It was the summer of 2014. A combination of excitement, nervousness, and curiosity took ahold of me as I embarked on an opportunity of a lifetime to study industrial design in Rome. Not knowing what to expect from industrial design and life in the Mediterranean, arriving in Europe with an open mind proved to be a strong attribute of helping me learn during my time there.
Before arriving in Rome, a couple of my peers from class and I decided to stop for a week relaxing in Barcelona. This was not even two weeks after my twenty four credit semester ended, so it was a much needed break. My time in Barcelona could be described in three words: beach, wine, and Gaudi. The first two descriptors are topics not fit for this blog, and may in fact get me in trouble.
Speaking of Gaudi, it was an absolute pleasure to enjoy a lot of his famous works throughout my short time in Barcelona. There were two works by his that caught my attention more than the others. The first was Parc Güell, pictured in both the black and white photographs. It was a park that consisted of confusing, narrow pathways leading to large open spaces. At times, the roads were so constrained that when Gaudi opens up your vision to the large open spaces, it makes that space appear much bigger than it actually is. Another interesting aspect of Park Güell is the materials he used and the forms he created with said materials. It was all very unorthodox. Beautifully crafted stone led to soft shapes that organically flowed into one another. As an industrial designer, materials being an exceptionally strong selling point of a product is a great design strategy, and this was no different here in an architectural piece. The next piece of Gaudi’s, La Sagrada Familia, was perhaps the most profound piece of architecture I have ever experienced. It has been under construction for over one hundred years, and it is quite apparent why that is. The structure is a colossal piece of stone designed precisely. Inside, Gaudi utilizes light, color, and space in brilliant fashion to create a statement of pure power.
Rome was a great city to live in. The weather was pleasant, the food was fresh, and the atmosphere told a story of a city with such historical significance. The most enjoyable aspect of Rome was definitely the antique buildings being commonplace and integrated into the city. They were apart of the city, which is different from America; we have such a short history that if anything has historical significance in America, a fence is put up and people are forced to pay to experience it.
Unsurprisingly, the Italian government pays a premium to upkeep all the historical architecture it possesses. Why wouldn’t they? It attracts millions of tourists a year and is a strong sense of identity and pride for the Italian people. However, what was interesting to me was that the Italian government also pays a premium to upkeep architecture that was destroyed from World War II, where Italy was notoriously destroyed and forced into a Civil War. Many people would consider these reminders of poor times as unnecessary, but the Italians consider it nothing but a small jab on the chin and consider these monuments as historically significant enough to showcase.
The architecture was fantastic. The most impressive aspect of buildings made before the Industrial Revolution is the fact that they look great from afar, of course, but when you look closely, they look even better. Every minute texture and detail was carefully created by artists who were truly rockstars back in their day.
If I took away one thing from Italy in terms of industrial design, it would be that the manufacturing of products can be just as beautiful as the product itself. Whereas many industrial designers pass off the manufacturing to product developers or factories, the Italians design the processes themselves, most of the time with minimal resources. Two great examples of this are the two lampshades shown above. The first one, Cocoon by Achilles Castiglioni, is a light made from a simple iron frame surrounded by spray on plastic. The second lamp, PK LED by Enzo Catellani, is crafted by pouring small amounts molten metals into a handmade mold in the shape of a bowl, and consistently shaken until the metal is cooled to the surface of the mold. Both of these products are inexpensive to manufacture, but the processes were genius and the lampshades sell for thousands of dollars. That is a common theme in Italian design. Telling a story through the unique manufacturing techniques gives a beauty to imperfection, very similar to the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-sabi. Whereas in America, we usually associate premium products with more usefulness and perfection, Italians imagine beauty, imperfections, and usefulness as one.
I made a lifelong friend in a colleague I met on this trip. His name is Brian Ornduff, and words cannot describe what a unique person he is. He is at times so humorous and laid back that you would think he doesn’t have a worry in the world, but then at other times can be hung up on the smallest, most irrelevant of problems. Many would associate the latter part of that description as negative, but it’s not. I have never met a designer with such a powerful sense of aesthetic taste as he does, and he is often my go-to guy for an honest, solid critique of my works. The fact that he does get hung up on such small details makes him such a great designer, as he notices things that nobody else would, and the way he describes solutions to those details can be thought of as just making sense, plain and simple.
On a more philosophical note, while touring a church within Venice, I encountered a pretty powerful sight. Underneath a Blessed Virgin Mary statue, laid photographs of deceased friends and family of people who put it there. I have never been religious myself, but the image of all these deceased people smiling back at me was stuck in my head for quite awhile. Definitely an existential experience that made me ask a lot of questions. Am I living life to the fullest? Do I truly appreciate the ones I love enough? When will it be my time to pass? Will I leave a positive legacy? All questions that are being answered everyday and every second of my life through the choices I make.
My favorite city in Italy was Venice. I liked it for the fact that life appreciatively slows down while there. Life is simple there, and being in a city that hasn’t changed in centuries possesses an incredible quality that cannot be explained through words.
Before I embarked on this journey, I hadn’t left the comfortable, quiet midwest of America. This trip to Italy taught me an astronomical amount about myself as a person and designer. It instilled inside me a desire to travel the world and build empathy through the discovery of culture. It also gave me an entirely new perspective on design and how truly unique product design in Italy is. Not spending a lot of time on crazy cool sketches, learning AutoCAD, or emphasis on increased productivity, the Italians emphasize the manufacturing process being intertwined with the final product itself that gives off an inherent beauty that can easily be described as… Italian.
I want to thank my parents for funding me on this trip and teaching me how much hard work pays off. I want to thank Josh King, Beau Easley, Cameron Pearson, Thomas Lutz, Brian Ornduff, Walker Day, Preston Warnick, and Justin Monaco, all talented designers with bright futures who I got to share some fantastic experiences with. I also want to thank Marika Aakesson, Ely Rozenberg, and Katherine Krizek for leading the design studios, keeping all of us rowdy bunch under control, and teaching us about design and Italian culture that will be cherished forever.