Heroic Objects: A Conversation with Alessandro Mendini
Having contributed to the Radical Design and Postmodernist movements, Alessandro Mendini, one of Italy’s greatest living designers, has a truly eclectic body of work. From furniture to books, doodles to churches, he approaches every design with a balance of fun and gravity, shock and delight. We were thrilled to talk with him recently about his unique approach to design.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working on many highly diverse projects, large and small, in Italy and Korea: industrial design, interior design, and graphic design.
In your essay "Rules of a Radical Designer" (published in the book 1968: Radical Italian Design) you talked about having "a nostalgia for other worlds.” and "a pre-ecological vision of society." Do you still feel that way today?
That was a time when we tried to erase the world's errors. We aimed for new utopias, and worked with elementary, non-industrial materials. Many things have changed since then, but those moral tendencies have remained in me.
Do you have a favorite material to work with?
I enjoy uniting different materials, ancient or synthetic. One marvelous material is blown glass.
“The cohabitation between religions is very complicated, but a fine mirage.”
How about a favorite design period?
Each of my theoretic and ideological experiences has slid into the one after it in an automatic way. So what I now feel and do is a patchwork of all my experiences. But to answer your question, the most intense period was that of Radical Design, and I hope that something of the sort will come back one day.
How do you get inspired? How long does the process take?
An idea comes to me based on a concrete request. Then I began elaborating upon it with small sketches, based on theoretic hypotheses. The world upon which I draw in a broad sense is art history. I work by day, like a laborer. Some craft-based projects grow quickly. Industrial and architectural projects go slow, sometimes very slow.
Does your work always embody your philosophical ideals?
I don’t work on neutral objects or instruments. I try to give each piece of work a spiritual, literary, tragic, or droll message.
“Many things have changed since then, but those moral tendencies have remained in me.”
I can see that. The outcomes seem to me to be almost spiritual. Have you ever designed a place of worship?
I’ve designed a small church with a Catholic form and a Buddha statue inside. The cohabitation between religions is very complicated, but a fine mirage.
Have you been to the Rothko Chapel? Do you like it?
The Rothko Chapel is spellbinding.
Do you have a stance on good vs. bad taste?
I’m interested in the beautiful and the ugly, provided the objects are made with a positive anthropological aim toward people. That goes for art, too.
Why do you think Italy has been such a leading force in design since WWII?
Perhaps Italian design is so special and interesting because it began during the Renaissance, in 1500.
Words by The Editors.