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Interview

May 14, 2008

Piero Lissoni

Architect and designer Piero Lissoni has created furniture, kitchens, bathrooms, and lighting for some of the design industry's biggest brands, including Alessi, Boffi, Cappellini, Cassina, Flos, Fritz Hansen, Kartell, and Knoll. But Lissoni doesn't stop there — he's also designed apartments, houses, villas, showrooms, and luxury hotels. Artkrush editor Paul Laster caught up with the busy designer to discuss his design practice and his Dellis Cay project in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

AK:  Were you a creative child?

PL:  I don't know. I feel like creativity requires a certain discipline.

AK:  What motivated you to become a designer?

PL:  I don't think of myself as strictly a designer — I studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano, and in the Milanese tradition, you're simultaneously an architect, a designer, and a graphic designer. We never consider specializing in just one practice; if you're an architect, you should be able to design a spoon or a town. I became an architect because even when I was a boy, I had a will, a desire for it. I envisioned architecture as my future.

AK:  What was your big break?

PL:  When I was a young architect — I had just received my degree — Boffi Kitchens chose me to be their designer. That was 22 years ago.

AK:  What did you do at Boffi when you first started?

PL:  I completely redesigned the factory, the kitchen and bathroom products, and the catalogue, and after I redesigned the old pieces, I created new pieces.

AK:  When did your work first begin receiving critical acclaim?

PL:  I honestly don't know. I've designed so many pieces. When I was young — although I still feel young — everything I designed was wrong, wrong in dimension and wrong in function, because I liked to design uncomfortable pieces. I designed uncomfortable kitchens, uncomfortable houses, and uncomfortable buildings. Perhaps that was what invited critical interest.

AK:  That situation seems similar to an artist making "non-art" — something that's against the grain of contemporary works. When an artist makes that kind of art, it's seen as avant-garde.

PL:  Well, in any case, I'm an industrial designer, so I design things in an industrial way — I've never considered designing a chair as a unique piece. When I design a chair, my first considerations are proportion and dimension, whatever they may be, and sometimes the element of comfort is lost.

AK:  Are there certain materials that inspire you more than others?

PL:  No, one material is no more important than another to me. If I start to design a chair in plastic, I finish it in plastic; if I begin a chair in wood, it stays a wooden chair. I never choose a material just because I like it. I discuss the product with my clients and decide that now is the time to create a new form for a chair, a bathtub, or a kitchen. The material is never the point of departure.

AK:  What's your design philosophy?

PL:  To work! I'm a worker, and that's enough. I've never considered my work as an artistic practice, that anything I make transforms anyone's life. It's just work.

AK:  Do you consider yourself a minimalist because of your approach to form, or an expressionist because of your use of color?

PL:  It depends on your point of view. I can be seen as a minimalist, or otherwise. It might depend on whether you like me or not.

AK:  What types of non-design experiences inspire you?

PL:  Life, everything around me, is my primary point of inspiration — photography, movies, music, literature, women...

AK:  Do you work from sketches or models?

PL:  I make drawings and then have a one-to-one scale prototype made. I then modify the prototype into the final product. Some pieces can be designed from pure and perfect drawings; for others, you have to build outward.

AK:  How do you develop your design concepts? Do you work with a team?

PL:  I work with my own team, and I also work with manufacturers — those collaborations are like marriages. We discuss the concept beforehand, and we continue to discuss it day by day. Before discussing it with my team, I make some sketches, and then my team works with me to develop something concrete. I don't like brainstorming, though — that seems totally wrong. I have to think and have things clear in my mind before talking with my team because I should ultimately be responsible for my design.

AK:  How do you utilize technology?

PL:  It's impossible to survive without it. Whether I'm working with a simple piece of wood, or using carbon fiber and composite materials, it's impossible to do anything without having the correct technology. I like to use the maximal level of technology for everything.

AK:  Do you use software to refine your designs, after drafting?

PL:  I use the computer because it's a fantastic tool, but I prefer the mind and the pen.

AK:  Are the challenges of designing a watch the same as designing a chair?

PL:  Sometimes it's more complicated to design a chair because realizing the right proportion is very, very difficult. However, it's more difficult for me to design a watch than a building. With a watch, you have to visualize the product in microscopic dimensions. When an engineer talks about the parts of a millimeter, it's a nearly abstract measurement. When you talk about three millimeters of a chair, at least it's physically tangible; the smallest part of a millimeter is untouchable, but you still have to respect it. Six months after I designed some watches for Alessi, an engineer called me and said, "We have a problem: the body of the watch isn't deep enough. You have to modify its sides by three smaller parts of a millimeter." I didn't see it as a big deal, but to him, this minute measurement was huge.

AK:  How have you evolved your practice over the years?

PL:  I always follow my senses and my heart. My ideas on measurements, life, and aesthetics are always changing, but I have a very strong sense of self, and I respect my own character. I feel like if you don't change daily, you stop evolving — you might as well live in a cave, dress in furs, and eat raw meat.

AK:  What have you designed for Dellis Cay, the private island in Turks and Caicos?

PL:  I've designed some villas, some residences, and a hotel. The Mandarin Oriental will manage all of the properties.

AK:  Is the hotel small in scale, as with the villas and residences?

PL:  Of course — it's small scale for small people with small money! Everything is small: small diamonds, small Aston Martins, it's all reduced. Can you imagine?

AK:  Will you use your own designs in the interiors of the spaces you've designed?

PL:  I'll use some of my pieces, but also others by Le Corbusier, Fritz Hansen, Poul Kjærholm, and Arne Jacobsen. If I only used my pieces, it would be too much like designing a catalogue.

AK:  How are you integrating your buildings into Dellis Cay's previously uninhabited environment?

PL:  I'm integrating the designs in a simple way. When we started work on this project, we chose the tallest tree on the island, which is about 12 to 14 meters high, as the highest measure. The buildings aren't taller than any trees. This represents our consciousness about the surrounding environment.

AK:  How many times have you visited the island?

PL:  I'm there about every two or three months. It's a paradise for everyone except me; for me, it's hell. Everyone else is swimming and enjoying the scenery and beautiful girls, and I'm there to work.

AK:  What struck you most about Dellis Cay on your first visit?

PL:  I was amazed by the color and light. The water is the most incredible turquoise, the sky is white. It's an unbelievable contrast.

Piero Lissoni's designs are on view at Kartell's booth at the ICFF at New York's Jacob Javits Center from May 17 through May 20. A monograph of Lissoni's work was published by daab in 2007.

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