John Foot is a lecturer at the Department of Italian at the University College London,
and author of the book Milan since the Miracle: City, Culture and Identity.
He is currently involved in the Memory & Place study.
We took a few things out of this interview. The presentation, though largely a review of John's book, offers a number of cogent wordings of his ideas. This review is a source of many useful ideas that ground the direction of our research into Italian innovation, in terms of understanding where modern Italian innovation has come from. The key point he makes is the importance of slowness and tradition.
The interview was a bit more interesting, in that we were able to play on more of John's contemporary design sensibilities. His approach to seeing design as inseparable from the rest of Italian culture is in line with ours'. He confirmed that the notion of Italian identity in the face of globalization is a serious issue.
[Y]ou need to go back further and look at what kind of industrial revolution that Italy had. They didn't have an industrial revolution where the people all left the land and became workers, as they did in Germany or Britain, for example. They had what I call a slow industrial revolution, where many people remained on the land, or had links to the land for a very long time. And, that created a sort of interplay between city and country side, between artisans with long traditions of working with say silk or wood, or things like that; an interplay with that and modern industry, and the crux of that is what you get in Milan in the 50s. Its this interplay between traditional artisan activity, new businesses, and a particular historical moment there, which creates these links - business links and creative links in the 50s and 60s. But that's all because Italy has this particular kind. It maintains its traditions. You can still go out to a place on a lake towards Turin where they still make taps. All they make is taps but they were making taps 300 years ago - different kinds of taps, different kinds of design, but they were still making taps.
Rogers - I just talked about him, but there's not much about him in my book - he's a fascinating character. Incredibly influential in a whole series of people who came after him: Magistratti, Aldo Rossi was a student of Rogers', and not just a student, but he was, you know, a kind of father figure to a whole series of people who came through the Politechnico - he edited Casa Bella in the postwar period which is probably the most important, along with Domus, the most important architecture/design magazine - it still is, although Domus I think is more important now. And they weren't, in terms of what they actually built, all designed ... they weren't extreme modernists, they always had their eye on history. They mixed tradition and modernity in the stuff they created, and they had this very strong political push from anti-fascism.
Milan, the Milan design world - I think that remains extremely innovative and creative. The links - the Salon de Mobile and all those things - are extremely dynamic, but there's an economic block there at the moment in terms of export.
And the internal market; I mean, consumption dropped by 4% last month, which is something of a record, so that's definitely something that's happening. Italy's officially in a recession aren't they. So I don't think it can come from within the system itself. I think the system works pretty well. In design, I call it a system in my book, the links between all these different things, these networks. The renewal of that can only come from outside, from when the economic wave comes - when the next wave comes. Certainly, Milan produces more designers than most places in the world. It's like there's an overproduction of architects and maybe that's a danger with designers as well, yet most of them find work in that vast archipelago of that world. But you could say it's not a good moment, at the moment, for Italy.
The way out, I think, to come to your question, is that they have to sort out the quality side of things. That's the only way that it's going to maintain its market share. If it starts to produce rubbish ... to put it quite simply, there's a lot of rubbish out there. '''It's got to stay with things that are of good quality and not that expensive which all have a particular identity. Otherwise it's had it.
If you cut back on your research, your innovation sides, then that's not going to happen. Quality is not going to happen. There is a great temptation to do that though, obviously, if you're this company and you can see this 4% drop in consumption over one month, then it's true you're going to get scared at that point about what the future's going to be. And there's that sort of phantom debate about the far-east market, and what's that doing to Italy; I think there's a big debate about that.
But the Italian identity, that's a really key issue. What does that mean? And, if you look at the design media which I kind of touch upon, through some work I've done with Domus and some people coming and working on the Salon de Mobile, it is a bit of a globalized ... there are globalized circles. A lot of people aren't Italian who work in Italian design. So I think you're right, it's much more complicated than that. I mean, in the 50s it was clear in that there was this group of Italians who created something that was called Italian design, but what was Italian about it is a good question. And I don't know; it was made in Italy. What was actually Italian about it is an interesting question. But that all goes back to what I was talking about with the artisan traditions, the quality traditions, and so on. It's difficult to assess it now. Which is good; its interesting.