A Home for Italian Design


17 July 2019

Since 1933, the Palazzo dell’Arte by Giovanni Muzio, which stands at the edge of Parco Sempione in Milan, has been the headquarters of celebrated design exhibition La Triennale di Milano. In 2007, however, this exhibition became a museum in its own right.

Last year, architect Stefano Boeri was announced as the Triennale’s president and with him came changes to the museum’s structure. Under Boeri, the Triennale is questioning its position in both Milan and globally. “The aim is to change the definition of what it is to be a cultural centre, instead of a staid institution that has no connection to modern society,” says Boeri.

The first iteration of this change came about earlier this year with the 22nd Triennale di Milano exhibition, Broken Nature, curated by Paola Antonelli of MoMA in New York.1 The next step is the opening of a new permanent exhibition of design from the Triennale’s collection, curated by Joseph Grima, the museum’s newly appointed chief curator for design, fashion and craft. As part of this process, Grima is working in concert with a host of special advisers who are engrained in Milan’s design culture: Antonelli, Andrea Branzi, Mario Bellini, Antonio Citterio, Michele De Lucchi, Piero Lissoni, Claudio Luti, Fabio Novembre, and Patricia Urquiola.

Grima manages this role at the Triennale alongside his other commitments as creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven; artistic director of Matera European Capital of Culture 2019; and co-founder of his own curatorial initiative Space Caviar. “I’ve always resisted taking on a single role or a single form of practice,” says Grima. “I’m interested in the cross- contamination between different approaches, and what it means to talk about design and architecture today without subscribing to a single language or a single position or point of view.”

This multifaceted approach is one Grima has applied to the curation of the collection, in which he has interwoven material from the Triennale’s rich archives with interviews with the featured designers, and texts intended to connect design to global events. “What I find to be the most interesting and stimulating approach to thinking about the role of the cultural institution – whether it be academic or museological – is to think of them as design projects in themselves or as urban projects that overflow and spread out into the city,” says Grima. “In many ways the degree to which they are capable of having an impact on activating the city beyond the walls of their specific containers is very much a measure of their success.”

In the following interview, Grima speaks about his new role at the Triennale and the future of its collection, which – unlike the holdings of many other design museums – will retain an unashamedly local flavour.

Joseph Grima, the Triennale’s newly appointed chief curator for design, fashion and craft photographed in the museum’s Curva gallery. IMAGE Giulio Ghirardi.

Johanna Agerman Ross In your new role, you have had the extraordinary task of curating the Triennale collection and archives. Unlike your other curatorial projects, this is quite different as you are working with a collection assembled over time. In that sense, you rely on the people who came before you and what they deemed significant. How do you approach dealing with this historical material while keeping it relevant to today?

Joseph Grima It’s an unusual task and a bit of an outlier with respect to the curatorial work that I’ve done in the past. This material is not really the sort of thing I normally deal with, even though I’ve lived and breathed design and architecture for all of my professional life. So I’m not a newcomer, but I would also say that I’m not the world’s premier expert on Italian design. That’s not really what I bring to the table. As you pointed out, there is a pre-existing collection, but it’s not particularly large. It is just over 1,000 pieces, all of Italian design or manufacture. Historically, there were no particular rules or any particular approaches to the collecting, so I’m working with what’s available. There are a few unique pieces, but the objects themselves don’t necessarily tell a complete story. However, what the Triennale does have is an extensive archive: an extraordinary body of contextual material and documents of various kinds from all the previous exhibitions. A lot of the objects in other design collections around the world were presented for the first time at the Triennale and we have all of the documentation around this. There are letters talking about how they should be presented, photographs of the pieces, and a lot of original models and prototypes that were built to present the work. So paradoxically, the Triennale collection is not so much about the objects themselves but about all of the things around the objects that are quite unique. That’s what I’m trying to work with to bring it to life.

Johanna Why is that important?

Joseph I’ve never really been so interested in design or even architecture itself. What I am interested in is the people and the way these objects and buildings can tell the stories of the people who made them, or the stories of the people who inhabit them or pass them every day – the ways they can modify the human condition. And that is the key objective here, to tell the story of people, rather than to tell the story of objects.

Johanna In the context of a permanent exhibition, how will you enliven or embody the archive when the actual people aren’t there anymore?

Joseph One thing we’ve done is to record interviews with the authors and designers who are still alive, asking them to tell us about the influences, ideas and conditions around the birth of their objects. I’m reminded of something Vico Magistretti told me when I interviewed him for Domus. For him, an object qualifies as a successful design if you’re able to call up the manufacturer and describe it over the telephone without providing any drawings and the manufacturer is able to put it into production on the basis of this description. Of course, Magistretti is no longer around, but we wanted to pay homage to him by calling up designers and getting them to talk about their designs over the telephone. So that’s one of the strategies we’re using. It’s about trying to evoke the spirit of the times and the contexts of how these objects were born. We also want to find a way for people to contribute their own stories, because many of the people who will be coming through the exhibition will have worked in the factories that produced the objects on display. Something that sets Italian design apart is that it was very democratic. These objects were designed for everyday use, unlike the collectable design trends of today. Therefore, lots of these objects, especially within Italy, are really familiar. They are the sort of things that people grew up with, had in their homes, and will be able to relate to, even if they have become collectible designs.

Chairs held in storage as part of the Triennale's archive of Italian design. IMAGE Giulio Ghirardi.

Johanna So who do you envisage as the visitor? Is the audience primarily Italian or are you also trying to engage international visitors with the display?

Joseph The Triennale is an emblem of Milan. It’s really Milan’s living room, in a way. It’s a place that people from the design and architecture community visit frequently, so that’s certainly a core audience. But in fact, this exhibition is the first step towards the construction and the opening of an expansion of the Triennale which will be a major international design museum: a new wing of the building that is fully devoted to the collection. The collection will need to grow over the coming years. In that sense, the long-term objective is to reinforce the Triennale’s position as an international destination for anyone interested in design and Italian design in particular.

Johanna At one time the Triennale was the place where you could see contemporary design in action, but for the last few decades those stages have diversified and Milan’s position as a capital of design has been challenged. Is this an attempt to regain it?

Joseph Absolutely. It’s one of those weird paradoxes that Milan, of all cities, should have no design museum. It is so central to Milan’s identity that it is almost overwhelmingly challenging for anyone to try setting up a museum of design. It becomes this psychological dilemma: it’s so crucial for the city that nobody dares to do it. But when this project is complete and it does succeed in opening a major museum, the content of that museum will be absolutely unique and above the level of any other – at least in terms of Italian design.

Johanna It’s a bold strategy to go for a local focus, because many design museums nowadays strive for a much more global perspective. Weirdly, as a result, they often have the same content.

Joseph That’s the thing. We’re trying to tell the story of a very specific region, not just about the city of Milan. It’s about the designers and the entire productive ecosystem of the whole area around Milan, which has the most incredible craftsmanship and extremely specialised knowledge. That’s what really made the whole thing lift off. It wasn’t just the designers themselves.

Johanna You have a board of specialists working with you on the acquisitions and exhibition display. Tell me about that set-up and how you work together.

Joseph It’s an advisory board constituted mostly of designers and notable figures from the Milanese design scene. We haven’t actually formalised the acquisitions committee yet. At the moment, we’ve suspended all acquisitions until the museum opens in April; after that we’ll begin questioning how to add new exhibits. The board advises on how to structure a convincing exhibition; about which pieces to include and which are the crucial pieces of given designers. Many have work of their own in the collection. It’s been an ongoing conversation with them and they’re all intimately involved in the history of Italian design. It’s been a group effort, I would say, putting together this exhibition.

The building housing the Triennale was designed by Giovanni Muzio and built in the 1930s. Gio Ponti's 1933 panoramic tower looms over the site. IMAGE Giulio Ghirardi.

Johanna Can you describe the structure and set-up of the exhibition?

Joseph It’s a chronological display. We didn’t organise it typologically, because that didn’t seem like the most interesting way. We’ll be in the “Curva” which looks a little like a racetrack. It’s a very long, curved and narrow space that lends itself to a linear organisation of the exhibition. It will be presented as a timeline, with each object given a certain amount of contextual information that makes it possible to read it within its historical moment. We also wanted to take the work out of the vacuum of design and place it in relation to events within a larger conception of everyday life. So we’ve created a timeline of key events that to some extent also influenced the pieces on display.

Johanna And how did you decide to design the display?

Joseph Well, interestingly, one of the first things I did when I started at the Triennale was to set up a technical office as I’m somewhat exhausted by design exhibitions with overwhelming exhibition designs. So the technical office is able to execute very minimal, straightforward display strategies that don’t overpower the exhibits. It’s a sort of non-designed display, aiming to make the design on show as legible as possible.

Johanna You said that the collection has grown without a specific policy, so in terms of adding to the timeline, what do you look to acquire moving forward?

Joseph One of the strategies I’ve been talking and thinking about is the archive of archives.2 I’m very interested in the acquisition of entire archives rather than single objects, because I think those are the things that really set Italian design apart and are the work of the great maestri of design. Some designers have already passed away and others are very elderly. A lot of the work that made Italian design great, and a lot of the archives of people who made Italian design great, have a very uncertain future, so we’re trying to present a credible guarantee that the Triennale will offer these archives a good home where they will be accessible and visible, studied and archived in a structured way.

Johanna You talk about these maestri and their archives, but what is the future of this kind of institution in the digital age? What are the challenges and the possibilities of the position of Italy as a design culture today?

Joseph To a large extent, it rests upon making these bodies of work accessible and legible to as abroad an audience as possible. This, in turn, is likely to cultivate a greater appreciation and understanding of design. Obviously, that goes hand in hand with efforts of digitisation and leveraging the power of new database technologies. That way, we can put the objects and archives in relation to one another, and try to extract new interpretations, perspectives, and histories. It’s incredibly exciting. Some of the most interesting and revolutionary things within computer science in the last 10 or 15 years have unquestionably been happening in database technology. That’s something I’m excited to apply to our world.