Colonne portanti: interview with architect and designer Michele De Lucchi

In Rome there’s an unconventional exposition space. It’s called Fondazione VOLUME! and is presided over by neurosurgeon and art collector Francesco Nucci. Here you won’t find artists simply displaying their work but rather surgically operating on the architectural body of the space to the point of transforming it case by case into a different thing altogether. Until February 15th 2013, Fondazione VOLUME!  will receive a hands-on treatment from architect and designer Michele De Lucchi with exhibition "Colonne Portanti", curated by Emilia Giorgi. At the opening the designer talked to us about the meaning of his latest work and the niches he dug out in the walls, in which 13 handcrafted columns have been fit.

Michele De Lucchi has already made the books of design history as a protagonist of the Alchimia and Memphis movements and much more. He developed products for the most important industries in Italy and Europe, winning the Compasso d'Oro award twice. In Italy, among other things, he designed the interiors of Milan’s Triennale, of the Italian Post and of Bank Intesa. Recently, he developed various projects for the public and private sector in Georgia, such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Bridge of Peace in Tblisi. In 1990 De Lucchi founded Produzione Privata, a company for which he designs objects made with artisanal techniques. Since 2004 he sculpts little houses in wood with a chainsaw, in the quest for the essence of architectural form. Pieces that are now displayed in the most important museums of the world. Since 2008 he’s full professor at the design Faculty of the Politecnico in Milan.

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,

What sort of research did you conduct for exhibition "Colonne Portanti" [Supporting Columns]?For an exhibition in Rome to have any meaning requires an immersion into the Roman world and its iconography. When they asked me to do it I was working on something else: drawings of mountains according to a schematic pattern. At the beginning I considered bringing my mountains to Rome, but that would have been somewhat of a contradiction. So I thought about the most significant aspects of "Romanity" by joining the various elements that distinguish it: columns, niches, archeology, catacombs, walls with peeling paint and the soul of Rome, that has such a rich history and looks to the future without being futuristic.

How did you interpret these spaces?In the past this was a glassmaker’s workshop, an aspect that interests me because it suits my desire to work manually. I dug out niches in the space, populating them with columns, polished but not rounded, built piece by piece, until forming single layers. The entasis, the curve created by the different diameters of these slices, is more or less pronounced and different in each of the 13 pieces. To me it’s a fundamental element that tries to transmit Romanity and convey a contemporary message: lift. The column bears the weight and adapts its shape in the act of supporting. In this there’s a reference to the spirit of inevitable resignation that we self-afflict ourselves with today.

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,"Colonne portanti" by Michele de Lucchi. Photo © Federico Ridolfi - Courtesy Fondazione VOLUME!

What does re-elaborating such a stratified icon of the common imagery entail?With the columns I revisited the spirit of Morandi. For his entire life Giorgio Morandi designed the same objects through all the avant-garde art styles of the past century. I asked myself if I’d ever find something in this way of working. The artist from Bologna spent his entire life in a room insisting on painting the same objects, an art that on the surface was without future or complications. But that he managed to enrich and imbue with meaning.

"Colonne" seems to be a ramification of the handmade artistic works you produce, such as the "Casetta" series of little houses for example. What is the meeting ground between your work as an artist and as a designer?No doubt the house with the pitched roof that I made in the series of small houses is an archaic symbol which is now obsolete. The work of an artist, like that of an architect or a designer, is to show what we have right in front of us but can no longer see. To paraphrase Seneca: what we can no longer put into focus with "the mind’s eye".

What results has this research begun in 2004 produced?I’ve understood that designers and architects work on 2 different types of projects: one tailored for market consumption, the other more intellectual, for the market of influences. The latter is able to give a project unexpected undertones, which is what we’re missing most of all today. I believe my little houses project has produced some influence.
It’s also important to be able to be influenced. In the world of design there’s often a tendency to copy, a big problem if we think of Chinese or Indian fakes. But this doesn’t mean we have to become incapable of absorbing the sense of what’s happening in the world. To me being open and available is fundamental, without however expecting to reinvent the world each time, the great error that often afflicts architecture.

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
"Colonne portanti" by Michele de Lucchi. Photo © Federico Ridolfi - Courtesy Fondazione VOLUME!

While on the topic of influences, what artists interest you the most today?I can cite the work of twins Mike and Doug Starn, American conceptual artists with their project "Big Bambù". In general I like work which has a relationship with nature and the natural environment, such as those of David Nash, Andy Goldsworthy and Thomas Heatherwick. The latter in my opinion is the artist that manages to mix architecture, design and invention the best.

In January of 1974 you made your entrance at Milan’s Triennale dressed as a Napoleonic general with a sign that read "Designer in general", and dragging a trash bag with written: "Project". Would you change something of that performance?The sense of that performance is still current: design and architecture as disciplines have great power on the destiny of the world and humanity. Those who design objects and spaces also design behavior. They therefore have a very important political and social role of which there is not much awareness.

What’s missing in the world of design right now?What’s missing is a sense of identity, in design but especially in architecture. There’s great effort put into sculptural and scenographic effects, but in the end we ask ourselves: to what end?
I’m not criticizing extravagant architecture that has strong representative and symbolic aspects that work better than those who do not have them. But all this bears meaning only if guided by an ideology that sustains a society and its evolution.

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,"Colonne portanti" by Michele de Lucchi. Photo © Federico Ridolfi - Courtesy Fondazione VOLUME!

Your work in Georgia indeed has great pathos. Can you describe the context in which you operated?In this small Caucasian nation I realized I was not designing hotels or buildings, but something which Georgians could be proud of. Icons able to project them towards the future and distance them from the Soviet grayness. That’s where I discovered the need to work in harmony with the expectations of society. In truth, in the Western world we have difficulties believing in the future of our society. But we forget that we are the market and buying is a judgement of value. We have to responsibly reconquer our role of market qualifiers through our choices.

Today the role of designer has been developing in many different and new directions. Which do you find to be the most interesting?I need to stress how much design, craftsmanship and industry are intimately intertwined. In Italy it’s our strong point. During the various fairs and exhibitions we offer a large number of artisanal prototypes that are analyzed, criticized or applauded and that sustain the sense of design as a discipline that deals with evolution and living.
If design were in the hands of the industry alone it would be something else. But when the industry works in synergy with craftsmanship it continues to produce prototypes, exploring new avenues and innovation. This is the strength of young designers that thanks to craftsmanship can make prototypes and attempt things the industry cannot. A designer making a piece of furniture by hand can experiment, attempt difficult and risky solutions, with the freedom of being allowed mistakes.

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
"Colonne portanti" by Michele de Lucchi. Photo © Federico Ridolfi - Courtesy Fondazione VOLUME!

How do you work with this aspect in the university course you hold?This year, together with architect and designer Andrea Branzi, we’ve asked the students to design caves, without any functional objectives. It’s a very complicated assignment: it means designing a natural element through rational and geometric forms, but also to train the brain to get used to treating formal and figurative aspects using metaphors, symbols and words.

You have been one of the protagonists of the Memphis and Alchimia movements. What do you believe are their most important lessons for designers today?The need to experiment without formal, figurative or stylistic constraints. The thing that damages design the most today is the search for a style. The need to belong to a school of thought and to have to create new ones. There are some cases of lucky designers like Ross Lovegrove or Karim Rashid, who imposed successful styles. To me it seems a sterile monologue. Nothing against their work, but it’s not by imitating these examples that design will evolve.

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
"Casetta 248" (walnut, 2011) by Michele De Lucchi. Photo © Michele De Lucchi 

Today the industrial model as an assett to the evolution of society is in crisis. As a designer and entrepreneur, what would you change?That of Olivetti, for whom I have worked, is an ideal industrial model that sustains and invests in society. Today we should understand that economic success is necessary but not sufficient.

Could you give us an example?Rolf Fehlbaum, patron of Vitra, is a philosopher. He never worried about the company only in terms of industrial organization and annual balance sheets. He always followed the charismatic and ideological direction of Charles Eames and his wife Ray. Working with him means not concentrating on furniture but rather asking oneself: What is the work for? What should we work on? It’s another vision of the world, which stems from questioning meaning and showing unthinkable alternatives for those concentrated only on numbers.

Our magazine tries to portray elegance in its various forms: what’s your idea of elegance?I’d tie this concept in with my exhibition. When making "Colonne" I had to learn about entasis, this marvelous concept which transforms a pillar into a column. Even I, an architect, had not noticed it before. Only when I began building the columns did I realize its importance. It’s interesting to note how something we may not be used to considering is in reality the essence of elegance. It’s what determines the difference, the element that the masses no longer see.

Interview by Fabio Falzone

Photos via www.amdl.it and archive.amdl.it  Michele De Lucchi's portrait at home @ Federico Ridolfi. Courtesy Fondazione VOLUME! 2012

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
"Casetta 261" (walnut, 2012) by Michele De Lucchi. Photo © Michele De Lucchi

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
"Casetta 208" (walnut, 2010) by Michele De Lucchi. Photo © Michele De Lucchi

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
"Palafitta 239" (oak, 2010) by Michele De Lucchi. Photo © Michele De Lucchi

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,"Palafitta 239" (oak, 2010) by Michele De Lucchi. Photo © Michele De Lucchi

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
Public Service Hall, Ministry of Justice of Georgia, Marneuli (Georgia), 2011 - 2012. Photo © Gia Chkhatarashvili

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
Public Service Hall, Ministry of Justice of Georgia, Marneuli (Georgia), 2011 - 2012. Photo © Gia Chkhatarashvili

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
The Palace of Justice in Georgia, Batumi (Georgia), 2009 – 2011. Photo © Gia Chkhatarashvili

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
The Palace of Justice in Georgia, Batumi (Georgia), 2009 – 2011. Photo © Gia Chkhatarashvili

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
The Bridge of Peace, Old City Rehabilitation and Development Fund, Tbilisi (Georgia), 2009 - 2010. Photo © Gia Chkhatarashvili

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
The Bridge of Peace, Old City Rehabilitation and Development Fund, Tbilisi (Georgia), 2009 - 2010. Photo © Gia Chkhatarashvili

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
The Bridge of Peace, Old City Rehabilitation and Development Fund, Tbilisi (Georgia), 2009 - 2010. Photo © Gia Chkhatarashvili

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
Lamp "Cuore Aperto tavolo 25" (Produzione Privata, Italy, 2012) by Michele De Lucchi with Alberto Nason. Photo © Michele De Lucchi

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
Vase "Maroggia" from collection "Maioliche Deruta" (Produzione Privata, Italy, 2012) by Michele De Lucchi, with Nora De Cicco, Maddalena Molteni and Philippe Nigro. Photo © Tom Vack

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
Vase "Nestore" from collection "Maioliche Deruta" (Produzione Privata, Italy, 2012) by Michele De Lucchi, with Nora De Cicco, Maddalena Molteni and Philippe Nigro. Photo © Tom Vack

LTVs, Michele De Lucchi, Colonne Portanti, Fondazione Volume!, Lancia TrendVisions, Rome,
Vase "Tescio" from collection "Maioliche Deruta" (Produzione Privata, Italy, 2012) by Michele De Lucchi, with Nora De Cicco, Maddalena Molteni and Philippe Nigro. Photo © Tom Vack


"Tolomeo Mega" lamp (Artemide, 2003) by Michele De Lucchi with Giancarlo Fassina. Photo © Luca Tamburlini


"Tolomeo" lamp (Artemide, 1987) by Michele De Lucchi with Giancarlo Fassina. Photo © Luca Tamburlini


"Tolomeo Pinza" lamp (Artemide, 1995) by Michele De Lucchi with Giancarlo Fassina. Photo © Luca Tamburlini

11 January 2013