Design Anecdotes (with moral)

Alessandro Mendini, 2006
Acceptance Speech Honorary Doctorate Degree, April 5th 2006

I feel like the prodigal son who has come back to Mamma Polytechnic after having gone his squandersome way.

On this type of occasion, I mean the conferral of a degree in industrial design, I think that the recipient has the duty to express a message – a message about design. Especially for the students.
I will try to do that, but I will do it in a subliminal way, through several episodes of my personal experience, through the less visible matrix of the way I design and live.
They are what I call “little thoughts”. For me, big thoughts are the sum (a nebula) of small problems, where the word “small” paradoxically designates the size of one single person.

I was born in Milan. My sister and I were twins, born prematurely. It was August. At the time, there were no incubators, and for several months we were lodged in a large, soft armchair designed by Piero Portaluppi, who had also designed our house.
My sister and I, with a couple of hot-water bottles between us. That armchair conditioned me. It had a petal structure and was covered with multicolored velvet in a futurist zigzag pattern. From this protective post I could see a painting by Alberto Savinio on the opposite wall – a disconcerting Annunciation. The Virgin Mary was a lady with a long beak like Donald Duck, and the enormous head of the Herald Angel had curly blue hair and an orange face. That was my first habitat: a Tyrolean futurist armchair and a metaphysical painting.

And then there was another thing that conditioned me: my last name. “Mendini” derives from ram-mendini (“to mend” in English), the name of a humble medieval craft, a person who repairs and sews things together, obtaining the new by assembling pieces of the old, a typical feature of a Harlequin costume: a fresh, energetic and new image made from rags cut into diamond shapes. That’s where my attraction to fragments, details, patchwork and directing comes from. In short, Harlequin’s outfit would seem to be my emblem, as ironic and tragic as it is.

I have been living alone for quite some time, in a large tenement with small balconies, a kind of socialist phalanstery from the 20th century. Downstairs is the large studio that I share with my brother Francesco. Above the studio is my house. My house is an accumulation of several small units that I progressively bought.
A manual laborer used to live in the first one, the widow of a metal worker in the second one, a tile mason in the third, and so forth. Under the weight of my shyness, respect and feelings of subjection towards those who had lived there before me, I was unable to violate those homes with my own furnishings.
I perfected the apartments’ poverty-permeated status quo and even tried to repeat and simulate the daily ways and minimal actions of those who had preceded me. The homes became a kind of reverse-Wunderkammern, a precise and lucid hyper-realistic restoration of the normality of a laborer’s life, a non-project that I worked on outside of design, a piece of patchwork.

In particular, there is one part of flooring that is just awful. It’s my bedroom floor: tiles from the ‘60s, an ochre yellow with pale green lozenges. I would really like to get rid of them, but no, I leave them.
This floor helps me to expiate certain terrible mistakes in ‘60s design, a “style” that, coincidentally, is in the middle of an extensive revival, with objects that are copied without criticism, without looking for any kind of new reason. They are copied by designers who look more like the bodyguards of the young industrialists they work for than like intellectuals. Or they are more like skillful showroom attendants, so perfectly do their vacuous objects coincide with their desire to sell them. The words “new luxury” are on their lips, and this seems to be the way they intend to save European design.
And that makes me remember the hard-working teams of anonymous designers in Korea, where 300 young men and women might be found working together on the design of miraculous cell phones.

Next to my bed is a severely banal night table. Finding the one I wanted was not easy. It would have been less arduous to find a lacquered night table from the 18th century or one of Andrea Branzi’s rare vintage side tables with the little legs made of metal tubing that is made to look like bamboo. But anyways, on that night table is a Murano vase designed by Carlo Scarpa. A vase that I consider to be a real symbol of beauty.

I have a maid. A few years ago she came back from a trip to Lourdes that she made with her church group, and she brought me back a small, clear plastic bottle in the shape of the Virgin Mary, full of holy water.
I thanked the maid, she’s so kind and I was glad. But then she placed the little bottle on the night table, precisely next to the Carlo Scarpa vase. I have not dared remove it from that position since.

When I go to bed at night, I close the shutters of the window and obtain darkness. A few months ago I executed this regular ritual, and a blade of light pierced the room, slicing my pillow in two with a luminous wedge. The City of Milan put up a new streetlamp out front.
Since then, in order to not be blinded, I need to move my head from one side to the other of this transversal ray. All I would need to do is push the bed over to the side by 30 centimeters to make it all end. But I can’t make up my mind to do that. Either Heidegger or Nietzsche said that in order to keep the brain agile, one should move around one’s furniture once a year. That doesn’t work for me. A need for repetition, for a static state of affairs and habit prevent me from doing it.
And the night table is involved too. Even the Carlo Scarpa vase and the bottled Virgin Mary undergo the attraction of this luminous energy. So for me, the room has progressively become an animistic phenomenon where the fragility of kitsch (the statuette) competes one-on-one with elite design (the vase), making me ponder difficult questions. Two contradictory transparencies.

On the basis of my non-attitude towards my home, and knowing that I should never want to design myself a house, I had the idea to engage an architect. And to keep my escapist anthropological interests at bay, I decided to geographically limit the origins of this architect to a place that was safe in a creative sense. What would be the most trustworthy place? Switzerland, of course. Who is the best Swiss architect? Mario Botta, and he’s a friend at that. And then I started thinking. And I thought some more. And I asked myself: what if I end up with a house full of horizontal black and white stripes?
So I put everything on hold. At the moment I’m still stranded.
I have started to belatedly understand that my place in life is a perpetuum mobile, a utopian habitat, an unreachable project with an endless and fragile way of being furnished.

Several times I have gone to Santiago de Chile. A friend of mine, the Rector of the Department of Architecture and Design of the Catholic University, invites me over. He puts me up in an elegant little 20th century hotel close to Pinochet’s villa. We do three-day seminaries with interesting students and subjects.
The last time I went, the Rector came to pick me up at the airport by car, as usual. In order to enter the center of Santiago, at a certain point you have to turn right off the highway. This time I noticed that he turned left instead. We headed toward the spectacular sight of the Andean Cordillera, with peaks as high as 6000 meters.
I didn’t ask a thing. He remained silent. There was total, slightly embarrassed silence for three hours, as the car climbed up into the mountains. Vegetation ended and the landscape became bare. In the end we came to a vast plateau, an immense basin made of rocks and minerals of all different colors, surrounded by five volcanoes.

We were at 3000 meters altitude and there was a small lodge. The Rector put my suitcase on the ground, along with a bag of clothes that were suitable for the climate. He said to me, “Alessandro, I took the liberty of bringing you here. No university and no students this time. You have too much going on, and I know you need a special solitary experience. I’m leaving you here alone and will come back to get you in three days.”
And indeed, I spent three extraordinary days in that enchanted and empty moonscape. Later I was told that it’s one of the Earth’s highest energy spots. It is also where the highest number of UFO sightings takes place. Three days later, the Rector brought me back to the airport, embraced me at the check-in counter and spoke softly into my ear, “Alessandro, be careful. Your objects just might kill your soul.”
And this is the dilemma that I continue to work on.