As a narrator, I have often dealt with design. I have written about Albini, the Castiglioni brothers, about Borsani, I am a member of the academic board of the Magistretti foundation, Michele De Lucchi did me the honor of launching a novel of mine, I wear glasses designed by my friend Matteo Ragni. In short, I have always felt immune to the fear of losing touch. Then I get distracted for a moment, skip a couple of editions of Milan Fuorisalone, and the result is this: Zanellato/Bortotto. And who are they? Why, at first glance, do I struggle to put their products into a particular place and time? That won’t do, Trap music alone is quite enough to make me feel old.
The studio has only been around for a few years and yet it has already worked in partnership with many national and international brands like Rubelli, Moroso, Cappellini, Tod’s, Nilufar. In the meantime, Giorgia Zanellato and Daniele Bortotto (the two owners) have also received awards and seen their works exhibited at venues like the Milan’s Triennale or Rome’s MAXXI. That won’t do, I said to myself again. And to find out who the heck these two strangers (to me) are, the only thing to do is just ask them.
“I come from Mestre – Giorgia explains – while Daniele is from Casarsa, in Friuli”. The legendary, productive northeast, I reply. Where did you two meet, halfway? “Our initial years at university were at IUALV”. So, you met in Venice. “No, to be honest. There is a one-year difference between us, so we didn’t attend the same courses. Then I moved to Lausanne to do a master at ECAL, the school of art and design”. And then? “The year after I went there too, Daniele says. I didn’t know anyone in Switzerland, so I asked the few Italian students there for some information. And our friendship grew from there, to then become a business partnership”.
So, help me understand, what was wrong with Venice? “Nothing, of course, as a native of Mestre, I am very fond of it”, says Giorgia. “Venice is a good school – continues Daniele – but too theoretical. Which is a defect of many Italian academies. Whereas in Lausanne the approach is more workshop-focused, you work like in a studio”. Okay, but why Lausanne? You had Milan Politecnico, whose design course has an excellent reputation. “I wanted to study abroad, and Lausanne was perfect. A small city but, between the Olympic Committee and the university, it attracts people from all over the world”. Daniele adds: “in Lausanne we were taught how to take risks. And that was the most exciting thing. The theory side, compared to studies in Italy, was clearly more lacking. Our fellow students knew everything in the magazines but didn’t know any names from the past. We have always tried to strike a balance between the two”.
They are thirty years old. The generation that sociologists call ‘Millennials’. For them, local and global are not opposites. They get what they need where it is needed. There is a lot of pragmatism in this attitude. A little like their website, which is published in English, without even one single world in their mother tongue. “It is quite simply the language of business communication”, they tell me. And yet I can also see it as a way to distance themselves from a design tradition which in Italy is burdensome. Just as I think it is right to study the artists of the past – who have really made history – the fame of certain figures can become frustrating for those starting out in their career. “It is like living with a weight on your shoulders. Leaving Italy was a way to avoid following the masters, to have more space for exploration, more freedom”.
In fact, looking at their products – lamps, beds, furnishings, rugs – I struggle to find a clear genealogy at first. Then I have a moment of epiphany: neither Daniele or Giorgia have ever seen a drafting machine in their life, they have never suffered the dictatorship of the right angle. It is the generation gap between me and them that I feel when I look at what they do. A little like Trap music, basically. “I am obsessed with circles, Giorgia tells me, smiling, and Daniele likes softening corners. Objects should be comfortable – Daniele explains to me. We get our passion for certain softness from the French school, but very often we let ourselves be guided by craftsmanship, by those who handle the matter even before designing it”.
Why did you decide to open your studio in Treviso, which neither of you are from? So, one place was as good as another. Could you not have stayed in Switzerland? “Choosing Treviso happened by chance. I had won a one-year scholarship to Fabrica – what Benetton and Toscani call a ‘center of cultural subversion’ – which is based in Treviso. I have been living here for seven years, I never left. In reality, continues Daniele, we had decided right from the start to come back to Italy. For the quality of life, personal relationships and, especially, for the truly unique craftsmanship. A world waiting to be explored, for us”. Giorgia nods and concludes: “That’s how Acqua Alta, our first collection from 2013, came about. Rubelli got us into the textile world. We learn by working and experimenting with artisans”.
They gravitate towards the one-off, the artistic. And they are not ashamed of it. For the twentieth century, the word ‘art’ was banned, and everything had to be mass produceable. They were designers, they made industrial design, not art. “We like to open ourselves up and be influenced by other disciplines. With artisans it is natural to create one-offs or limited editions. And you can learn with them by experimenting. We don’t have any design rules: sketches, computer, models, or directly in the workshop, orally”.
I feel like you are almost tempted to even explore the fashion world, and I say that not only because your objects are on sale at LuisaViaRoma, because you have designed loafers for Tod’s or because of your collaboration with Louis Vuitton for their Objets Nomades collection to be presented during Milan Design Week 2019. Giorgia smiles: “Our design method can be applied to different fields and not just to industrial products”.
We are sure of one thing, Daniele says categorically. “The product works if it has a story to tell. The Squele chairs (squele means school in Friuli dialect) take inspiration from the classic forms of the school chairs from our childhood memories”. Giorgia intervenes: “and then there was Tessere or Arengario, mosaic rugs featuring the facades of buildings in Turin or in Milan. Or the metal sideboard Marea for De Castelli with the layered oxidation that recall the marks of the tides in Venice”.
I listen and smile. I thought I would be chatting to two designers, who perhaps thought they were two artists. Instead I met two colleagues. Narrators just like me.