Artist, designer, art critic and philosopher; Gillo Dorfles shows to be an indeed versatile figure, who binds his own name to the commitment of constantly explore and analyze aesthetic and cultural phenomena. Achieving to become interpreter and witness of the developing dialectics between artistic expressions and industrial production, Dorfles has been nurturing leading edge groups and movements, the most well-known of which are the MAC- Movimento di Arte Concreta (the Concrete Art Movement) , founded in Milan in 1948 together with  Atanasio Soldati, Bruno Munari e Gianni Monnet, the aim being to promote a type of abstractionism freed from any process of mimesis – and the ADI (Industrial Design Association), the creation of which will see Dorfles himself as protagonist, 12 years later.

His great, insightful interest in the evolution of both the world and of art, allowed him to make a remarkable contribution to after-war Italian aesthetics.

In his critical investigations, Gillo Dorfles has often put a special attention in scrutinizing the social-anthropological side of aesthetic and physical phenomena, also by applying the means of linguistics. He was the first, as early as in 1951, to identify the baroque tendencies of contemporary art, as it’s needless to say how his reflections on design – which strongly endorses the aesthetic structuring of the discipline, rather than clear it through customs – is still regarded today as strikingly topical. More in general, Dorfles’ critique work between the  Fifties and Sixties has a true revolutionary significance: his interest originates from the critical observation of concrete facts and elements which are present and yet subjected to constant mutation and stratification. He is fascinated by tastes, fashion vogues, costumes and techniques, mass-media communication means, social relationships, daily psychopathology.

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Far from abandoning his activities, Dorfles is today working on publications and researches on applied arts, design, architecture, meant both as disciplines and more broadly as cultural phenomena in perpetual mutation. This interview therefore represents an occasion to comprehend the evolution of the planning process, through an exploration of the contemporary public’s taste, all this by taking into account the new fields of technological research and experimentation. In fact, Dorfles does not withdraw from tackling new categories, despite those being yet detached from applied arts in its historical acceptation, as for instance interaction and installations. He, by that, gives a further proof of analytical liveliness, not sparing us with the exceptionally refined vocabulary of some of the sharp judgements unmistakably by him.

Pasquale Napolitano: Professor Dorfles, could you tell us how you interest towards applied arts and design originated in first place?

Gillo Dorfles: Since the time when I wrote the short book “Disegno Industriale” (“Industrial Design”) [Einaudi, Torino, 1972] I had realized that it had become impossible to completely separate the world of design and architecture from visual arts. One cannot, in fact, study painting and sculpture forgetting about architecture as well as of design. This last one, in a sense, was considered the architecture’s “cinderella” at the time and that never sounded right to me: we live surrounded by design, I would actually say even more than by architecture, and therefore it was impossible not to consider it. That was the starting point.

There is a parallel development, first in crafts relating to visual arts, and then, when crafts get integrated with, – if not substituted by – design, it happens that painting and sculpture paradoxically get absorbed by design too. In fact, designing an object do not differ that much as a process from designing graphics: graphics, typography, design, they all are subsets of a wider sector.

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Pasquale Napolitano: In your writings on the design culture you outlined a relationship between art and design starting from the concept of seriality. Today a large part of art’s artifacts derive from some serial matrix, whilst industrial production is increasingly offering higher level of products-customization; given that scenario, where would you see, if ever it still exists, the difference between those two universes?

Gillo Dorfles: Of course, being design basically related to function, it comprises a quotient that is lacking in painting and sculpture. Beyond the matter of form and personal taste, I believe there are two aspects it due to point out, which are fundamental both for design and other Arts: marketing and functionality. From that perspective it is clear that customization of an object simply consists in one of the features implemented to identify the object itself.

At our forefathers’ times there was nothing like such attribution process of immaterial value, and in case there was, that would only be partially: there maybe was the Louis XVI table, but then the fork, the spoon, would not have any, call it, “surname”. The new way has, from my viewpoint, a double significance, that is positive on one side, since it allows to embody a higher level of appeal in the object, and but negative on the other because it generates a sort of “snobbery” of the object, more often due to a fashion than to a user’s supposed fine taste; there is so much of the characterization of a piece of clothing, for instance, laying in the griffe and taking over the relevance of taste and the quality of the project

Pasquale Napolitano: Along the Twentieth century design has strongly influenced the concept of aesthetics. Also, the concept of commodity is now crossbreeded and for many aspects dissolved into the ocean of communication; how do you think that this stimulations, together with the developments of the industry of culture, have changed aesthetics?

Gillo Dorfles: It is mass culture that has changed the attitude the man of the street have towards a world that was so far precluded  to him. This recalls me an acquaintance of mine who totally lacks the slightest bit of taste and intellectual curiosity and that furnished his new flat exclusively with designers’ pieces. For me, that is a demonstration that the taste for non-taste, for mediocre style has breached in and influenced a number of environments, albeit in a distorted way.

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Pasquale Napolitano: In the ’60s you distinguished three categories that define the design object: seriability, the aesthetic quotient bond to its design methods, the mechanical producibility; given the aforementioned innovations related to digitalization, changes of taste and economic systems, do you believe that any of those categories should now be questioned, updated or replaced?

Gillo Dorfles: I still see those three as the foundational categories, especially seriability: serial production is fundamental. To me, design for a single, unique object never had a reason to exist. Seriality is stronger than functionality. However, if you ask me to ‘update’ these categories, I can add that, according to me, today designing needs to take spatialization into account too.

Pasquale Napolitano: About that: since you have listed amongst the characteristics of design, in relation to architecture, the fact of being “Micro”, small-scaled, don’t you think that whole range of communication design objects like maps, diagrams etc.. and even more audiovisual artifacts (as Studio Azzurro installations), overwhelm space in an all-comprehensive way? And that being the case, how do “micro” and “macro” spatial categories are to be reordered?

Gillo Dorfles: As a matter of fact, we do not only have the “furniture designer” there also are other typologies, like environmental design, graphics, etc… We must achieve the design of space through architecture.

Pasquale Napolitano: Has your activity as a painter and sculptor helped you in your studies? Did the reverse effect happened to be as well? And more in general, how was it possible to match organically the fields of analysis and representation?

Gillo Dorfles: From the public’s point of view, the idea of an allegedly serious critic that is also a painter, does actually put him under a not such good light. when Argan used to paint, for instance, he was rather mediocre. It is unlikely that both aspects can coexist yielding the same quality and liveliness. Still, being able to discern the raw material of painting, as well as in music, is crucial. And a critic himself must too know the mechanics of music; it would certainly be positive for a critic to also know the aspects and qualities of designing, without necessarily becoming a designer.

On the other hand, the process of calling artists, sculptors and painters for becoming designers is quite nonsensical. In Memphis, for example, the initiative of commissioning pieces of furniture from artists as Pistoletto and Dorazio, hasn’t brought any good result at all. A painter can be a brilliant designer, but he must have some professional experience in the field; a painter (as well as a poet..) cannot just start from scratch to be a designer, because that is a profession strongly structured by its own rules, which must be learned with no derailments.Some “initiatives” can be considered nice divertissements, but nothing more than that. Painters improvise themselves designers, yield a contrast, a kind of dystonia. Do mind that the inverse process is impossible as well, a designer cannot improvise himself an artist: Maldonado, for instance, despite having been an important designer, especially in the Ulm period, and crucial figure as researcher and experimenter – having a great influence in Italy too – , producer really poor paintings indeed.

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Pasquale Napolitano: In short, which are and were your favorite designers and movements, and for which reasons?

Gillo Dorfles: I think it’s always a good thing not to get stuck on names. We have had great characters in Italy, such as Castiglioni, Gae Aulenti, Asti, Mari, Manciocchi.. and we have plenty now; it is hard to tell who   is the best, or my favorite. They obviously have very diverse characteristics: Mari, for instance, is really different from Medini. Thus I think it would be appropriate to debate on who is the best one. It also depends from the cases, in some situations rigor is essential and others in which playfulness is more important. For instance, you can’t see anything of Mendini’s lighthearted approach in Mari’s or Cstiglioni’s seriousness, but it is however aesthetically appreciable

Pasquale Napolitano: In this connection, is there a contiguity between the concept of “Horror Pleni” and Bauhaus beloved “Form Follows Function”?

Gillo Dorfles: The form-function notion was subjected to a great number of transformations. I guess that today no one thinks that an object has to correspond to its function. Function is important in the case of a car or an electric razor (would be quite a trouble if that one did not correspond to its function…); but if we are talking about domestic objects and ornaments, functionality is not absolute, as the “crime” of decoration isn’t: today there is plenty of decorative, ornamental elements that just don’t tolerate a good design. In an object, its symbolism is as important as the strictly functional component. Thus, the concept of “Horror Pleni” [Castelvecchi, Roma, 2008] is plainly applicable to the dichotomy of this speech on form and function.

Pasquale Napolitano: Defining the relationship between design and architecture, you strongly supported for a changeover to a modular and reproducible architecture, freed from the obsession for unique pieces, and in this sense, drawing from design. Such hope has partly been fulfilled, especially thanking mass, low-cost formulas created by IKEA and others. Do you think that this is a phenomenon yet in expansion? Is it still to be considered as positive?

Gillo Dorfles: IKEA is indeed a good example. Before that there was nothing like an high-profile group for that type of objects: you had either the fine handicraft or low-quality ornaments. Today we have an artistic handicraft, but an elitist design too, along with a more linear “popular” design. Contemporary fine objects are affordable for everyone, made in series for mass-use, but they yet accord to aesthetic rules.

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Pasquale Napolitano: This kind of modular logic, together with the idea of reutilization, seem to be the at the roots of the so-called “emergency design”. What judgement do you make of this phenomenon? Is it something that does actually affect the life conditions of those whom this kind of design consider as its target?

Gillo Dorfles: That falls into a more ‘everyday’ category design, not that concerned about aesthetics. Think of a theme like “water”, which involves many elements concerning design, as well as in other daily life aspects. Today, designing has become essential for urban planning – in all the aspects implied – at the same rate it is for for ornaments and objects. Rogers’ maxim: “from the spoon to the town”, still stands.

Pasquale Napolitano: One of the categories through which you analyze design objects, is the integration between mechanical and aesthetic components. Considering that the “mechanical component” of artifacts is now almost fully replaced by code, the clarity of which – that being considered as a component -, is under debate, what remains of design in this field, Professor Dorfles?

Gillo Dorfles: It is still of great importance. Consider computers and other similar devices: the matter of keys, the “keyality”; the haptic aspect is vital. To put it better, in those one-piece, maybe dull objects, the matter of the key, of the manner in which one can manipulate such objects is a crucial element. In fact, you can observe there is plenty of designers specialized in those machines, where the importance of a key or a cue now replaces the one of internal combustion engines or typewriters’ mechanics. Design also remains fundamental for all the aspects concerning the interface: think of displays, legibility, maneuverability…

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Pasquale Napolitano: It is probably worth it to consider categories like interaction, seen as the capacity of an artwork to live many lives, and also the idea of discarding authorality as a fixed scheme of options. Do you agree with this pot of view? Is there anything further that you would add?

Gillo Dorfles: I believe it is important that both the designer and the “designed”, the inventor and the user, take part. See how architecture must take the requirements of the future inhabitant into account. To design the finest shape, the oddity, that would then be useless for the consumer, is nonsensical. The user is the co-author.