Light has always been an alphabet for telling stories: Barbara Corti, Head of International Marketing at Flos, on changing design trends and emotions evoked by design.
Design was extremely hip in the 1980s and 1990s. But what about the 2020s?
I think that the 2020s were a much more interesting time for design than the 1980s and 90s. Those years were useful because they broke the mould and introduced new character and genre contamination, with a hedonistic side that I personally never liked much, but that hid a great sense of function.
They were the years of multiple landmarks, from the death of John Lennon in 1980 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, via the Chernobyl explosion and the Tiananmen Square protest. Ten years of powerful social impact ferried the 80s into the carefree 90s, which I consider far less powerful and innovative than the 70s and 80s.
Can you explain? Design changes …
… in the wake of history, reflecting that controversial and subversive spirit in its strong aesthetic forms and in creativity taken to extremes. Many have described it as stylistic hedonism, but the truth is that these were objects linked to freedom of expression and by no means frivolous.
Nowadays there is extensive focus on 1980s design, which had a natural vocation for genre contamination and now, reinterpreted 30 years later, is increasingly popular in the world of interior design. I believe it is what we need at the moment.
I recently saw an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which celebrated the 1980s with a journey through furniture, fashion, posters, photographs, record covers and fanzines to portray an era of multifaceted influences, profoundly marked by postmodernism. It recalled many of the multidisciplinary methodologies that have become very topical for dealing with the complexity of the contemporary world. The world of design has been greatly enriched in meaning, and I think there is a strong return to the ideal rather than the notion of seeking an idea, which are two extremely different processes.
Today, we are seeing the return of designer collectives.
Indeed, there are collectives rather reminiscent of Superstudio and Memphis in the 1970s and 80s. This is because design today requires increasingly specialised language and disciplines to coexist within the same object, and design communication now plays an extremely important role in the launch of a product—much more so than in the past.
Something that has profoundly changed for me, and a topic close to my heart, is the role of the home within our philosophy and culture. Emanuele Coccia wrote in Filosofia della casa, Philosophical modernity has focused everything on the city, but the future of the world can be domestic. There is a far more consistent sensibility, further accentuated by the pandemic, towards the home, in which objects become more than simply nodes that connect humans to the architectural or natural space. The house today is no mere refuge or cave, nor solely a theatre for displaying social status. The contemporary house is something far more complex and interesting, because the media has made it our primary clothing, made from the same material as the world. And this new territory is extremely interesting for designers.
This is the perfect segue into talking about the home. Why should people invest in good luminaires?
Light has always been an alphabet for telling stories. The poetry of places feeds on the intersection of light—natural or artificial, or both—which connects us with the space itself and is an essential element in our quality of life and the quality of the time spent together. As Louis Kahn said, A room is not a room without natural light. There is no architecture without natural light and a place can have no poetry without the spillover between natural and artificial light.
We need warm light in our homes in order to create spaces within which to share, work, love and be inspired. And in addition to this archetypal dimension which makes light an attractive and mythological object, light quality has a powerful influence on our personal wellbeing.
Light as a design object must always lead us back to the archetype of light and, at the same time, provide this sense of wellbeing. LED technology has had a profound impact, of course, especially on the ways in which designers approach light.
The triumphant progress of the LED is indeed amazing. The technology has caught on more quickly than virtually any other. What lighting trends do you see at the moment?
The expressiveness of LEDs has profoundly influenced lighting design over the past ten years. LEDs have allowed incredible objects to be created that could not have existed with the lightbulb alone. The drawback is that LED technology is also responsible for countless products that are far from iconic, because too much expressiveness can generate a kind of mannerism, which instantly becomes frivolous for frivolity’s sake.
I think that the two most interesting territories to explore and watch at the moment are craftsmanship and technology. Their apparent dichotomy is only surface-deep. Both can drive sustainability and the search for design methods and practices that are necessarily measured against climate change. The real cultural, social and political theme is this: how can we, as designers and design companies, impact the planet as little as possible?
Craftsmanship recovers past skills or creates new ones, to promote recycling and the use of natural materials or ancient techniques that also factor time into the production process. Technology, on the other hand, allows us to innovate and work on alternative materials—Neri Oxman's work on generative design is a perfect example of this as it combines engineering, architecture and design. And it is interesting to understand how disciplines that appear to have nothing to do with design are actually becoming an important source of inspiration. They delve into the complex relationship between the natural environment and design, focusing on the ecosystem and the cycle of nature and on how these can be a source of wealth for designers.
And obviously, all the interstitial spaces emerging between technology and craftsmanship are profoundly enabling within the design process. The newer generations have realised this, and are already implementing it. Of course, we had a great master who taught us this and put it into practice himself: Achille Castiglioni and his ready-made objects.
We still apply this approach to project setup, prototyping and designing today, and I find it profoundly contemporary.
Are there still differences between private and professional lighting?
When people ask me this question, I always reply that we think of our objects from two perspectives, that of the private consumer and that of professionals—but the professional architect, interior designer or lighting designer is also a final consumer and a person. We never prioritise technical communication; we don’t want that to be our main asset. I still think that Flos is romantic and sexy for an architect, because it touches the same emotions in them as it does in the final consumer and this goes beyond social, professional and geographical status.
There is something very irrational, too, about working and taking risks in avant-garde territories where you can always find something unexpected or timeless and beautiful, even when the lamp in question is a spotlight or optic designed to perform a specific, efficient function.
And technical products are increasingly ending up in our homes because homes have become spaces where we work, and offices have softened and become spaces that embrace design and a much more creative and unexpected wealth of language.
Has working from home changed our mindset?
Modernity came into being by wresting work from the home, but today the two spaces are profoundly intertwined and overlapping.
It is obvious that lighting in office spaces is primarily aimed at increasing efficiency and ensuring the safety of employees, which makes the specifications for offices very different to those of the home. Office lighting is designed with high movement and traffic in mind, which results in far more demanding lighting requirements.
But on the other hand, our homes today need to be even bigger, to make room for our work life. And even more so than in the past, our homes have become hybrid, contaminated and digitised spaces, in which we live, work, study and cook. It is amazing how quickly we have adapted to this new normal. Today the two dimensions of home and office are profoundly interconnected, and it is a very interesting design area.
What are private customers looking for? A luminaire for life, or for the moment?
There are new forms of sharing, much more adventurous and unexpected than in the past, in which our homes are still our caves and light animates them just as fire once did. Light can be used to see, but also to hear, in increasingly dynamic, profound and evolving ways. Light often goes unnoticed, but it can inspire us, ignite emotions, create atmospheres, transform rooms and facilitate conversations—and even silences at times. It is also a tool to help people see where they are and where they are going. It affects us all the time. Light quality impacts our cognitive and physiological wellbeing just as our quality of life is an activator of social, collective and individual wellbeing.
When so much is changing, is there actually even such a thing as timeless designs?
Of course. Timeless designs are our primary obsession at Flos because it’s the most sustainable genre that exists for a design company: timeless objects that will be handed down from generation to generation and will never be thrown away. It should be the main feature of a sustainable manifesto, followed by the use of recycled and recyclable materials, the ability to disassemble products and the avoidance of glues. If you make something that will last, well, that’s responsible design.
There must be an almost political militancy to it, however. As Enzo Mari said, here are no truces in making timeless design. It’s tiring because there are no shortcuts, but it’s really exciting. We are lucky at Flos because we work with the greatest designers in the world, and each of them has a different process for getting there.
What does a well-designed luminaire communicate? Taste? Status?
We fight every day to prevent design from becoming a transactional object used to obtain social status. I believe that is highly dangerous territory. It would mean that Flos was a luxury brand, but I don’t consider Flos a luxury brand. I want to design and be a cultural company above all. I want to create cultural tension, innovate in an avant-garde playground, and still be accessible and inclusive. This is the power of good design.
The house is an attempt to shape the world in one’s own image and likeness. And I believe that design can become an important personal manifesto, more so than fashion. Design does not require accessories and seasons.
You already mentioned great designers. So what role do star designers play for you?
Designers are our most important resource. Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni and Tobia Scarpa in the very beginning, Philippe Starck creating the iconic Miss Sissi in the 1990s, and our designers today. We have the opportunity to embrace a multitude of different approaches to design, and to work with the greatest designers in the world.
For us, just as it was for Achille Flos is a playground where we can take risks and drive design. That original attitude hasn’t changed. We have more processes, and we have themes like sustainability and technology which have redesigned our engineering process, but the prototyping phase is the same as it has always been.
The promotion of talent and creativity is an indissoluble part of the company, ever since the days when the only designers at Flos were Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni and Tobia Scarpa. It is essential that there be a constant to and fro between creative impetus and the design limits set by industrial processes, which are infinitely more complex today than they once were in the past.
Thank you for the interview!