When you talk about Italian design, you're really talking about Milan, the city with more designers clustered together than anywhere else in the world. It is where fashion and furniture intersect and the everyday domestic acquires the glamour of a couture collection—consider Piero Lissoni's high-gloss minimalist kitchens for Boffi. Which sofa you have in your living room matters a great deal here. (Antonio Citterio's "Charles" for B&B Italia used to be essential but now is considered just a little too last year. Today the company's Patricia Urquiola chaise longue is the one to get). Milan is a place where arguments about style can turn bitter and where even the streetcars are designed by Pininfarina—with the same loving care the firm puts into a Ferrari.
Each April the city hosts the International Furniture Fair, or Salone Internazionale del Mobile. The weeklong event is, in the design world, the Cannes film festival, the Oscars, and the Paris collections rolled into one. It was at the fair in the early eighties that a group of visionaries led by Ettore Sottsass and Andrea Branzi first began exploring the "emotional life of objects."
They posed the idea that a watch is not just an instrument for telling the time, and that when we buy a radio, TV, or desk lamp, we do not experience these objects merely as mute pieces of technology—they take on a personality of their own. For a certain kind of Italian male, say, a watch (at the moment, that would be an Alessi 1000 by Stefano Pirovano) or a car (Fiat's Multipla sedan) becomes as much a part of his identity as his suit. The understanding Italy's designers have of this visceral connection has helped make them the best in the world.
Milan also has a secret weapon located only an hour's drive from its fashionable golden triangle—there, Prada is next door to Alessi, and Casini shares the street with Armani. The sprawling industrial suburbs of Brianza, 25 miles north of the city, serve to maintain Milan's edge against all comers. Inside one anonymous industrial shed, for example, Unifor's blue overall-clad craftsmen fabricate Jean Nouvel's exquisitely precise "Less" table from sheets of metal. And here B&B Italia transforms foam and plastic into anorexic-thin upholstery that is still somehow more comfortable than anybody else's. Brianza's concentration of small workshops and factories combines centuries-old craftsmanship with the latest technology. Nowhere else in the world can a sketch or a model become a chair, a vase, a lamp, a watch, or a door handle so quickly, and with such painstaking attention to detail.
This immediacy and quality of production is what brings American and British, Japanese and Chinese, Swiss and French designers to Italy. Some come to pursue their own work, while others are brought in under contract by Italian manufacturers. At this moment in time, newcomers arrive to find a style center polarized between what might be called the "hot" and the "cold" approaches. The "hot" school is sick of Italian quiet good taste; its aesthetic is best illustrated by the work of Milan's own Fabio Novembre, a born-again hippie who has produced color-saturated, neo-psychedelic interiors (the UNA Hotel Vittoria in Florence and the Divina nightclub in Milan) kitted out with his surrealistic, corkscrew spiral sofas. At the "cold" end of the spectrum is the work of Antonio Citterio and Piero Lissoni, whose interiors are pared down to simple lines and monochromes (think Citterio's restrained and elegant Bulgari hotel in Milan).
The "foreign legion," Milan's corps of multinational designers, makes its own contribution to the fray. Each year has its stars: An American named Johanna Grawunder has made a name with the glassmakers of Murano (see her "Big" update on the fussy chandelier); Spain's Patricia Urquiola was propelled to It Girl status at this year's Salon del Mobile for her work with B&B Italia; James Irvine combined British wit with Italian style to create objects ranging from fountain pens to leather shoes; and Holland's Tord Boontje, now based in London, achieved success with one-offs and art pieces before being courted by Italians—in this case, Moroso. With this foreign group more interested in designing than in making philosophical statements, all bets are off about where Italian design is headed next.