Tonight I had the chance to listen to Piero Lissoni speak as part of the month-long Architecture and the City Festival put on by the San Francisco chapter of the AIA. Speaking at the gorgeous CCA campus, Lissoni proved to be as charismatic, affable, honest and genuine as he is talented. While I knew him well for his work with Italian furniture lines Boffi, Living Divani, Porro, and Cassina, only until he casually mentioned his other clients did I realize the true reach of his work, which includes projects for just about every blue-chip Italian furniture company like Kartell, Alessi, Flos, Cappellini, Poltrona Frau, Glas Italia, Fritz Hansen, Knoll, and Swarowski. OMG. In my mind he was already a legend based on the body of work that I knew about, but when I learned about everything else that he did, I was truly blown away. In sports speak, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer on par with a Starck or Newson, if not above.
As Lissoni’s lecture began, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Outwardly, he looked the part of designer: navy sportcoat with elbow patches, slim taupe jeans, brown driving mocs, and cream scarf. On the stage, he had a continuous, looping portfolio of his work on the big projection screen while he was seated and speaking at a folding 6 foot table filled with various objects including an analog clock radio, Mac Powerbook, printed books, Japanese rice bowl, wind-up robot, Alessi coffee press, foam model of a recent building he designed in Istambul, and even a red foam clown’s nose (more on that later). These would be the props that he used throughout his lecture, which was going to be about his “humanistic” approach to designing, apparently a last minute departure from his pre-planned retrospective of his work (which probably would not nearly have been as enlightening as his new topic, to our luck).
I have to admit that it took more than a few minutes before I could make enough sense of his Italian accent, broken English, and sense humor to concentrate on the content and intent of his speech. As his lecture wore on (for more than 2.5 hours) and his anecdotes and examples began to amass, his genius began to come through in spades. What was muddy for me about his humanistic approach became crystal clear – and then enlightening. While it would be hard to replicate Lissoni’s career path and success, there are plenty of nuggets to take away from his lecture that you or I can learn from.
Unfortunately, the lecture was not recorded nor could I record it or take notes real-time. So the following quotes, excerpts, points, and facts are purely based on my recollection (and my mad dash to takes notes right his lecture). If anyone in attendance tonight has anything to add or clarify, please join in on the conversation! In no particular order, here were the highlights:
- His working relationship with Alessi began with an hours-long conversation with Alberto Alessi about wine before Alberto finally brought up the idea of designing a watch, which Lissoni agreed to on the spot and without additional conversation. He called his wine conversation his design “brief.”
- His Alessi coffee press project was aimed to take on Bialetti’s venerable, classic coffee press, which he said was like challenging Pele to a soccer match – “It was a good game.”
- On the ergonomics of his furniture: “Of course it’s uncomfortable, I’m Italian!”
- On his favorite materials to use: he has none and all are specific to each project. He said “Materials are the language of every project” and that he never chooses to use a material just to use it.
- He is currently designing a bridge using carbon fiber
- He once worked with Kartell for more than two years to develop a new manufacturing technology for a chair, which ended up saving more than a kilogram of raw materials per chair.
- His desk at his office is a 3 meters by 3 meters and covered with books and objects. He only works on a small 2 foot by 2 foot area on his desk, and only cleans his desk when the other things on his desk begin to intrude on this space (about every 2 months).
- He cannot work unless he has espresso, bottled water and fresh flowers everyday.
- He disallows computers in his meetings.
- His office has 3 libraries, one each for design, architecture/furniture and classics (poetry, novels, etc.). He said if his employees are not using all three then they are not right for his firm.
- His puts on a red foam clown nose when he feels his meetings are getting too serious.
- He says we are all “prostitutes” – “People pay and we do.”
- He calls his clients his “victims.”
- On what makes Italian designers the best in the world: their great clients. He said he is always late to meetings, often shows up empty-handed, often is late with deliverables, and that clients either love him or hate him. His Italian clients clearly love him – and he quips “Could you imagine if I worked with Japanese or German clients?”
- He says working with engineers is his biggest nightmare.
- He thinks “It is impossible to live without technology” but that technology should only be used as a “tool.” If it’s is used as the sole way to design, then it is wrong and “dangerous.” He believes that working with your hands is still an essential part of the design process. He says people often show him beautiful images on a screen but they often have no life.
- He started designing as a child, first using Legos. He still thinks like a child but “only on a different scale.”
- He called his design school “hell” compared to the ones today (like CCA). He said they had limited tools but were challenged to stay “curious” – his advice to design students today.
- His approach to designing architecture is different from his approach with products – “There is so much noise out there, I design my buildings to be quiet.” He also uses a “European approach” to architecture projects where he designs the exterior plus everything in the interior down to the cabinet pulls.
- Asked if he’s designed a perfect thing: no, and he doesn’t strive for perfection because it’s “boring.” But he does strive for greater precision in design and greater control over the process. His example for the need for greater precision – a private home renovation where his budget of 1 became a 10 in reality.
- His examples of perfection: the work on Antonio Citterio, the work of Carlo Scarpa, a dinner by Alain Ducasse, Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice by architect Andrea Palladio, the Barcelona Pavilion by architect Mies van der Rohe.
- The one thing he has not designed that he dreams about: a daughter. He said with designing materials things “anything is possible” but it is things like life, a family, a daughter that are a real challenge to design.
- On what makes him happy: “Of course, I like the girls.”
There not much more to say or translate as I think his humanistic approach is pretty clear, at least to me. While we can’t all be Lissoni or work the same way that he does (wouldn’t it be nice to go over budget 10 times and still have a job or demand fresh flowers at your desk everyday), I know that there are things I am taking away from his lecture that will make me a better designer.
Image courtesy of baunetz.de