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Studio Irvine: «good design is the opposite of personalism»

Marialaura Rossiello Irvine is the art director of the studio founded by James Irvine, the great designer (and her husband) who passed away in 2013. A chat about design, irony and methods. And about memory: how to deal with it to keep those who are are gone near us. Not through in nostalgia but through the desire to carry on.

When I arrive at Studio Irvine, I ring the bell. I didn’t need to. «The door, here, is always open», says Marialaura Rossiello Irvine. It does not surprise me. I never met James Irvine, who passed away in 2013. But his reputation as a friend for all, the welcoming guest and cultural guide for the international design community still lingers on Milan, everywhere.

Exhibitions, books and aperitifs

In fact there is no evening at the Bar Basso that goes without mentioning his name. After all it was him, with a historic party in 2000, who turned it into the cult place of the Fuorisalone, bringing in designers such as Stefano Giovannoni, Marc Newson, Jerszy Seymour. Nor there is a design week without an event planned “to remember James”. There was an exhibition (at the Museo del Novecento, curated by Maria Cristina Didero and Marco Sammicheli). There was a beautiful book (curated by Francesca Picchi with Marialaura Rossiello Irvine, ed. Phaidon, with contributions from dozens of designers). And there are aperitifs that friends spotaneously organize. «This year, Jasper Morrison launched the idea», says Marialaura.

Capitelli, for Matteo Brioni

The library of objects

But James Irvine still lives above all in the Studio Irvine, now run by Marialaura Rossiello Irvine. Because the huge “library of objects” that cuts it into two parts is the beating heart of the design activity. It is here that Marialaura Rossiello Irvine comes when she has to give birth to ideas, “flipping” things as if they were books, as she did for ten years with James. This is where projects for Muji, Matteo Brioni, Thonet, Yamakawa, Sovet Italia, Amorim come to life …

Why is this library important for designing?

«Because the starting point is the one I learned by living and working with James for ten years. Observe, analyze, understand. Waiting for the “idea” to materialize in our mind. When it happens, in the history of our studio, it has always been a synthesis of function, fantasy and irony. To this balance, I also do everything to add tradition…»

Sloop, the cradle for Yamakawa, at Rossana Orlandi’s during the Milan Design Week 2018

What do you mean?

«I explain it with an example: the Sloop cradle that Studio Irvine designed for Yamakawa, the Japanese company leader in rattan. The cradle that we presented by Rossana Orlandi is a reference to the welcoming shapes designed by Isamu Kenmochi in the 60s. It is therefore a reference to the company’s DNA. But it also recovers a tradition from Southern Italy that belonged to my parents: putting babies in wicker baskets. To this we added contemporary sensitivity. The need to cradle the baby (the bottom is rounded). The possibility of having it closer to us: that’s the reason why we designed a support for the cradle. Which, as space is lacking, also serves as a container. And, since it has a hole, it is perfect to allow the cat to hide … as ours used to … Moreover, Sloop becomes a small armchair when the child grows … »

I also found the Utopil that I saw from Subalterno, for the #sendmethefuture …

«A pill that Studio Irvine developed for moments of inspiration, to revitalize designers. A joke, but designed with great care, including therapeutic indications, side effects, the blister … Utopil is a drug recognized in the mental state by the Ministry of Design. Lightness, in objects, should not be an easy execution. For 100×100 Achille, the exhibition that celebrates the centenary of Achille Castiglioni, as a Neapolitan I designed the number 100 of a tombola. That does not exist (the numbers are 90). But even if it is a small object, we have created the technical drawings, made a research on the wood to be used, worked with a specialized craftsman … »

Does the cataloging of objects in the library help you make choices like that?

«It helps us above all in the creative phase, yes. Because there is always something to learn from objects. We are overexposed to things and those we exhibit here are the result of a selection. They hit us in some way, although sometimes it is not clear how. It can be a shape, a finish, a function, a combination of colors. For example, by emptying a house in London, I found this sugar bowl: it has a mechanism to extract lumps with a pincer. I could reuse this idea somewhere else. And these articulated arms for a magnifying lense: would not they be perfect for a table lamp? Look at this pose-shoe, which I found in a flea market. It allows you to clean and tie shoes without bending. Would not it be nice if they went back into production with more contemporary logic and materials?»

Foof Dogs and People, art direction and product design for the Dog Museum

What you mean is that this “archivist” work helps with design development?

«Absolutely. At Studio Irvine we document everything: every sketch, communication, contact with suppliers, prototypes. Everything is included in a black book, there are several for each project. And once the work is finished, we put everything in a white, well bound book. Having so many ideas, thoughts and approaches at hand – even those that failed – can help improve constantly».

Is this what the “Irvine method” is about?

«Studio Irvine has always mixed British and Italian design. James embodied this perfectly, as an Englishman who had made his home in Milan. He worked through analysis and organization and he mixed them with an irony inspired by Castiglioni. When I entered the studio I was coming from a totally different background. I had studied at the Faculty of Architecture in Naples with Riccardo Dalisi, who was a master in bringing tradition, folklore and craftsmanship in design. I was working in Danese when James brought me into his world and we started working and living together, 24/7, for ten years. And now his method and way of working are part of me. Although it is obvious that everyone puts something about themselves into their designs».

What is designers’ task today?

«When it comes to product design: adding something to what already exists. A pinch of quality, function, relationship, beauty. And doing so by working within the personality of the brand and its economic resources. When it comes to art direction: deepen the knowledge of a brand to get to its essence, that should be summarized in three words. What adds value to things is intuition. Take for instance this “entertainment game” for dogs that I designed with Maddalena Casadei in 2016 for the Museo del Cane Foof. It looks like a cross between a ball and a little man because it has two holes. It is made of rubber and has a shape such that when it is launched it moves with unpredictable trajectories. The openings are used to insert croquettes and let out the smell. Dogs go crazy … And the cost is low».

And when does intuition arrive?

«Sometimes immediately. For example, when we designed a mirror for Sovet Italia, the connection to the last Dior show was instantaneous. For Matteo Brioni’s art direction, on the contrary, inspiration came after a long study. When we started off, all we had were some plastic bags full of colorful dust and an entrepreneur’s dream. Matteo Brioni wanted to become the leading indoor raw earth finishes producer. What we did for him is a strategic design project, in which intuition was vital. For instance, presenting the earths as make up in the catalog has an enormous evocative power. But that would never have led to the results achieved in terms of recognition on the market without a serious market analysis. Without an all-round brand design. Today Matteo Brioni is number one in Italy in the realization of natural surfaces for architecture».

How did you feel, as a Neapolitan architect recently arrived in Milan, when you entered James Irvine’s universe?

«To tell you what that world meant for someone like me, check this out: when I met Jasper Morrison I asked him for his autograph! I was 30, I was not a kid. And Jasper and James were friends from school. But for me he was a real myth … And I was not used to that ease in relationships, to that culture made of openness, exchange, desire for sharing. Then I got used to it. And it was amazing. Because all designers would come and stay with us: Konstantin Grcic, Naoto Fukasawa, Marc Newson, Stefano Giovannoni, Thomas Sandell, George Sowden. The door was always open».

But Jasper Morrison sign an autograph then?

«Noooo …. it was such an embarrassing situation. But that made me understand that I was facing a different world. That instinctively fascinated me. I wanted to be part of it but I entered it on tiptoe. For years I was silent because I had to understand, to absorb like a sponge. Living and working with James 24/7 for ten years, of course, soon made me part of that world».

It must not have been easy to continue with the studio after 2013…

«Some told me I was crazy. But to close the studio would have been like losing him again. And I was convinced that the world still needed his light gaze on things, the discipline + irony that Studio Irvine stood for. And I’m still convinced that this is so. Even though the design world has changed a lot».

In which way has it changed?

«Up until about ten years ago, companies paid projects and royalties. Then there was a switch to expense refunds or royalties advances. Companies called a designer because they believed in his work. His creativity was considered part of the investment. Then they started to claim projects for free. It’s a bearish game that hurts the profession. And what hurts companies is the belief that the exposure offered by some designers will reflected on them. But it’s never the case. When a brand is industrial and the designer is a brand himself, people tend to remember the latter. For me, as it was for James, an industrial design project is all the more successful the more it lives its own life. Independently from the designer’s personality. Good industrial design is the opposite of personalism. It is in this line that Studio Irvine intends to continue».

Cover photo: Laura Traldi

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