Mar 27, 201412:58 PMPoint of View

Q&A: Daniel Libeskind on Italy, Product Design, and the State of Architecture Today

Q&A: Daniel Libeskind on Italy, Product Design, and the State of Architecture Today

Daniel Libeskind in his New York office, holding up a panel of eco-friendly ceramic tiles the architect designed.

Courtesy Lana Barkin

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When you talk to Daniel Libeskind, no single question has a simple answer. From his days as a young musical prodigy (he played the accordion) to his directorship at Cranbrook Academy, not to mention his voracious passion for literature, the fascinating episodes of his life all come together, informing his approach to design and architecture. His career path is an unusual one. And while that is true for many architects, his is particularly interesting, where each twist and turn, no matter how ostensibly disconnected, seem to have always prepared him for his next step. Take his two highest profile jobs, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the master plan for Ground Zero. The two are intrinsically linked—the museum’s official opening to the public in 2001 was originally scheduled on September 11. The project had taken 13 years of political maneuvering to realize. Similarly, Libeskind's World Trade Center site master plan was marred by a decade of delays and alterations, which threatened to blot out his original design intentions. One monumental task after the other, eerily similar in challenging circumstances, both offering the architect a rare opportunity to helm projects richly entrenched in emotion, symbolism, and historical significance. 

Now as his career moves beyond these two important projects, the architect's connection to Italy is beginning to play a pivotal role in his work. He moved there after his time at Cranbrook, when he was looking for new career challenges. Libeskind has been back in America since he was commissioned the Ground Zero project, but he recently opened up a studio in Milan, where he, his wife, and son oversee the firm's forays in product design.

I caught up with Libeskind at his Lower Manhattan office overlooking Ground Zero to talk about Italy and his involvement in upcoming design fairs there, Milan Design Week and the Venice Architecture Biennale. 

Paul Clemence: You had a privileged position at Cranbrook in the 80s, as director of the architecture school there. Why, then, the decision move to Italy?

Daniel Libeskind: I had been appointed a Lifetime Artist Residency, a very prestigious position where teaching was just part of the job. It was meant as an opportunity to develop your own work. It was a lifetime in paradise, but was too pleasant a life. I decided it was too early too retire. So we [Libeskind's wife and family] went on this adventure, spur of a moment, not speaking the language, no job, and no connections in Italy other than Aldo Rossi, who was a close friend. 

 PC: Milan is certainly rich in culture and history, but in ways that aren't immediately evident. How was it like getting to know the city?

DL: Milan is a secret city. You have to have a key, you can’t just find it in guide books. But if you have a key in, you can find treasures of Renaissance, of Baroque, of Modernism. I love Milan, it’s a fantastic city.

In 2012, Libeskind designed a scultpure dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci at the entrance of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana Art Gallery, known locally as the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. The gallery holds thousands of drawings, including the largest collection of da Vinci sketches.

Courtesy Studio Daniel Libeskind

PC: What is one of your favorite places to visit there, one that you can always  go back to?

DL: I would have to say the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Ambrosiana Library) is the greatest secret of Milan. It’s a true gem tucked away in the center of the city. The library houses the largest collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s in the world, including the Codex Atlanticus. You can intimately view other master works by Titian, Caravaggio, and Botticelli, just to name a few. The library recently unearthed the ancient ruins of the Roman city in their sub-basement—it’s fascinating! It will open to the public next year.

PC: How has your time in Milan and Italy affected your work?

DL: Italy is connected to the whole humanistic culture, from Alberti to Vitruvius. Italy is really a school, for any artist. Being there is an education. I used to torture the kids, taking them to see these obscure churches in small Italian towns, and the small piazzas that are at the basis of history of architecture. Like Vigevano, which is reputed to have had the first public space ever created, the first time people thought to create a place to just sit around. 

A bookshelf designed by Daniel Libeksind for Poliform. In recent years, the architect has veered towards product design. The Milan branch of his studio is headed up by his son Lev, who looks over the development of Libeskind's product designs.

All product images courtesy Studio Daniel Libeskind and the manufacturers

PC: Now you've opened a satellite office there in Milan, which will be developing your industrial and product designs. Your son Lev is the CEO there, joining you and your wife Nina in the company. How is it to work with the whole family?

DL: It is the best. And another Italian tradition—so many of the companies we are working with, whether is Cassina, Artemide or Guzzini, all are family companies. And that’s what makes them so good. It’s not mass production, there’s a  degree of pride involved. I love the idea of the family working together. It was my wife that suggested Lev come and help us in Milan, and he left his own career to join us.

PC: What was the first object you were ever asked to design? And how did you feel about doing that, having been so deeply involved in architectural thinking?

DL: This is the honest truth. People used to say, "Why don’t you design products also," and I would say, "I am designing buildings, big projects." Then one day a company asked me to design a door handle, and I started laughing because it is the smallest object. But I kept thinking about it and suddenly I had a revelation—why not? I mean, it is something that is part of everyday life. So I said, "Sure I’ll design the door handle." And I did, and I thought that was it. Then months later I was asked to design a door. And I had this other revelation—first I had the door handle, then a door, then you have to open the door. Then suddenly I realized what an incredible thing I had come across, something that I had never thought about. And that’s how I began designing all type of objects. Large or small, all the things that have to do with design are things we have to use everyday. From there grows the whole idea of the environment. I was lucky to come across these opportunities. And like Frank Lloyd Wright said, “To design a chair it is as difficult as to design a city.”

Libeskind's Paragon lamp design for Artemide. He will be showing a second iteration of the design at this year's Salone del Mobile.

PC: On that note, you're launching several new products at Salone that will cover a wide range of designs, from a chandelier to a bookshelf. Tell me about the new lamp for Artemide? It resembles a building model of a skyscraper.

DL: Yes, that is the Paragon 2. The premise was how to make a very effective light with a very minimal gesture, but very expressive. It’s about the light, the expression. But also is very affordable. I learned this very quicklyit’s pretty easy to design something extravagant, but the true challenge is to do it at reasonable cost.

Old to new | New to old
Mar 28, 2014 01:25 pm
 Posted by  VoiceOfReason

I'm not persuaded that Libeskind benefited one iota from his time in Italy. The aggressive forms that typify his work confirm that exposure to humanism left no mark on him. Indeed most of his work seems to embrace antisocial ideas rather than humanistic ones.

And the work of Italians, be it in architecture or product design, always exhibits refinements of proportion and an understanding of human scale, two qualities that are shockingly absent from all of Libeskind's work. (I'd wager Libeskind never once used a legitimate proportioning system in any of his projects. But let him prove me wrong.) It goes a long way towards explaining the unpopularity of his work with the public. People are not attracted to aggressive and repellant formalist gestures that speak only to the ego of their creator.

Mar 29, 2014 10:54 am
 Posted by  Rosario

Strictly speaking, ‘design’ is a methodology that involves fresh and careful examination of a problem with a view to producing something that is practical, useful and has some degree of aesthetics appropriate to the issue. What Daniel Libeskind does is something else entirely. All he does is extend his clichéd brand by forcing his sole, tired idea, the grating, clumsy, one-size-fits-all wedge form, onto every problem he tackles, regardless of whether that is a house, a door handle, or a museum.

Take the door handle he speaks about. Predictably, Libeskind’s ‘solution’ is a harsh triangulated form that ignores every ergonomic instinct that might have produced a graceful, curving handle that would be pleasing to the touch. (Compare Libeskind’s crude handle to the refined ‘hand friendly’ hardware in the FSB line and you’ll see what I mean.) Libeskind’s handle has all the sensual pleasure of grabbing the wrong end of an axe. So much for the humanistic influences he claims to have absorbed in Italy.

And now there’s his bookcase, another convoluted mess of crashing wedges and triangles that is neither efficient, useful nor pleasing to the eye. And, like all of Libeskind’s designs, it will be annoying to use.

If Libeskind were asked to design a baby’s diaper, he would come up with something that was sharp, metallic and have lots of hard, protruding angles. It’s all he knows. He can’t think beyond the one gimmick he’s been pushing for over a decade. This self plagiarism is not a sign of creativity. It’s the refuge of the tired hack who’s trying to squeeze the last dollar out of an idea that was never very good to begin with.

Mar 29, 2014 06:44 pm
 Posted by  Iktinos

Libeskind's technical knowledge is virtually non existent. He wouldn't know or understand the first thing about the materials that go into making a ceramic tile. His only contribution to the Casalgrande Padana product is the superficial and meaningless zig zag lines incised on the surface. (And CP can confirm that.) That's all he's good for - adding silly graphics to things.

Mar 31, 2014 07:57 pm
 Posted by  Phillips

A brief visit to the Jewish Museum and you see how Libeskind is able to use space to express emotion in a way most architects (and detractors) probably don't even understand. And thus put it down, cause that is easier. Sad! Love the zigzags reminding that the right angle is just one option out there. Saw it in person installed; adds a new layer of perception to the tired old tile typical grid.

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