Why Can’t We Be More Like the Italians?

Why is it that American culture, which seems to dominate everything from popular fashion to entertainment, can’t hold a candle to Italian-designed interior products? That’s the question New Yorker magazine architecture critic Paul Goldberger asked at the start of his Sunday afternoon ICFF seminar, “The Italian Contribution to American Design.”

Panelists included Dr. Rodrigo Rodriquez, vice-chairman of Flos , Bernhardt executive vice president Jerry Helling, and designers Antonio Citterio and Ayse Birsel.

Citterio explains that the state of the design world is a reversal of fortune from the not-so-distant past: “Between the two wars, a lot of European culture came to America, like when the Bauhaus closed. In the 1950s, we had incredible influences from America. We copied a lot.”

Italian designers made the leap from copying to innovating since then, which Citterio and Rodriquez cited as the consequence of Italian production strategies. The country has its own furniture district, where design businesses are encouraged to grow.

For young denizens of the district, it is “so natural to grow into furniture design,” Citterio says. Moreover, Rodriquez stated that 92 percent of Italian design companies employ fewer than 20 people. In such a small environment, which Citterio described as “mother is the architect and the father is the factory,” trust and risk-taking can happen.

Helling echoed these comments. “So many companies in America right now are large. They are driven by growth and earnings. When you can take the longer view, you have a greater latitude.” Bernhardt, he explains, can do just that because it is a family-owned company, not subject to the demands and vagaries of outside investors.

Most of the seminar’s conversation skirted generalizations, particularly stylistic classifications of Italian design products. Of course, a mass market like America’s demands a bigger process than most Italian businesses can handle. As our tastes shift toward the Italian “style,” however it is defined, our businesses will come around to fulfill market demand.

But whether huge American companies can do more than play copycat to the Italian sensibility and raise the bar of design innovation remains to be seen.

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