Jerszy Seymour What can we say to the young designer today?
Gaetano Pesce Aren't you one of them? How old are you?
JS I'm 41. I use that term even with respect to myself [laughs]. But I think that the design profession is becoming more and more boxed. There's either industry or a kind of magazine show culture and there's very little space for design to happen. That's why I think having conversations like this is interesting, as a way of making that space.
GP What I know, if I look at what happened in the 20th century, is that Duchamp opened the possibility for the design object to be art. So what I will say to young designers is to be aware that they have a very powerful tool. A long time ago we thought that design was an applied art – that is an old story. All those divisions are gone, so young designers have to take their job as a measure of expression, and if they do it with courage then they have the freedom to express a lot of things. And I'm not saying to look for money immediately, not to look for fame tomorrow, but to go slowly and enjoy life. Because design is also life. You transfer what you learn from life onto your work.
JS One of my big influences is Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau [a house that the artist transformed into an artwork in the 1920s and 30s], and the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk. I think it was a design project but also a philosophy of life. One of the tenets was "act without planning". And my first arrival at something that gave me an electric shock was working with glass in Murano, because before that I was working quite traditionally (doing a drawing first etc). I was working with this glass-blower, trying to carve drawings into the glass, and I suddenly realised that this material was just reacting whether I liked it or not. And that changed my perception.
And then I started using polyurethane foam. I was trying to make a sofa that was cast from a car but I couldn't find any way to do it. But then I found this machine for spraying foam, which they use for building insulation. So I was spraying this stuff and saw that it had this rapid expansion, and I realised something: that working directly with this material was giving me a lot of energy. And so I started to make installations with it. At that time I saw it as anti-design. Now I've realised that it wasn't anti-design, it was more design itself, from inside the volcano of primordial drives, free from anything except that mixture of what it means to be a human being – paraphrasing Freud. It's the most subversive moment in your life to work with a fast-reacting material that you're not completely in control of. I think the experience of using it is even stronger than the result.
GP So what you say to young designers is to be curious about innovative materials?
JS Not so much about materials. What I mean is that for me it was creating a zero situation. I think people need a way to create a zero space for themselves – to create a beginning.
GP A starting point, for sure. I would say that it's very important to express ourselves in relation to our time, it's the way to be sincere. And that means that you cannot use traditional stuff because that is part of the past, but use materials from your time. This is one thing. The second thing, and this is very important, is that young people for sure have opinions: about sex, about food, politics, philosophy, religion. If you have a political opinion, why not express it with your objects?
JS Do you think it's enough to just express your individuality? Because I feel that it's more important than ever before to challenge the system right down to the fundamentals.
Jerszy Seymour's Workshop chair, made of wood and wax, from the Amateur Workshop, 2009
GP We cannot say, "I am not part of the system". It's better to be part of the system and enlarge the system, make it more human, more open maybe. We are not an island, but connected in this society. That's important. I remember when they said I was part of Radical Design [the 1960s Italian design movement], but I never felt part of it because I thought it's not about not-radical or radical, we have to do design! And the difficult thing was to evolve beyond what the modernist movement thought – it wasn't easy. So to "do" radical at the time was to create something that was critical of the past. For me, I was saying why dwell on the past? We have to suggest something as important as the modern movement. To do things like this you need to be inside the system.
JS It's like the situationists. I think there were some great things about the movement but, exactly as you say, they wanted to cause a revolution by evolving a modernist structure, but then you end up with a variation of the same structure. So I like what you say because I see the idea of growth as much more organic. I mean, my work definitely makes a critique of capitalist culture. I feel quite clear that design is like eating and drinking and pissing and breathing – in other words, just something that human beings do. And we all know there's a market, but to give all the power to a so-called "free market", which is a bit of a contradiction in terms, means that design is becoming ... in fact, in your case, the postmodern project quite quickly went from being radical to being accepted within the market.
GP What I think is that today we can do a lot with our job: we can design a country, for instance. How a country is organised, how the capital works. That has nothing to do with form, it's only content, and I still believe that's what design is. On the other side, I am sure we can give people their lost individuality through design. That is also super-important politically speaking, because you push people to be very conscious of what they are – they are different. Democracy is something that we don't understand very well yet. Most people think democracy equals equality. It's not true. Democracy is the protection of difference. And so we have to tell people, enjoy your difference and express that! And so we as designers or creative people have to give them uniqueness, not copies.
JS I work now with this wax material that I offer to everybody to use and make exhibitions with. There was a DIY culture in the 1980s but I think it's interesting to revisit that. Funnily enough, you find these DIY stores next to Ikeas and Carrefours, and they could actually be a bastion of individuality if they opened up their position.
GP Absolutely. But if I understood you well, you want people to create something with the material you suggest?
JS That was a metaphor. I use this structural wax that connects different things and people as a metaphor and I called it a "changeable, transformable material for changeable, transformable desires". It was really just to say, here's this material and here's a series of experiments that you can do with it.
GP So what do you do with it? Physically, where does this happen?
JS You just need a pot that you stick it in a home oven. So I bought some ovens and when I did the installations I went to each site and we collected mostly scrap material and started sticking things together. It was a set of four installations: the first was a dinner, everything was cooked in the kitchen, furniture produced, dinner produced and then all the material was re-melted afterwards and used for the next installation. The wax gradually became a shitty brown colour as things went along, which is quite nice actually, as a metaphor. I don't see the material as a solution so much – you could also do this with a hammer and a nail – it's much more about how to express potential through it.
GP When you do a project do you do it by yourself or do you involve companies? How does it happen?
JS Well, I started by saying, I'm just going to do something. For instance, I was in Milan and I had nothing to do and I had an idea to build this house with this grey foam. So I got a little bit of sponsorship from Magis and I got a load of students from the Domus Academy to do a workshop and somehow we made this thing.
Fioca vase for Fish Design, Gaetano Pesce
But it felt so right to work in this way. I mean, I hope for my own sake that one day there will be a bigger budget but that's not really the important thing. I've found a way that I find really exciting to work, which is in creating installations or structures that have an autonomy – to not have to answer to a company brief. But I have to answer the biggest brief of all. Because taking this freedom is also a responsibility. I mean if the work means nothing to anybody then I'm not achieving anything.
GP But usually I believe it's good to collaborate with companies because then you use tools that are very powerful. You can touch people around the world. Artists can do something for the gallery or museum and that's it. But the simple designer goes to the factory, and in the factory there are workers and technology, and then if you are able to create a product there is advertising and marketing. It's a huge machine and this machine touches everything, from a book to a record to clothing. Everything is done through this idea of production, and if we are able to manipulate that and make it more democratic and open, then we are able to send messages in a very powerful way.
And so, thinking about what you told me, I remember that years ago I convinced a company to allow the employees not to repeat, as they do, but to express themselves. I gave them a process but they were free to decide the colour and the form of objects, and that was a very interesting experience because at a certain moment people wanted to buy the objects. And then they said, but if the workers can do that in the factory why can we not come and do our own? That helped me to think that the future of design is to invent a process that is not completely developed: so people buy something that it is half done and then they complete it with their creative intervening. People think, "I am not able to express, I am not an artist," all that stuff. I don't agree, I think that everyone is an artist.
JS I used Joseph Beuys' line "everybody's an artist" and actually crossed out the "artist" and just said, "everybody is ..." Because in a way even to worry about being an artist is almost more than is necessary ... just to believe that you are and you can do. It's one of the things that I defend about design, that actually it's just a general part of people's life, whereas the artist relies on high culture.
GP Yeah, when you meet people who are a little lost and you say, "What do you do?", because they don't know what to answer usually they say, "I am an artist". In that moment the meaning of that word is gone. But when I say "designer", I mean someone who deals with a lot of things that represent the complexity of our time.
JS Yes. It's not easy to make a chair!
GP But it's even more difficult to make a chair that expresses a political position. Or expresses the fact that you can use the chair and then in the evening when you're hungry you eat the chair. This is the complexity of our time. Everything is possible. And it's not true that the chair is just a chair: it could be food, it could be poetry. It's not reduced to the applied arts anymore, as I said. Let's say something else:objects are no longer slaves. A slave in the past was a person that was supposed to be functional to the owner. The day that this person had an accident and broke a leg then he was not useful anymore. It's the same with a table: when it gets a broken leg we throw it out. But I say no! In that moment maybe the table expresses more than what it was able to express with four working legs.
JS Your work is actually quite figurative, which is different to my work, and I've noticed that you've used some symbols, including a cross, which I don't think you take literally.
GP No, but I believe that the way to transfer culture is not anymore through abstraction. Architecture uses abstract geometry and that is obsolete. The international language is done in figures: I cannot speak with the Japanese in Italian because there is no communication. I have to make images. If I do a cross or a heart, it's a way to get people to understand what I'm talking about. We come from a long tradition of abstraction but I believe it's more democratic to use images.
JS Conversely, I must admit, right now I prefer to read books than to look at images because I feel in contemporary culture we're inundated with very, very smart images. I mean, images that are quite calculated. This has become the art director's job, to be very strong with images. I like to play with abstraction but I don't really want to make a rule – I would find it dangerous not to allow something figurative into my work sometimes. But I also feel that the use of abstraction right now is quite a good defence against the bad use of images. I don't watch TV anymore, for example, it's just become impossible.
GP I understand what you say, but you're talking about yourself. Imagine that in the city – say new cities like Brasilia – everything is abstract. Communicating with everybody is easier if you use images. There are people who don't read but everybody is able to see that that is an umbrella. We have to allow them to be able to understand what we are doing and enjoy it.
JS But I think this can also come from action. I think the key to the way that I work is doing. It's about evoking this idea that you can be empowered by doing. Like saying, here's a material that reacts fast and you can find ways to build your life around you.
GP I very rarely go to museums but sometimes when I go to a contemporary art museum I understand exactly what Baudrillard said about contemporary art. He said, I'm sure people don't understand but they are scared to say that they don't understand because if they say that then they are ignorant, so it's better to say, "Oh very interesting!" But nobody says "why?" because the moment you do that you break down this huge structure of conformism.
JS Yeah. This is a danger of art more than design.
GP There is an artist from LA who makes a huge piece of stone in the shape of shit. OK, so what then? What will a man working the earth in China see? I know that certain contemporary expressions are lost on 75 percent of the world. This is something that we have to think about. We work for the 75 percent, not the people who have time to go to museums, not the elite because they don't need us – they already have everything. The people who need us are the ones who have a very difficult life. We have to do something to make their lives better.
JS This is why I feel it's important to be even more political now. Industry is the driving force – the production of things, even soft things like Google – is the driving force of a global economy. You mention the person in China or Africa, and I think that part of the project must be to suggest new forms of production that can actually create a fair global economy, and I don't trust the politicians.
Even in an economy based on the hand-made, you can have the joy of an artisan making something and someone in that country can afford to buy that piece. It doesn't have to be quite Henry David Thoreau's Walden but some kind of autonomy. And I'm not just talking about a worker in China but also in the UK. Everybody's becoming a slave of this very un-well-looked-after production-distribution system.
GP You say sometimes you work for companies ... What about if, when you go to a company, you say to them "make objects with mistakes". They cannot accept. But if you go to a factory and do an object wrong, badly, you send the world a message saying, don't believe that perfection is what you have to do, but believe that imperfection is what you have to do. That means that you can express what you have inside because the mistake is human, perfection is something else – I don't know who is perfect. So these kinds of values are very important – not to an art magazine or museum but through very simple things that you find in the supermarket.
JS The supermarket is difficult to get to. I've just made a chair which is a result of my Coalition of Amateurs project, with the wax, a demonstration of one version that could be ...
GP But you're selling the chair in a supermarket?
JS No, it's not quite cheap enough for that ... but it's passing the structure tests and the price could be right for the design market, €250 or something, and it's already blowing their minds that this piece can work. In fact they don't have to do anything, they don't have to invest any money, they just have to distribute it and already that's quite a bomb. But I'm also doing a domestic electrical product for SEB, and that is going to the supermarket. So far I haven't been very successful. I've done maybe ten projects, of which one got produced: a hairdryer for Moulinex. They produced 10,000, and then somebody at Moulinex said, no, Moulinex doesn't do body care products. So there's now 10,000 of these hairdryers sitting in storage that will never leave. It's crazy.
I mean the object was nothing, it was the status quo of production then. I discovered that it's quite hard to bring interesting ideas to these people because they take much more time. You're dealing with corporate companies who do not care to spend a year researching something that might not get anywhere, which is what they need to do actually. And I think this is another problem. I think if there's a message to the young it's "could you please go and form some corporations that would be interested". Because I mean the Italian design story was born in the post-war years with great entrepreneurs, and that would be great to see again.
GP I would say to young English designers, push the industrialists in this country to be more curious and not to be so respectful of what it was. Be respectful of the future because without the future we cannot exist. So young designers can push, going to companies and one day the company answers no and again they say no and on a certain day they say maybe. That moment is very fragile because "maybe" is the open door ... and it could be fantastic. There are a lot of industrialists in Europe – why are they not curious like certain Italians are?
JS I met a very nice guy, Giovanni Bonotto, and he has a big business producing textiles that he inherited from his father, but he opened another part that was called Fabrica Lenta, "slow factory". He realised that everybody was buying the same computer-aided textile machines and that they could only produce the same thing, more expensively. So he started up buying all the old machines that everybody was selling and got all the artisans that knew how to use them.
Pesce's Poltrona Naso, 2006
GP This is very interesting.
JS Bocconi University is celebrating it as a business model. And Bonotto said, I'm not a creative, I'm a business man.
GP I am sure that there are sometimes artists who are less creative than certain bankers. They are able to innovate an economy, so we have to understand that there is nothing that is only for us. Everybody is creative and we have to accept that. You talk about textiles: a well known fabric company asked me to do something once and I suggested a fabric with little figures of a boy and a girl, a woman, a man, a fat person, a thin person, a catalogue of human beings, each one with a different flag. It was a way to say that people are different and each one is unique. They refused that. And it was very decorative in a certain way, because from far away there was a motif but up close you saw symbols of difference. The guy who said no is a typical person who has no curiosity, who likes to repeat what their grandfather told them to do. Our job is to open up and trust in the future. They say that the future is a good friend and this is the message for young people, because some of them I think are a little scared of what happens tomorrow. Me, I think tomorrow is better than today. For sure.
Living Systems at the Vitra Design Museum, 2007