Design is about people, not chairs: Maria Cristina Didero at Salone del Mobile 2022

Maria Cristina Didero, part of an all-female trio behind the Talks programme at Milan Design Week 2022, speaks to STIR about her curatorial approach to discussing sustainable design.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Jun 07, 2022

"Design is all about people, not about chairs," Maria Cristina Didero exclaims, encapsulating what forms the credo of the Milan-based, independent design curator, author and journalist, working at the leading edge of the global design conversation. Focusing on how an object comes to be and the creators behind these as storytellers, instead of just the object itself, the fiery redhead forms part of a powerful, all-female trio leading the Talks programme at the just-opened, 60th chapter of the Salone del Mobile.Milano. The fair, along with its myriad allied design events, discourses and exhibitions, presents itself as "opportunities for reflection on how to build a sustainable and inclusive future together… for an overarching reflection on design, architecture and their current social and sustainable implications."

(L-R) Maria Cristina Didero (host) with Daan Roosegaarde, Victoria Siddall and Eva Feldkamp at Salone 2022 | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
(L-R) Maria Cristina Didero (host) with Daan Roosegaarde, Victoria Siddall and Eva Feldkamp at Salone 2022 Image: Diego Ravier

What is it about the curatorial powerhouse brimming with humility and optimism, that allows her to click with design mavericks and young talents at the same time? STIR catches up with Didero ahead of her Talks curation, based on Sustainability: Three Different Episodes, discussing her lineup of creators who anchor themselves in pragmatic sustainability in design, how she plans to stir things up on the international design stage as the newly appointed Curatorial Director of Design Miami 2022, and more.

Maria Cristina Didero as curator of the Open Talks programme for Supersalone 2021| Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Maria Cristina Didero as curator of the Open Talks programme for Supersalone 2021 Image: Andrea Mariani

Jincy: How does your wealth of experience, being an international curator, consultant, editor and author, as well as an expert in Italian Radical Design feed into the Talks program at the ongoing Milan Design Week 2022?

Maria Cristina Didero: In this job and industry, everything ends up being related. So, it is not that I have brought something specific or generous from the radical world or from my previous experiences. Salone del Mobile commissioned me for their powerful Talks programme on sustainability, which I approached afresh, basing it on my belief that design is a universal language, a marvellous tool to further social change. My curatorial approach has been in perpetuity, preaching that design is all about people and not about chairs - for me, it is about relationships and all that comes prior and leads to, the finished product. Of course, the object in question must be an excellent one, but I am much more interested in how it comes to be, its origins and the thought process of the person who created it. Similarly, for this Talk, I did not merely want to discuss green design and sustainable practices, which have already been addressed globally many times, superficially and otherwise, but wanted to tackle it from a 'people’s angle'.

Jincy: Your line-up, including Daan Roosegaarde, Victoria Siddall, and Eva Feldkamp, comes with diverse backgrounds, works, philosophies, employed materiality and technical know-how. Why the spotlight on these individuals, and what unites them under your curation?

Maria: The fact that they come from varied backgrounds, educational, cultural, contextual, geographical and professional, is what makes this line-up compelling and dynamic. It is interesting to note how they can come together under the umbrella term of circular, sustainable design, prove how their varied research and applied practices have contributed to the holistic view of green creations, of transformation, research and sustainable innovation.

Dutch designer and artist Daan Roosegaarde is part of Didero’s lineup for the Talks programme at Milan Design Week 2022 | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Dutch designer and artist Daan Roosegaarde is part of Didero’s lineup for the Talks programme at Milan Design Week 2022 Image: Fortune Yunnan

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde is a creative thinker, artist, and innovator, who has collaborated with UNESCO, several global NGO’s as well as cities in Europe to bring about his "social projects" that explore the relationship between people, technology and space. I invited him to discuss technological innovation and art - his aim is to accelerate the spread of social projects that will help save the planet and improve life in urban spaces, much like all his aesthetically, functionally and technologically sound works under Studio Roosegaarde.

Victoria Siddall, on the other hand, is the non-executive Director of Frieze, Chair of the Trustees of Studio Voltaire, and a founding member and trustee of the Gallery Climate Coalition which is a brand-new organisation aiming to connect and share expenses between galleries, to help diminish costs that otherwise every gallery would be bearing by itself. This network collectively helps reduce costs and is a practical and sustainable process of creation.

Driven by the belief that the world is in urgent need of change, Eva Feldkamp fits the line-up as the founder and Director of All in Awe. She will explain how to generate creative opportunities with positive social and environmental impact – her mission is to design a system that will link creative sector colleagues with charities, non-profit organisations and the public sector. So those who do not enjoy the privilege of funds, organised budgets and sponsors, benefit from the works of these professionals, another important facet in doing the sort of work that benefits communities.

Victoria Siddall, non-executive Director of Frieze, Chair of the Trustees of Studio Voltaire, and a founding member and trustee of the Gallery Climate Coalition | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Victoria Siddall, non-executive Director of Frieze, Chair of the Trustees of Studio Voltaire, and a founding member and trustee of the Gallery Climate Coalition Image: Benjamin McMahon

To reiterate, design to me is foremost about people. And sustainability is not just about planting trees - It is more so about respecting people, the environments they inhabit and nurture, and the impact of their belongings and actions. It is imperative to confront the key players, and discuss what we, as design professionals, can contribute, in our approach, our philosophy and our demeanour, both professional and personal. The scale and magnitude of a design week and festival such as Salone del Mobile.Milano also has an immense capacity of reaching people far and wide, where they can access what these established, young professionals practise and preach, and be inspired by it.  

Jincy: What formed your genesis in the field of design curation and writing? What advice would you give to those who are curious and may want to venture into it eventually?

Maria: I studied history and literature, so I have a background in humanities that definitely informed my career to date, albeit indirectly. But I can say that reading books and traversing topics that move you, and writing down your ideas and thoughts, can give you so much education. There is so much exploration and power in reading, ideating, putting these ideas to paper and finally, into the world. When your concepts materialise into tangible exhibitions, it is your ideas that are manifesting, which to this day, scares and fascinates me. After I finished university, I began work with the Vitra Design Museum, where, being on the ground and vulnerable, I learned the practical side of this job, and started my own projects.

Eva Feldkamp will be talking and presenting for the first time at the international Salone stage | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Eva Feldkamp will be talking and presenting for the first time at the international Salone stage Image: Carlos Jimenez

I have always written, it has never been something that was not part of my life, it has been part of my process of existing and expressing. I went on to collaborate with global magazines such as Vogue Italia, Domus, Wallpaper*Milan, and more.

The way to learn and adapt is to remain curious. The moment you stop being curious, the moment you fail to find stimulus, it is over. If you have recognised a creative side to you, I urge you to try and explore it, in whatever capacity, as it is what makes our existence magical, remarkable and wholesome.

Jincy: That truly is sane advice which you can apply to almost any profession. To keep learning every day.

Maria: Yes, especially in creative fields like ours. You owe it to yourself to keep discovering, unearthing, peeling off layers that you did not know even existed! Go visit designers, and galleries, listen to podcasts and buy Dog-Eared books on design theories and histories - so much to delve into, in order to find yourself.

The Space In Between, a Nendo exhibition curated by Maria Cristina Didero at Design Museum Holon (2016) | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
The Space In Between, a Nendo exhibition curated by Maria Cristina Didero at Design Museum Holon (2016) Image: Takumi Ota

Jincy: What are the best and worst parts of your job?

Maria: The best, hands down, is interacting with people, just the way I am with you right now. This is luxury. I feel incredibly lucky because I step into interesting people, their lives and what makes them, and get to learn so much. The worst part? The managing, scheduling, and setting up – but honestly, that discomfort is diminutive compared to the pleasure of hearty working.

Jincy: What is your vision for the Talks programme?

Maria: Since I am curating only one panel this time as opposed all of them, like the Open Talks for Supersalone last year, I plan to instigate dialogue related to the subject of sustainability, and propose a different approach to it, something that goes beyond just recycling plastic or upcycling storm-fell trees. I seek to bring and attempt a more “humanistic” approach to the subject, something that the three speakers actually share in their professions and works. It will focus more on people - what they do, and are capable of doing.

Front cover of SuperDesign: Italian Radical Design 1965-75 authored by Maria Cristina Didero (2017) | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Front cover of SuperDesign: Italian Radical Design 1965-75 authored by Maria Cristina Didero (2017) Image: Courtesy of Amazon, The Monacelli Press

Jincy: Pertinent conversations such as these, I believe, carry a responsibility to champion young designers and sustainability in design, explore design history, learn from it and look towards the future. What are your thoughts?

Maria: Absolutely. Whatever professional series and solid conversations are carried out, must address the extremely worrying situation we are in, in terms of climate change, and how we are contributing so heavily to it. We must comprehend what we have done till now, and how we can make things better, to rescue our planet. We cannot be selfish and uninformed, but most of us choose to be.

As the former Secretary-General of UN, Kofi Annan once said, "The world is reaching the tipping point beyond which climate change may become irreversible. If this happens, we risk denying present and future generations the right to a healthy and sustainable planet – the whole of humanity stands to lose.”

Jincy: How are you embracing your new role as the Design Miami curatorial director for 2022? What comprises your curatorial approach in this capacity?

Maria: I was appointed curatorial director for Design Miami that is set to take place from November 30 – December 4, 2022, set to embark on a mission to transform how the world explores, exchanges, and collects design. I am preparing to propose an optimistic and holistic concept centred on the "Golden Age". It is pretty clear that the age we are living in currently is not golden (it is quite far from it, honestly), with heavy threats to the planet, the war and its heart-breaking after-effects on people; It is, however, a state of mind that could be cultivated into a golden age in the near future.

Front cover of Xavier Lust. Design Stories co-authored by Maria Cristina Didero with Xavier Lust (2016) | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Front cover of Xavier Lust. Design Stories co-authored by Maria Cristina Didero with Xavier Lust (2016) Image: Courtesy of Amazon, Stichting Kunstboek BVBA
All my projects are underscored by an aim to discuss human tragedies, stories and emotions, via objects. – Maria Cristina Didero.

The idea is to stimulate people, to inspire them to work together to better our status and lifestyles. If we put all creative disciplines together, with technology, innovation, beauty, and sustainability, we are capable of making consequential changes. The concept of the “Golden Age” was born after we all experienced the unprecedented times of the pandemic, as wishful thinking, of curating an optimistic approach to the future that lies ahead.

I hear this a lot, "yet another talk, another show about sustainability and climate change". I understand that because it is not enough. We have to do more. And it cannot stop at discourse or discussion, we have to actually act, do something – that's how we can attach meaning and purpose to all of this. Each one of us is capable and gifted enough to achieve small steps, as our field of work permits – as writers, thespians, curators, students and academicians, architects, designers and artists.

Front cover of AL(L): Projects in Aluminium by Michael Young (English and French Edition) co-authored by Didero along with Aric Chen, Max Borka, and Marie Pok (2016) | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Front cover of AL(L): Projects in Aluminium by Michael Young (English and French Edition) co-authored by Didero along with Aric Chen, Max Borka, and Marie Pok (2016) Image: Courtesy of Amazon, Stichting Kunstboak

Jincy: What are some of your expectations for the ongoing 60th edition of the Salone del Mobile.Milano?

Maria: People are quite inquisitive if Salone 2022 would come close to the ones we had before the pandemic. Of course, compared to the scaled-down version in September last year, I believe this iteration of the design fair is geared to be more or less, bigger, better, more enthralling, and definitely charged with optimism and exploding with events. I don’t mean optimism in a one-dimensional, dreamy way – I am not a dreamy person, I do not function like that. When I say optimism, it is to be charged with energy, to be able to work practically towards a destination, and put all of yourself into it, like so many are for this year's Salone chapter.

Didero collaborated with Lebanese designer Carlo Massoud who placed a sculptural fish as altarpiece inside a Milanese Church for Milan Design Week 2019 | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Didero collaborated with Lebanese designer Carlo Massoud who placed a sculptural fish as altarpiece inside a Milanese Church for Milan Design Week 2019 Image: © Carlo Massoud

Jincy: What are some collaborations that remain special to you?

Maria: I was lucky enough to meet interesting, passionate and amazing designers such as Michael Young, Fernando Campana and Carlo Massoud - we collaborated on The Fish and the Crowd for Milan Design Week 2018 and 2019 – a glittering fish installed inside a Milanese church, as an exhibit centred and questioning religion. All my projects are underscored by an aim to discuss human tragedies, stories and emotions via objects. Veganism, religion, war, and the declining environment, are some subjects that I have embarked upon with these designers as creative authors, and their objects, the protagonist – some more examples include Nendo: The Space in Between at the Holon Design Museum in Israeland FUN HOUSE for Snarkitecture, at the National Building Museum in Washington DC.

We also open next Friday for Triennale Milano, with an exhibition called the The Inventory of Life by French designer and an artist, Mathieu Lehanneur, who will present a series of four installations based on scientific data and statistics, documenting the state of the global population and the consequences of its actions on the planet. Magic ensues, as here is where art, research and beauty come together. These projects are powerful in their message, its informed preparation and its purposeful being.

A glimpse inside the upper floor of the Nendo exhibition, The Space In Between curated by Didero | Interview with Maria Cristina Didero at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
A glimpse inside the upper floor of the Nendo exhibition, The Space In Between curated by Didero Image: Takumi Ota

Jincy: What is NEXT for you?

Maria: Sleeping! Post the Triennale Milano and the Talks programme at Salone, I plan to leave for Art Basel, and come back to Hamburg for this show titled Ask Me If I Believe In The Future at the Museum of Applied Arts (MK&G). For the same, I have invited four studios to envision via projects, the moniker of the exhibition.

STIR takes you on a Milanese sojourn! Experience Salone del Mobile and all the design districts - 5vie, Brera, Fuorisalone, Isola, Zona Tortona, and Durini - with us. STIR’s coverage of Milan Design Week 2022, Meanwhile in Milan showcases the best exhibits, moods, studios, events, and folks to look out for. We are also excited to announce our very own STIR press booth at Salone del Mobile - Hall 5/7 S.14, Fiera Milano RHO.

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