Chloe Frechette and Miriam Phelan
Milan is often regarded as a global capital of industrial design, fashion, and architecture. For first year students on the modern strand, visits to the city’s museums, universities, factories, and shops offered the opportunity to explore the cultural, aesthetic, technological and social contexts for Milanese design and to critically evaluate to what extent Milan held the unique position it is lauded to, in national and international myth.
The moderns’ trip to Milan began with half the group conducting a high fashion/design walking tour led by fashion journalist Marina Baumgartner culminating with a visit to the Moschino hotel while the other half endeavoured on an ambitious architectural tour alongside Marco Biraghi as well as urban theorists from the University of Milan. The first stop for the former group was the Piero Fornasetti atelier in which the PR manager of the design house briefed us on the history of the company, revealing in her discussion what would become recurring narratives in many of our subsequent visits: the notion of the patriarchal designer, locality, and mythology in Milanese design. We then briefly strolled through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a four-storey shopping arcade built between 1865 and 1877, one of the world’s first shopping centres and testament to Milan’s historical strength as a producer and retailer of wearable fashion.
Meanwhile, the other half of the students explored Milan’s unique position as city which developed in the period of modern industry rather than the Italian renaissance. Looking at examples of Architecture’s many ‘-isms;’ Rationalism, Futurism, Brutalism, and Fascism, students on this tour considered the contemporary architectural practices that led to the construction of such towering monstrosities as the Torre Velasca, a 1958 take on a medieval fortress designed by BBPR.
The afternoon ended with a visit to the Politecnico di Milano in Bovisa with a lecture on modern Milanese architecture from Maria Vittoria Capitanucci and a talk on Milanese fashion with sociologist Paulo Volonte, co editor-in-chief of International Journal of Fashion Studies and a brief presentation by several post-graduate students on current Italian design education and practice. Having the opportunity to meet design practice students gave further context to contemporary Milanese design from the perspective of current practitioners. Understanding their rationale and how they view themselves as part of the grander narrative of Milan’s design history revealed a tendency to once again mythologise the Milanese designer.
The second day began with a visit to the Triennale di Milano Archive and library, itself an expression of 1930s fascist architecture, designed by Giovanni Muzio. Some of us returned to the museum in the evening for the opening of an exhibition on self-production in Italy during the 1930s’, ’70s, and ’00s – times of economic crises attributed with exceptional creative stimulus for Italian designers. This was a great opportunity to see the way Italian design was presented and promoted in an institution historically attributed with the conception of post-war ‘Italian Design’ or ‘Made in Italy’ which continue to perpetuate the singularity of Milanese design.
The group then split again with half of us visiting the studio of Alessandro Mendini and half of us dropping by the exhibition space being constructed for cos x nendo in anticipation of Salone Di Mobile. The cos x nendo exhibition in Milan’s famed art district of Brera played out the often advantageous relationship between art and design. As design historians we are faced with the task of asserting ourselves as distinct from the world of art history and art exhibition. What the cos x nendo exhibition really demonstrated was how that relationship can manifest itself in the contemporary world of art and design practice and curation. Nendo describes their role as reimagining objects of ‘[…]the everyday by collecting and reshaping them into something that’s easy to understand.’ The reality of a design exhibit such as this in the context of a contemporary art exhibition instigates new questions around the appreciation and examination of objects that is so often lost in commercialism or dismissed in the field of art historical research.
The group reconvened at the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci where we considered the way Milan’s contributions to the global sphere of technology were presented to the public in a particularly nationalistic manner and considered the forces at play in national institutions across the globe. The second day ended with a lively tour of Achille Castiglioni’s former studio and atelier led by the designer’s daughter and a student from the Politecnico Di Milano. This visit strongly reaffirmed the notion of the singular Italian designer and the idea of family as playing a significant role within design.
This notion was advocated again by Ottavio Missoni Jr. at the Missoni factory just outside the city center. Perhaps in an economy lacking the type of funding provided by institutions such as the Arts Council in Britain, family networks can provide a certain type of security in its stead. The Missoni factory was a unique opportunity to observe the workings of such an iconic Italian brand from the inside — literally. As we explored the pattern cutting studio and design offices, surrounded by images of family and friends, it was difficult to separate the reality of the design industry and fashion world with the apparent idyllic setting of the Missoni factory.
The Kartell factory provided an interesting foil to the Missoni visit as family legend was contrasted with corporate message. The names alone indicate the different prerogatives of each company. Where ‘Missoni’ carries the family name of the original designer and the children and grandchildren who continue to work for the ‘family business,’ ‘Kartell’ was chosen by its founder, Giulio Castelli, for its international quality, and implicitly its renunciation of locality. The study trip to Milan seemed to centre around a common tendency to hark back to the past, recalling the greatness of Milanese design icons throughout history. The prominent and often overpowering role that heritage plays in contemporary Milanese design, however, raises concern for the progression of Milan as a design capital in a global context; with so much energy being focused on the past, what does the future hold?
Chloe Frechette – Chloe Frechette is in her first year at the V&A/RCA History of Design course following her BA in Art History from the University of St Andrews where she wrote her dissertation on the democratization of art in the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection. She has recently finished a paper on design change in men’s collars in London’s Regency period and is undertaking further study in menswear of this period.
Miriam Phelan – Miriam did her Fashion Design BA at the Nation College of Art and Design in Dublin. Having just completed her first year of the History of Design MA she is hoping to begin research for her dissertation on men’s fashion in the twentieth century.
© Chloe Frechette and Miriam Phelan, 2014. All Rights Reserved.