Salone del Mobile asked revered Milan resident Michele De Lucchi to create an installation for its workplace-focused show – and his response is typically well crafted
Papers, drawings and materials seem to overflow from all angles in Michele De Lucchi‘s sprawling Milan studio. There are models everywhere. Models on plinths, on tables, tucked away in little nooks, and some – where the client/architect relationship proved less than satisfactory – hidden in cupboards.
These objects offer a potted history of De Lucchi’s career to date. The First chair, one of the Memphis movement’s most significant pieces (not least because people actually bought it) sits like an oversized orrery in a darkened corner of the studio. Coffee pots for Alessi (big, bigger, biggest) line one of the shelves.
In an antechamber-like space, behind an elongated timber version of his Sangirolamo table, we find De Lucchi. A bookcase from the same collection forms a professorial backdrop but for all its seemingly haphazard charm, it is a carefully curated space. De Lucchi, the craftsman, places his analogue tools – pencils and sketchbooks – centre stage. Only the keenly observant would notice the Macbook flipped open but just out of shot.
“I come from a generation in the middle,” he says. “There were only pencils and ink, no CAD. I used to design technological machines for Olivetti with pencils.”
The irony seems to please the veteran designer. De Lucchi is an imposing figure. His long beard (reputedly grown years ago to distinguish him from his twin brother) is shot with white hair. He speaks very quietly with an almost hypnotic rhythm while his movements are slow and undemonstrative.
The preponderance of wooden objects surrounding us is telling. The majority of the studio’s commercial work (90%, the designer reckons) concerns the built environment but in his later years De Lucchi has retained and even intensified his love of craftsmanship.
He flips through a monograph entitled Baracche e Baracchette (translated as “sheds and shacks”) depicting 30 of the eponymous structures made by him from timber. It seems a fitting project for a man of his vintage. After all, what is a shed, if not the spiritual home of the eternal tinkerer?
De Lucchi taught himself to carve wood with a chainsaw before graduating to hand tools. It sounds dangerous. He smiles and holds up both hands to reveal a perfectly intact set of digits.
“At the Salone, you don’t come to see the products, you come to see the ideas”
But it is a project at the other end of the scale that brings onoffice to De Lucchi’s Milan headquarters. Cosmit, organisers of the Salone, commissioned his studio to design the main installation for Workplace 3.0, formerly SaloneUfficio.
Like Jean Nouvel’s effort two years ago it has a personal feel (for those who remember, the French architect interviewed his friends and broadcast their musings on four gigantic video screens). Unlike Nouvel, De Lucchi’s interpretation seems a little more contemplative and certainly less eccentric. Nevertheless, De Lucchi regards the project as a “strange commission”.
He didn’t want his concept to get bogged down by product design; instead it’s about exploring the optimum environments for creativity and productivity. “This focus on the idea of a new office, it is not a project that concerns the discipline of architecture or design. It is a nonsense,” he says.
Nonsense or not, De Lucchi has conjured up what he calls The Walk, a cinematic interpretation of the modern workplace. On the surface it is a walking tour through four modes of work: a hotel lobby style space for informal work; little cabinets for solo pursuits; a rooftop pavilion for conferences; and a production area for printing documents or even objects.
Visitors to the exhibit will wander above these sections via a looping four-leaf-clover-shaped bridge. Highly sculptural, it is more than an observational tool: “In ancient Greece, thinking and walking were considered the same. The office should not just be a place where you go to keep your head in your hands; it should be a place for stimulation and creativity.” De Lucchi is a big fan of walking.
According to his PA, the designer often strolls through his own office. As if to prove her point, I later spot him looming behind a young graphic designer, pointing at some indistinguishable squiggle on a screen.
De Lucchi’s workplace design pedigree stretches back 35 years. In 1982, along with his mentor Ettore Sottsass, he designed the Icarus office system for Olivetti Synthesis, the furniture division of Olivetti. De Lucchi carried his radical sensibility, honed in the early years of Memphis, and applied it to desking. The result was a flexible modular system that, through its use of simple shapes, crystallised the idea of an organic office landscape.
Today its calm-coloured tones still look fresh and exciting – an antidote to the prevailing monochromatic backdrop. “In the office landscape there will always probably exist this really rigid, traditional idea because somebody will always believe you get more with oppression than with freedom,” he says.
The relationship with Olivetti bloomed, with De Lucchi acting as its design director from 1992 to 2002, while he also designed workplace furniture for the likes of Unifor and Alias.
“Art is very important for vitality,” he says. “I remember for Citizen Office with Ettore and Andrea Branzi we were focused on the idea of getting an ‘art attitude’ into the office. The art of looking at the same objects and instruments with different eyes.”
The Citizen Office was a research project for Vitra that began in 1991; its theories were put into practice at Vitra’s Weil am Rhein headquarters, which still functions as the furniture company’s office. The project’s genius was its endless capacity for reinvention. In its conception, De Lucchi and his collaborators correctly identified that the main transformer of working practices was technology.
A space that could best adapt to the rapid changes would endure, and sure enough Vitra’s space is consistently updated as and when necessary. “Technology is only successful when it gives you a bit more freedom and possibility. The office has to be like that,” he says.
What, then, does the designer make of what is surely the greatest commission of all, Google’s super-headquarters in Silicon Valley?
“Google chose the best possible architect and the best possible designer for their new office,” he says of the Bjarke Ingels-Thomas Heatherwick partnership.
“It is difficult to create a positive relationship with somebody who trusts you”
“It is so difficult to create a good positive relationship with somebody who trusts in you. The profession can be frustrating and from time to time you feel very depressed.”
I point to a model of the Il Tronco office building in Germany. Was that a good relationship? “Yes, this was a good one.” Curving into its roughly triangular site, the building’s sculpted form is indicative of De Lucchi’s modern architecture. In material terms it is beautifully straightforward – a plinth of red stone (housing the car park) supporting a concrete superstructure pinched back on the longest facades.
The generous, well-proportioned windows coax natural light into the predominantly timber interior. At times, as with his law court in Batumi, Georgia, the link between De Lucchi’s furniture and his buildings becomes inextricable; there are echoes of his Briccolone shelving stack in the twisting facade of the cylindrical icon.
This project is just one of a plethora De Lucchi’s studio completed in the former Soviet State, including two bridges, an airport control tower and the Georgian ministry of internal affairs.
De Lucchi’s generation was arguably the last great wave of Italian design heavyweights – Citterio and Lissoni are among his contemporaries – who live and work in Milan. As a young man, he once took the Salone by storm by turning up dressed as Napoleon with a nametag that read “designer general” while dragging an empty sack labelled “project”.
Domus put him on the cover of the magazine. Even now, De Lucchi still has a flair for the dramatic. At a recent event, he fired up his chainsaw on stage and began carving wood for the audience, covering the immaculately turned out Milanese in sawdust.
But it was the last great Italian design movement, Memphis, that catapulted the designer into the realms of superstardom. Though its demise undoubtedly left a hole (“I did nothing between 1987 and 1990”) he remains sanguine.
“We wanted to be a witness of our time. And Memphis was a witness of the 1980s. By the end it was totally unmeaningful.” The exorcism of the postmodernist ghost came when he founded his own product label, Produzione Privata, in 1990. Augmented by his architectural practice aMDL, it allowed the designer to appoint himself as client.
De Lucchi is sceptical of design movements, pinpointing them as the moment when innovation ceases, so it is unsurprising that he views the present – characterised by a lack of one overarching idea – in a favourable light.
“The driving force today is nature,” he says. “Everyone is frightened by the capability of surviving and when the planet will be destroyed.”
But what of Italian design? Is it still the force it once was?
“The contribution of Italian design today is that design is a process that is not only concerned with the product that you can buy in the market,” he says.
“It is a philosophical attitude of thinking how humans should live in an artificial world. At the Salone, you don’t come to see the products, you come to see the ideas, and most of the time they will become nothing.”
De Lucchi’s strength is certainly his versatility. There aren’t many things he has not tackled, from electricity pylons to more decorative vanity objects such as the beautiful glass vases made by Produzione Privata.
“This is the Italian way. Ettore and Castiglioni were architects and designers making buildings and furniture.” De Lucchi collaborated with the latter to create the Sangirolamo desk and bookcase (1991).
Hidden behind some books in De Lucchi’s own version of the bookcase is a small bottle of whisky. The story goes that Castiglioni arrived at the studio unannounced and during their meeting began dropping none-too-subtle hints about how thirsty he was.
De Lucchi invited the veteran to take a drink of whisky and the bottle has remained buried in the bookshelf ever since, in discreet tribute to his old friend. In many ways this gesture captures something of the essence of De Lucchi. More revealing still is his confession that his beloved models would make dysfunctional buildings.
“If my models were to be built they would become awful buildings. They are a fantastic mental and visual exercise to use proportions in the right way. When they are scaled up, the details have to change, totally.” So what then, is the point of the model? “To make a beautiful object,” he smiles.