Odo Fioravanti in his Milan studio with a model of the chair "Dome" for Pedrali.

Keeping critical

Odoardo Fioravanti loves experimenting and is always surprising people with unusual designs. During a visit to his Milan studio Anna Moldenhauer talked to him about his deep attachment to Pedrali, what he wished for design students and why he finds excavators fascinating.

Anna Moldenhauer: Odo, you recently marked the tenth anniversary of your cooperation with Pedrali. How did everything start?

Odo Fioravanti: I began collaborating with Pedrali in 2007 and our first product, the chair “Snow,” came on the market a year later. It was really my lucky break, and we have grown together. Having such a strong bond with a company is unusual and that makes it all the more valuable. Pedrali hadn’t yet gained such prominence and I was an unknown designer, still very young, in the final stages of my studies. My studio was the desk next to my bed. Before my interview I got so worried that I had some friends accompany me and pretend to be my assistants. I even wore a suit jacket, for the first and last time ever (laughs). We took a prototype and my computer along to the interview and my assistants provided support. It was a crazy thing to do. But Pedrali still gave me a chance. They believed in me when I was a nobody, made me feel confident and invested a lot in our first joint steps together. It was a bit crazy. And I’m really grateful to them for what they did. Giuseppe Pedrali and I became friends, we can talk about everything. Such openness is worth a lot in the creative process.

Shortly afterwards you won the Associazione per il Disegno Industriale’s Compasso d’Oro award for the wooden chair “Frida” that you designed for Pedrali.

Odo Fioravanti: Yes, that chair really changed my life. Giuseppe Pedrali said as much at the time, but I didn’t believe him. He turned out to be right. I was really lucky that Pedrali was looking for precisely that kind of design. I had to wait a month until they had decided which chair they wanted to build. But in the end, they chose me and then everything happened really quickly.

Half the "Frida": The designer's archive contains numerous prototypes of the design that won the Compasso d'Oro Prize.
Light and robust: for the "Frida" chair, the designer combined a solid oak structure with an ergonomically shaped plywood shell.

What was it initially like just after you won the prize?

Odo Fioravanti: It was chaos. There is such immense importance attached to this prize in Italy, so it’s like everything you did before ceases to exist. Awarded the Compasso d’Oro in 2011, period. Only then does your biography begin. It is really strange. Some companies approached me afterwards with unrealistic expectations along the lines of “create another bestseller for us here and now.” As if creating a design is some sort of quick act of wizardry and not a joint process.

Did you manage to become immune to this pressure?

Odo Fioravanti: Not entirely. It goes with the job. Rather than focusing on the design you start worrying. This vision of possible failure accompanies every project, especially when you are young. And it was no different in my case, but with time and experience you learn how to deal with it better. This makes it all the more important to work with the right company. Pedrali was and still is the perfect partner for me because they are not afraid. They just get to work. Moreover, they invest a lot in technology and are constantly advancing the company. That makes them strong. I have learnt a lot at Pedrali, especially from the firm’s experienced tradespeople like the mold builders. I find it important not to distance yourself from this side of things, but to always be involved and to understand every step in the process.

How much of an influence did it have on you that your first successful designs were for chairs?

Odo Fioravanti: Well, because of the way I began my career I’ve become a kind of chair designer. Every designer has a soft spot for chairs and I soon noticed that I’m the same. Chair design still makes up a large part of my work. Nonetheless, it remains a complex business even after all these years. Designing a good chair is difficult. You have to be familiar with techniques like injection molding as well as the properties of materials. Right now, for example, I am learning a lot about working with aluminum.

"One of the designer's tasks is to rethink the existing," says Odo Fioravanti.

Which material do you still find fascinating?

Odo Fioravanti: Plastics might be less in demand now but they are still among my favorite materials. Mixtures are currently becoming more popular, say, plastic with wood, plastic with metal. What happens in the market also alters how you work as a designer, determines what you focus on. I have always been interested in material processing techniques, and I guess one reason for that is that I began by studying engineering. But I didn’t really pursue the subject with passion and after four years I changed to industrial design. After all, that was the subject that provided me with the means to do and realize everything I wanted. Nonetheless, my first, rather technical training has influenced me and this knowhow now gets interwoven into my thoughts and artistic approach.

Your designs cover a very wide bandwidth from industrial and product design to graphic and exhibition design. Why is experimenting in so many fields important to you?

Odo Fioravanti: Let’s put it this way, we never get bored (laughs). I think one of the tasks of a designer is to rethink things that already exist. For example, vases were already around in the Roman Empire, but in the year 2019 we continue to create new versions of vases. Why? Well, because we want our objects to be infused with the spirit of our time, the knowledge of our current reality and our respective culture. We design what we are, what we feel. That is part of our existence as designers. So, you could say these objects are part of our mission. Moreover, we try to give new meaning to things that already exist. And even if that doesn’t always work, it is our task to at least try. The results represent a connection to our time.

I read that you consider objects to develop a life of their own. What special features does the “Dome” chair have that you designed for Pedrali?

Odo Fioravanti: “Dome” alters our perception of plastic. At first sight it looks handmade as if it were of wood. We have combined two methods and given the plastic a different value, a new perfection. In addition, only a minimum amount of material is needed for production. In its form, “Dome” combines both a strong linear approach with soft curves. And the feel is pleasant – the chair molds to the sitter.

"Dome" for Pedrali changes the perception of polypropylene as a material.
Odo Fioravanti creates a reference to wood with a pleasant feel and striking details.
The chair is made of polypropylene reinforced with glass fibres by injection moulding.
With its generous seating area, "Dome" is based on the tradition of bistro chairs.

How did you manage to convince the traditional mold builders at Pedrali to produce this special chair?

Odo Fioravanti: It took a lot of persuasion and very close collaboration. A period of three months was scheduled from the first models to the finished chair. That is not a lot of time, so I was basically on the phone to the mold builders day and night, in the evenings and at weekends, always. At some point my wife got really annoyed and quite rightly so, but it had to be done. And I love this part of my job, getting deeply involved in a design, finding solutions to complex problems.

Can you give me some idea of how you work?

Odo Fioravanti: That varies from project to project. I’m not good at sketching, even though my mother taught art (laughs). I tend to look at how an object might work via the core idea and the details. Models help – card, wood, metal. Those are the materials I typically favor to make them myself.

Why do you prefer handmade models?

Odo Fioravanti: Handmade models are better at conveying the feel and how it is perceived in the different dimensions. I do sometimes resort to 3D printing, but often find the results are too “cold.” Dimensions and functional details are easier to see when you make the models yourself. You learn a little bit more with every model you make. And once everything is just right you can always produce a perfect 3D model for the presentation using your knowhow from the manual work.

"Every designer has a weakness for chairs, and I quickly realized that it's no different for me," says Odo Fioravanti.

How do you succeed in ensuring that your objects fulfil the purpose in the life of their owners that you intend them to have?

Odo Fioravanti: I don’t have a clear concept for that. For example, children use objects like chairs quite differently to adults: the chair becomes a table, a house, a ladder. My approach is more about offering the object as a perfect tool. Look, feel, cold or warm material, sound – I try to perfect all those aspects that turn an object into a lifelong companion for its owner. Today, people pay much more attention to what features objects have. Whether they are statement pieces that you are best leaving a lot of space or whether they have a subtle presence. They choose more carefully, take more time. The house becomes a kind of stage and the items in the ensemble have to harmonize with one another. If you have too many statements in a room it will quickly look like a museum of rare objects. But I want my objects to alter people’s lives in a pleasant way and accompany them long term. Every day they should provide a small dose of aesthetics and function, be both useful and a delight. They should become patient companions. The function is important, but must not become the sole focal point. It is about the overall picture.

Which projects are you working on just now? Are you currently collaborating with Pedrali?

Odo Fioravanti: It’s not definite yet. But I can give you a general idea about two projects that are not connected to Pedrali: One idea is to have the shower merge with the ceiling, the other is a loudspeaker made of a transparent material like glass. Both products will have a highly reduced appearance. But we are still early on in the process.

Don't lose the courage to criticize: "Without discussion there can be no further development," says the designer.

I imagine with the upcoming Salone del Mobile that you are really in demand. How much are you looking forward to the fair?

Odo Fioravanti: Every year it is a little crazy and chaotic, but I love it. In this one week Milan changes radically. The city is transformed into a metropolis and suddenly resembles places like New York City. It is a fair that attracts global opinions. And in just one week you find out a lot about current developments on the market, about the work of your colleagues. Many manufacturers and creative professionals save their innovations for this one fair. Milan is very fortunate to have the Salone, even if the city does become overcrowded and frantic. It is a nightmare and a magical time all at once. There are repeated efforts to alter the nature of the fair, to organize things differently. But in my opinion, it is precisely this special mixture, these many different currents and the chaos that make the Salone such a magical event. And we need to ensure that we preserve the fair and continue to appreciate its importance.

You lecture at numerous universities and colleges, including the Polytecnico in Milan where you yourself studied. What would you like to pass on to the next generation of designers?

Odo Fioravanti: Hope (laughs). Seriously, there are way too many designers, courses are completely overcrowded. And after studying design it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a way of working successfully in this profession. I was lucky. When I started studying I also actually visited firms engaged in crafts so I could learn how to work materials like metal or wood. Naturally, the new generation has different tools and different forms of expression at its disposal. Today, you simply search for instructions on the Internet and then have a 3D model printed out. Not only is that fast, but it costs less. To my mind however this approach is also less productive. Though many processes are currently becoming more transparent, it is on a more superficial level. And getting such quick results dulls your perception so that it is only much later that you recognize the areas for adjusting the design, or the difficulties involved. Working as a designer demands strong willpower and a lot of energy, above all given the huge competition. This is what I try to make my students realize.

Do you feel the coming generation of designers is in danger of emotional blunting?

Odo Fioravanti: Well, let’s say the emotions become more moderate. Nobody gets annoyed so quickly anymore or supports designs despite there being strong opposition. But you need such things; it must be acceptable to question things and show emotions. After all, without discussion there can be no progress. I see a loss of depth at the moment. Design should be something that impacts on your entire life, something you are passionate about. This is not a profession that you can just do half-heartedly if you want to do it well. When I was a student we constantly discussed our designs and helped each other. But today I virtually have to make my students swap ideas because otherwise they would not voluntarily show each other what they are working on. Perhaps I’m too strict sometimes, but I would like to motivate them to network, to question things and face criticism. They should be prepared for the reality that awaits them once they have completed their studies.

"My objects shall be patient companions," Odo Fioravanti sums up.

You are married to Chiara Alessi. She works as a design journalist and curator and sees the design scene from a completely different perspective. How do you influence each other’s work?

Odo Fioravanti: We have two small children so that does not leave a lot of time for lengthy talks (laughs). Our discussions are usually to the point, in other words productive. She is a very important person in my life, including for my profession as a designer. Chiara is the best and the worst critic I can imagine. Sometimes I show her a design and I can tell by the way she says “mm-mm” that something is not right and I need to rethink it (laughs). She has a brilliant mind and I’m sure it is not always easy for her with my crazy ideas. But I find the exchange that we have really valuable.

Which crazy ideas do you still have tucked away somewhere?

Odo Fioravanti: I would like to design a big excavator one day. Basically, construction machines are complex robots whose arms can be either gentle or strong. That is a special achievement. Such machines have fascinated me since my childhood and I would love to translate this fascination into a current design.

Museum of Things: In Odo Fioravanti's studio you can embark on a journey into the development of product design.