St-W Awards judge Paola Navone wonders whether we’ll need objects in the future

Milan – Oddly enough, globetrotting design powerhouse Paola Navone is thinking of an object-free future for the world. Where did that idea come from?

Here, the discusses what she’s learned since her early days as an architecture student at the Polytechnic University of Turin.

During my studies I discovered, somewhat by accident, that there were groups of architects doing something very different from what I was being taught. They were not interested in designing “normal” buildings, like the ones I was learning to build, but rather fantastical ones, utopias. I was so fascinated by their ideas that I started to physically run after them. I travelled all over the world with the objective of meeting everyone creating this type of conceptual work. I went to see Archizoom Associati, Superstudio, UFO in Florence, Archigram in London, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti in Arizona and so on.’

Our mission [at Studio Alchimia] was to understand what we could do for tomorrow. In 1978 we presented our first collection, Bau.Haus uno, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. Nobody bought our collections, but we didn’t care. We were trying to imagine a new way of working – a new kind of design. By then Italian design was already famous, but it was all black and made from leather and steel. We wanted to propose something different. We worked with colour, pattern and asymmetry. We covered furniture with designs and patterns, when most of what was on the market resembled a blank canvas.’

A good meal promotes sociability, and good design works in much the same way: it starts a conversation

So much has changed since I started with Abet Laminati. The approach to design and the history of design have changed enormously. Production is very different now. The use of digital printing has completely changed how we produce, communicate and sell our designs. Because data sharing is so fast, we can go quickly from design to production. Before, every collection we released had a huge economic impact. We had to sell thousands of metres of laminates in order to make it pay. It was unthinkable for an architect back then to ask for a custom laminate. Today we can print almost anything.’

What advice would I give my 20-year-old self? Although I don’t pretend to have anything to teach, I’d probably tell myself to travel more, even more than I did as a young woman. I’ve always been a globetrotter, but I could have seen even more of the world. I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia and North America, but I’ve never been to South America. Travel is important because it gives you a chance to collect things, forms, colours, everything. Travel is richness, and being rich is better than being poor.’

People don’t escape through design any more: they find an escape through experiences like travel or good food

I often compare design to cooking. It’s a bit like making a frittata. You start by gathering the right ingredients: eggs, potatoes, zucchini, shrimps, et cetera. You determine the right amount for each ingredient – a bit of this, a bit of that – and mix everything together. You put it in the oven, and in the end everyone is happy because they’re enjoying a nice frittata. A good meal promotes sociability. It brings people together and gets them talking. Good design works in much the same way. It starts a conversation.’

The world is much more complicated than it used to be. I think people today are looking for reassurance and for an escape. Fantasy can help us escape the difficult moments that we all face, but people don’t escape through design any more. They find an escape through experiences like travel or good food. I’m constantly going out to eat. It seems everyone is always hungry. It will be interesting to see how our means of escape will affect the world of objects in the future.’

Will we even need objects in the future? I imagine a future where things take place in a way even more immaterial than what we have today. Young designers ought to understand how the digital mutation of our world will continue to change the way we live in the future, when there will be less need to give form to our surroundings, and spaces will be emptier. Designers have to adapt to this new reality, which I can’t even imagine, being a massive collector of objects. I’m addicted to things. My house is filled with them. I suppose a person like me – someone who’s passionate about texture and form – might come across as being somewhat archaic, a bit medieval.’

Want to hear Paola herself discuss what makes a house a St-W home? Then attend the live judging of the at the St-W Awards this February 20 in Amsterdam. Get your tickets .

More from this issue

St-W 126

AMSTERDAM – As offices are forced to redefine their very reason for existence, the Jan/Feb issue of St-W magazine explores alternative spaces to conduct work.

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