 hectares of land every day. Lost forever to streets, residences, industries. We’re in a critical condition, because the economy is low at the moment. When the economy is up again, we’re going to lose 40 to 60 hectares a day. That’s 300 hectares a week, just in this small region!
As an architect and designer, how can you make sure what you’re doing is ecologically responsible?
Something that’s very interesting for me is that most of the buildings under construction for the Expo are without a foundation. They’re conceived as objects that are just there without going into the ground. This, I think, can be a good achievement, because you’re conceiving a building as something that’s solid enough to be used and has all the possible features to be the most advanced in the world, but it can be removed, replaced at any moment, and has an identity of something that doesn’t belong to the soil, to the ground, to the planet’s crust.
Wood seems to be your predominant material of choice. Why?
Wood is the best to achieve this condition I’m talking about. Wood is long lasting. There are wood pieces of furniture in the tombs of the Egyptians that are 5,000 years old. Wood is renewable, and it fits the sensibilities of humans today. Forests can be regenerated. Wood also has this idea of something that can be moved and temporary. It’s a material that always stays independent from the rest.
Tied into this is your work in restoration. You’ve restored many old buildings, including the church of San Giorgio in Poggiale in Bologna, the Villa Reale in Monza, and Manica Lunga in Venice.
This is the best business in Italy. We have such a strong regulation for heritage. With this, there’s obviously a lot of responsibility. I need to be careful about that. Dealing with public heritage, especially historical monuments, is always very challenging. You need a lot of energy to do it, to find out good alternatives. The clients will ask you to do something, and the heritage board will ask you to do something else. You’re in the middle, and you have to find out the best possible combination. You must have the will of keeping something that is of value, and to check what’s valuable and what’s not. This is the most difficult point: to judge what is really valuable and deserves to be kept, restored, and maintained; to know what’s authentic and what’s fake.
It’s interesting that you’ve had clients in the cultural sphere who want to save old buildings, and yet, on the other hand, you have these very corporate clients, some of whom would probably just as well tear them down. How do you convince the corporate clients that they should save something, and how do you convince the preservationists that something isn’t as valuable as they think it is?
It’s a matter of money. Every time. If you’re able to convince a client to keep something that’s valuable because it’s old and historical, deserves to be visited, and will invoke admiration from everybody—and that it’s more important to invest money there than in advertising—they’ll do it.
Over the last decade, you’ve built a lot in the country of Georgia. How did that start?
I was invited to a competition together with David Chipperfield. I used to have a very close relationship with David—and still do now, even though we’re not working together on anything at the moment. We did a competition for renovating the center part of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. We lost the competition, but the then-president [Mikheil Saakashvili] loved some of the buildings. He said, “I want this, I want this, I want this—but I don’t want it here, I want it here. I want this, but here, not there.” It didn’t really make sense, because we’d designed them for specific sites, but in any case, we understood the real need of this president at the time. Now the country has a different president [Giorgi Margvelashvili]. [Saakashvili’s] need wasn’t necessarily to have perfect, functional, or working buildings at their intended locations. It was to have buildings that Georgia could be proud of, buildings that could say, “Georgia is Georgia and is not Russia and doesn’t belong to the Soviet Union.” They wanted signals, not buildings. As soon as I understood that, I created a good relationship with the president. After that, I don’t know what he did, because he’s no longer the president.
Let’s discuss some of your smaller-scale design work. In 1990, you started your own manufacturing company, Produzione Privata. Why?
We had decided to close Memphis [in 1987], and I needed to have an experimentation field with Italian craftsman, carpenters, and ceramic and glass producers. I wasn’t able to do anything for two or three years, until I created this world. The name “Produzione Privata” is very ambiguous. Produzione—you cannot do production for yourself; it’s a totally insane concept. This ambiguity had me understand that I could do something that was private experimentation with public production. That’s my approach. It still exists and is working. With this, I understand all of my clients much better and the decisions they have to make about production, products, advertising, social media, all that sort of stuff.
For the rest of the interview with Michele De Lucchi, purchase the May issue here.