by Anmol AhujaNov 05, 2021
On a recent visit to Michele De Lucchi’s office AMDL CIRCLE in Milan's elegant Brera area, the architect gave me one of his recent books, Connettoma: Synopsis of Humanistic Architecture. There is hardly any text in it, mostly images—one per page. What makes this study of the architect’s own work particularly fascinating is the sequence, adjacencies, and connections among the selected images. A hotel tower picks up its intriguing glass-clad silhouette from an asymmetrical wooden cupboard designed two years earlier. A façade of an unrealised building in Milan incorporates a pattern of an interior lattice partition. A streetlamp’s chic design evokes the style of a chair leg. The structure for a high-voltage pylon bridge design is echoed in a canopy support system of another building, completed 17 years later.
Another leg, of a table, resembles the appearance of a skyscraper in Batumi, Georgia. And an enchanting trio—coffee pot Pulcina for Alessi, a wooden stool for Astrati, and the domes of the Zero Pavilion at the 2015 Expo in Milan—all appear to be design siblings despite their vastly different scales, materials, and functions. Ideas float from one page to another and from one project to the next in different directions letting our imagination cross disciplines and contexts, defying all expectations and conventions. The book draws a world of startling connections generated by images that spawn other images in alluring circles and spirals of ideas, memories, allusions, and emotions. These images help to narrate the spirit of design methodology that AMDL CIRCLE has adapted and keeps expanding.
Michele De Lucchi grew up in a large family—he and his twin brother are the oldest of eight brothers. He told me that until the age of 18, his parents treated them—the twins—as a single person, never calling them by their respective names, instead referring to both invariably as “the twins.” That huge lack of personality was channeled into Michele’s strong urgency to become independent. As soon as he finished high school, he set out for Florence to study architecture, while his twin brother pursued chemistry in Padua. Architecture was a compromise, in a way. It incorporated De Lucchi’s love for art and sculpture on one side and engineering on the other, as his father, grandfather, and uncles were all engineers.
De Lucchi was born in Ferrara, Italy in 1951 and grew up in Padua. He graduated from the University of Florence in 1975. As a student and young designer, he was active in collaborating with the then-emerging Radical Architecture groups, becoming among the founders and leaders of such movements as Cavart, Alchymia, and Memphis Group. He had been running his independent design practice while teaching and forming creative collaborations along the way. Among the most critical of those associations was with Ettore Sottsass with whom he co-founded Memphis Group in 1979. Friendship with Sottsass led to a long-lasting partnership with Olivetti where De Lucchi was the design director for 15 years, from 1988 to 2002.
The architect's most renowned projects and designs include Bridge of Peace (Tbilisi, Georgia, 2009), the UniCredit Pavilion (Milan, 2016), theme pavilions for the 2015 Expo in Milan, and such now famous designs as Lamp Logico (2001) for Artemide, First Chair (1983) and Oceanic Lamp (1981), both for Memphis, and Tolomeo lamp (1987)—the world’s best-selling lamp. De Lucchi lives in Angera on Lago Maggiore where he works on his art projects and commutes to Milan every day to run his 40-person interdisciplinary laboratory-like practice. In the following interview with Michele De Lucchi, we discussed his collaboration with Sottsass, the project he is most proud of, the need for every object to have a story, the role of wood as the material of the future, how to stimulate imagination, and who is his favourite client.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: After graduating from the University of Florence in 1975 and spending a couple of years teaching there you were invited by Ettore Sottsass to collaborate in his design collective, the Memphis Group. You have said about him, “He taught me how to see reality.” How did he influence your thinking?
Michele De Lucchi: For me, Ettore was like a father. I moved from Florence to Milan around 1977. For almost one year I worked as his personal assistant. He introduced me to Olivetti, an Italian manufacturer of such electronics as computers, calculators, printers, and typewriters. I was a part of Memphis from the very beginning. The idea of Memphis was not only to use design as a service for industry and to design products for the market but to use design as a tool to investigate people’s behaviour. We also wanted to introduce figurative elements, colour, decoration, humour, and irony to enrich and excite the everyday environment.
VB: You worked for many years for Olivetti and served as the company’s design director for about 15 years, from 1988 to 2002. Did you run your own design office during all those years? When did you start your practice?
MDL: Designers and architects who worked at Olivetti were supposed to be independent consultants, not employees. Our role was to serve as a bridge between everyday living and people’s desire to embrace technological innovations. It was the everyday lifestyle that really inspired the evolution of innovative ideas. So, there was an innovative approach to the way the company was organised and how it was managed. I started my collaboration with them in 1979 and in 1980 they sent me on a world-around tour—all expenses paid—to explore the key forces that were changing the office structure. I visited Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, the U.S., Japan, and Australia. I felt so lucky. Just imagine, being just 29 and traveling all around the world to investigate the then-current state of the office environment. It was a very special moment. For example, in 1981, Steve Jobs introduced the very first personal computer, which soon became used in offices. So, in 1980, there was already anticipation that office culture was just about to change dramatically, and Olivetti was willing to investigate those changes. The result of that exploration was no longer the typical office that would follow a repetitive layout of one desk after another. Instead, the concept of the “office landscape” was born. So, the layout defined by rigid geometry was replaced by a landscape-like layout.
Curiously, I met my wife because at the time she was writing a book on Olivetti’s unique management structure. We now have four kids—two boys and two girls. None of them became architects or designers but the boys work with me at AMDL CIRCLE. They both work in our company’s management. As far as my own practice goes, I started it right after my graduation. Throughout my entire career, I was an independent architect and designer.
VB: You have said, "The role of an architect is to stimulate the imagination." Could you give an example from your own work? What are some of your projects or objects that stimulate our imagination most successfully?
MDL: Among those projects that I am most proud of is the Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi, Georgia. Particularly because of the current war in Ukraine and all those countries that surround Russia that are now increasingly worried about their future. A bridge is a beautiful symbol. It is an infrastructure that brings together two opposite sides, two banks of a river. It also brings together two different cultures, two different opinions, two different beliefs, and so on. A bridge is a symbol of dialogue. I don’t believe in arguments, and I don’t believe in expressing anger. An angry architect is nonsense. Where there is anger there is no dialogue.
VB: I like how you accompany your designs with stories. You explained, “I can’t design anything unless I can think up a story that gives a building a meaningful purpose." And here is another quote from you, “Things that are made without stories behind them are the saddest of objects. They have no reason to exist." Where do these stories come from? How do you find them?
MDL: Everything is about communication. Everything should communicate something—a glass, a bottle, a chair, a building, or a city. If an object does not communicate it doesn’t exist and it doesn’t deserve our attention. Communication is conducted in many ways, not just by shape, material, or colour, but also by words and stories. Why not? When I present my work, I always find a narrative. This is because the narrative has a better chance of being memorable. An important role for any object is to be memorable. Otherwise, it is not touching you emotionally. That’s what I tell my colleagues here—if you cannot explain your design or idea in words then you need to rethink it. An image alone is not enough.
VB: As you said, “All objects have stories to tell. People have a desire to tell stories.” Let’s talk about your design process.
MDL: What’s important to understand is that the direction of design should not be driven by a technical approach. The most important thing is to have a humanistic approach. Ideas should come from questions rooted in the needs of real life. The point is to interpret reality. Of course, we should avoid expected solutions and hope to encounter wonderful serendipities. For that to occur we need to avoid any kind of process or formula. Ideas should be thrown into the conversations, and they need to be discussed. The unplanned is more important than the planned, if only for the fact that it makes us alert and responsive. Then we should judge whether our ideas are absurd or brilliant. Our ideas should go beyond solving technical issues. What’s crucial is to follow these things—to be upbeat, to be curious, and to be courageous. We need to look for solutions where no one has found them before. All the standard solutions or the ones produced by the so-called AI are obvious. They are conventional. But we need to go beyond conventions. We are looking for solutions that are exciting and intelligent. If you show me a solution that’s not exciting, your answer is wrong. That’s not what we are looking for.
VB: I am fascinated by your wooden sculptures. When and how did you discover wood?
MDL: Some time ago I realised that wood is the material of the future because wood is really the only material that’s naturally grown and replaceable. And it is the material that’s necessary to produce because every forest is healthy, and it absorbs CO2. Younger forests absorb more carbon than old ones. Wood can satisfy all our needs, really. The more wood we use the better it is for our planet. Some people fear that we cut down too many trees. But we need both to maintain our existing forests and plant new ones. When wood is used properly it can last for hundreds of years. Everyone loves wood—its texture, the way it feels and smells. These are the reasons for starting to work with wood for me personally. I also realised that the sculptures I was producing evoked scale models of my projects. In fact, originally, when I started working on these sculptures, I tried to produce conceptual models for my buildings.
Then I realised that I could be making these sculptures independently from any of my studio projects. That’s how it began and then I started looking for inspiration in these sculptures for new projects. One pushes the other and vice versa. I use a chainsaw to create, design, and invent these pieces. In a way, I undertake creative research parallel to professional research. Of course, we have professional commitments and real projects. But, in my opinion, every architect needs to undertake personal research parallel to professional practice. We have to use our creativity to produce public goods. Yet, as architects, we need to remember that we are not artists. An artist can judge their work on their own. But architects’ work is judged by everyone. What we do is not for ourselves but for society.
VB: In one of your interviews, you asked this question, “What is it that produces the phenomenon of creativity, the birth of ideas, of innovative energy? How would you respond to your own question?
MDL: Our creativity lies in our ability to interpret reality. The solution needs to be found within ourselves. Ideas don’t exist without personality. Yet, these ideas should be the ones that concern everyone, the whole society, not just me personally.
VB: And finally, you have said, “He is my favourite client, faithful, persevering, and exciting.” Were you talking about yourself?
MDL: Of course! [Laughs.]