Lissoni on being an all-encompassing designer and making a proper pasta
When it comes to describing Piero Lissoni, the title ‘architect’ is inadequate. As well as buildings, the Italian designer has turned his hand to everything from furniture and yachts to branding and graphics. In the lead-up to September’s London Design Festival, his name was everywhere, linked to an array of new products and furniture by various high-profile brands. We spoke to him shortly before the event about the secrets of Italy’s success in design, the creative benefits of cooking and why buildings should be disposable.
ICON You must be very busy at the moment, with all the new work you’re showing at the London Design Festival.
PIERO LISSONI Yes, we’re launching products for Knoll, Boffi and Lema and we designed a showroom for stone company Salvatori. For Knoll, we’re launching the Avio sofa collection. Sorry, I say ‘Knoll’ in the German way [pronouncing the K], because the founder was German. The Americans, they took away the K, which sounds so vulgar. With Avio, the idea was to suspend everything not with classic feet but with a new structure we’ve named ‘fingers’. At the bottom of the sofa is a steel beam from which these ‘fingers’ emerge and hold up an island with a cushion on top. We’ve been working on this with engineers for more than two years. In the end, the technological solution dictated the shape of the sofa.
Lissoni’s winning proposal for the New York Aquarium is a submerged island with retractable roof
ICON And do you enjoy collaborating closely with engineers?
PL It’s crucial. Without good engineers, it is impossible to do anything at all. I never think to design something just because I like a shape or a formal solution – I always work first around technological solutions, which afterwards become about the aesthetics. Otherwise, we’re just talking about style.
ICON But is there any such thing as a Piero Lissoni style?
PL It’s a great compliment when people talk about a Piero Lissoni style. For me, if there is one, it’s about two words: simplicity and elegance. It’s impossible to be elegant without taking some risks – in combining materials or in spatial proportions. Sometimes, to achieve the idea, you have to do something that seems a little bit wrong – that’s the secret to being elegant.
ICON You’re also launching a customisable kitchen range for Boffi called Code. I believe you’ve worked with the brand for a long time.
PL We started working together about 30 years ago. When I’m working with Boffi, I am an art director, architect, designer and graphic designer all at the same time: I’m completely integrated into the process. Personally, that’s my goal: to be able to work together in a team for 30 years and design everything, from factories to shops to products to graphics. The way we were taught at my university, the Politecnico di Milano, was first to be an architect; second, if you are an architect, you need to be able to design spaces; then, if you design spaces you must be able to design something to put inside them. For me, being an architect is not only about designing a shape or shell of a building, it means being able to design the general idea of a space, inside and out. It’s a complete approach. It’s different to the Anglo-Saxon approach to design, which is to be super-specialised. But I prefer the opportunity to work in 360 degrees. Don’t forget, in Germany at the Bauhaus school, they were designing everything from a spoon to a town. In Italy, we continue to think that way.
The Conservatorium Hotel occupies the site of Amsterdam’s 19th century former music conservatory
ICON On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve just won a competition to design an aquarium and public waterfront park in New York. Tell me more.
PL It’s on the East River, in front of Roosevelt Island. We won the competition, but I have to say it was totally unexpected, because we designed something a little unusual, a little mad. It’s a huge circle in the middle of the water, which contains a submerged island with the aquarium in it. During the night, a retractable roof covers the aquarium and it becomes a planetarium. Now they need to find a lot of money in order to proceed.
ICON I wanted to ask you about how you adjust your approach to the various countries you work in.
PL If you like we can change the topic and talk about food and spaghetti and how to cook a very good ragu.
ICON Sure, we can talk about whatever you want.
PL You know there’s a discussion about wrong, fake Italian food around the world? They’ve started to discover these strange pizzas with chicken, onions or kebabs on them. And there’s a new generation of spaghetti bolognese with a white ragu. You know, in Italy we never eat spaghetti with a bolognese sauce – only tagliatelle. Anyway, if you like we can talk about that.
The Avio modular sofa system for Knoll, launched at the London Design Festival
ICON Are you a keen cook?
PL Yes. Cooking is for me a twilight zone. When I start to prepare food, it’s such an incredible place for thinking. I completely clear my mind and I’m super-concentrated on cooking, but at the same time I think about new projects, new pieces, or develop ideas. It’s fantastic for me. Don’t forget, in our profession it’s more or less impossible to be alone. We’re always working in a team.
ICON Do you enjoy working in a team?
PL Yes – it’s crucial for me. Without a team, I don’t like to work. In my studio in Milan, we are about 70 people – a mix of architects, designers, engineers, graphic designers, interior designers and people. I combine them together in the same team – if it’s a graphic project, for example, we use more graphic people with one designer and one architect. If it’s an architectural project we use more architects, but also designers.
ICON What do you think of the Italian design scene at the moment?
PL Italian design is in a good condition, because we control the factories well. The real trick is not in choosing Italian designers, but in controlling the process. Our factories are so special – they take risks, they invent and improve every day, they use new technology, they discover. That’s the secret of Italian design. There are many people who are convinced that Italian designers are like rock stars. That’s not true. We are good, but that is because we work in a very good system with fantastic factories.
Code bathroom cabinets for Boffi, launched during LDF
ICON How do you think that your approach to design has changed over the course of your career?
PL I’ve started to be lighter and to use more intelligent materials. I like to design buildings with a short life. After 25 or 30 years, you should dismantle the building and start with a new one – transform my buildings into something different. I don’t like this endless, arrogant idea that to be an architect or designer you design something for the future. I design something for today and sometimes for tomorrow. I don’t know what will happen the day after tomorrow. A lot of architects say, ‘I just designed a new icon for the future’. Come on. Come on. Be quiet. Keep calm. Everybody is designing a new icon. Can you imagine if all we offer the future generation is icons? My God.
T030 unit for Lema (2010). Lissoni also designed the brand’s London showroom
ICON So you think these architectural icons should just be torn down after 20 or 30 years?
PL Yes, after 30 years just dismantle the piece. You can transform it into parts for a car, truck, train or airplane or something like that. You can transform glass into a Coca-Cola bottles and you can crush the concrete and make it into new concrete. If somebody wants to remember it, they do it through photography.
ICON You’ve already designed just about everything from buildings and boats to graphics and furniture. What is your dream project now?
PL To be honest, every single day I already feel privileged to have done what I want. I’ve designed small objects such as watches, coffee machines and electronics, as well as buildings and towers. But I’m always curious if somebody asks me to design something for the first time. Sometimes the challenge is to design a new chair, sofa, table, building, villa or factory. Believe me – every time, it’s a new challenge.