Interview with Fabio Novembre on Italian design, ‘the age of fear’ and staying rebellious

Aidan Imanova speaks to Fabio Novembre on the meaning of Italian design, ‘the age of fear ‘and staying rebellious.

Interviewing Fabio Novembre is difficult to compare to conversations with other designers because instead of answers you hear philosophies and all criticisms become interpretations. Novembre has been a designer since 1992 and is highly regarded for his unpredictable design language. So it comes as a surprise that in that time span, he has only produced 41 pieces of design.

“I opened my studio 23 years ago,” he said, “and if you count the things I have done, I am probably the least prolific designer of my generation.” After much skepticism he assured us this is true, and there is a reason for it.

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Adaptation collection for Cappellini.

“I always say, do less but do it better. Projects stay on my desk for months and years because I always have to find a good reason to create something. It is like being a singer. Singers always produce a lot of records and then they do a ‘best of’. I believe in going directly for the ‘best of’. But for that you have to be very self-critical. Don’t lose time on all the rest. Everything else I call semiotic pollution,” he explains.

He adds that it isn’t about the numbers, but about mastering your creation. “I think you have to master things,” he says. “If you’re not ready, don’t do it.”

 

Novembre was invited to give the opening speech at this year’s Design Days Dubai as a guest of the Italian Embassy in the UAE, and although he doesn’t believe in Italian design as testament of nationality, he definitely admits to his own Italian approach to design.

“A key word about Italians is obsession,” he says. “We are all always obsessed with something. And obsession is a great way to evolve and go forward.” Novembre jokes that if he weren’t a designer today he would probably be in jail for his personal obsessions, the source of which is female beauty and eroticism. Being a designer, he channelled that admiration into his designs.

Desert Rose residence proposal for Dubai.

“It is an interesting question” he muses, “what are you obsessed with. I am obsessed with female beauty which is perfection in the eyes of a man. I believe in the complimentarity of man and woman. For a man, in order to find perfection he must look at a woman. This is also exactly the reason why my work references bodies, especially the body of a woman. Looking at my cultural background, perfection is human and human is perfection. It is a double-sided coin.”

Renditions of female beauty and the harmony between man and woman can be found in many of Novembre’s works, from the ‘Divina’ sofa for Driade, the ‘Him and Her’ chair for Casamania, to his installation ‘Innate Harmony’ which examines the biological science of kissing.

Divina sofa for Driade.

When the subject moves to changes in the design industry, Novembre becomes less positive, saying that “we are living in a time of fear”. “There is something that really annoys, even hurts me about design today, which is that designers are always looking at the past. They turn back and look at what it used to be. It is humanly understandable because it is a time of fear. And when you are afraid to evolve, you look at the past. “But we must look to the future. We must stand on our feet and look to the future, because you know what? We are designed to look forward. We have a front, a back and two sides and we can only go on; we cannot go back.”

Italian design, which he earlier defined by its spirit of research and experimentation has also adopted this fearful hesitation.

Liberty First architecture proposal based on Novembre’s Robox bookshelf.

Novembre mentions some of the biggest names in Italian manufacturing which once brought forward some of the most innovative and biggest names in design, but who have now resorted to either “bourgeois tastes or retro aesthetics”.

“I don’t recognise myself in this retro way of life. Not at all. I am the last of the researchers. I am still the child of radical design and still going in that direction: research or die!”

Last year Novembre created the Adaptation collection for Cappellini, referencing the sudden changes of the contemporary world. It was a design born out of pure conviction because the Italian manufacturing company was sceptical about its production.

Fabio Novembre stading at the a hypothetical office stand during Design Days Dubai 2017, where he delivered the keynote speech.

The collection plays with the idea of optical illusion that gives it a falling effect due to the oblique line of the backrest. It features legs at variable heights and a cushion that gradually grows in size, making the seat base perfectly parallel to the ground level. The collection consists of a sofa and an armchair.

“At this time of uncertainty, it is really a manifesto of what a sofa should be. It looks apparently normal but it is broken. I had to tell Giulio Cappellini: “You must do it,” because he didn’t want to do it – it was too radical, too strong. Because it is all about numbers now. For a CEO or someone who administrates a company, if you don’t perform economically, you are out. But I don’t care. If you don’t take risks, what is the point?”

Novembre strongly believes in designing for the present and looking to the future. It is one of the reasons he is so fascinated with Dubai.

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“I always say Dubai is a place for visionary people; it is a very visionary place. Fifty years ago it was a desert and look at it today. I love Dubai for how it displays the power of dreams and the power of a vision and I am very interested in being part of that vision.”

Although trained as an architect, Novembre has never designed a building, which is something he now wants to change. He references Italian architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers, who said: “We are able to design from the spoon to the city.”

“This is a very Italian approach,” Novembre explains. “You can say I started from the spoon, from designing small things like a door handle, but now I am thinking about a city because I am ready. The older you get the more in possession you are of space. And I feel in control now. I am 50 years old, I feel strong – I can do it.”

He adds that Dubai is the first place on his list and he truly hopes to find possibilities to create “big things here”.

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