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Sustainability, innovation and creativity: tips for Italian manufacturing taken from interior design

“In times of crisis, a man’s vitality doubles”. This optimistic quote from the great American writer Paul Auster was selected by Silvana Annichiarico, director of the tri-annual Design Museum, as the motto of the exhibit, opened in conjunction with Design Week and the 2014 edition of the interior design show, Salone del Mobile, held this April in Milan. And it was an appropriate choice in that it reflects the best traits of Italian industry: focusing on creativity and innovation, quality and internationalism, in order to find new paths out of a crisis that continues to afflict the domestic market in Italy, but which can be overcome through expansion into foreign markets.

“Salone del Mobile and the renaissance of Italian creativity” were the words of a great, internationally renowned artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto, which capture the sense of the culture and entrepreneurial spirit that increasingly characterize the vitality of one of the pillars of Italian manufacturing (within the context of the country’s key industries of interior design, fashion and agriculture, not to mention industrial automation, a field that also features the entire value chain of woodworking machinery).

“Renaissance” is a bit of a buzzword these days, such as in “manufacturing renaissance” (often mentioned right here in this blog), a term used by economists at Harvard in reference to the US’s decision to begin investing again in manufacturing and “backshoring”, i.e. bringing American manufacturing back to the US after having gone overseas in search of better conditions for production. Many of Italy’s best economists often refer to “industrial pride” and “manufacturing excellence”, as does the industrial federation Confindustria and some of its most active regional branches, such as Assolombarda. Culture of enterprise and creativity. Product quality and production systems. Originality in design. “We’re building a culture of enterprise, not just business”, said Claudio Luti, chairman of Kartell and the head of Cosmit, the organiser of Salone del Mobile.

Other great names from the worlds of culture, architecture and design have echoed Pistoletto’s optimism. Mario Bellini has noted that “here in Milan, we give life to ideas from around the world. Zaha Hadid has said that “Milan is a mandatory stop on the road to learning”, while Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas have underscored the importance of both innovation and the tradition of craftsmanship. David Chipperfield has confirmed that “Italian small and medium enterprise is achieving unique results”, and Daniel Libeskind has written of “functionality and aesthetics is in [Italians’] DNA”, noting that “Italian design is still competitive on international markets thanks to the industry’s commitment and long history”.

Confirmation can also be seen in the numbers on Salone del Mobile and Design Week: 360,000 visitors to the 2014 edition, up 13% from the previous year, and featuring architects, designers, buyers, business people, and the specialist press, and with 70% coming from abroad, not just within the EU, but also from Brazil, Russia, India and China, as well as from the US and the Middle East. Thus, Salone del Mobile has solidified its place as the world’s largest trade show within the industry, and Italy’s entire interior design industry stands to benefit, as it confirms the healthy originality of a situation that still emphasises the unbreakable bond and virtuous circle between idea and product, and between the “culture of planning” and the “culture of product”, the cross-fertilisation between the design office and the factory, the drive for creativity and innovation and the opportunity to turn ideas and prototypes into products that can tackle the marketplace, whether it be an elite niche or the broader consumer-goods market (while never forgetting the importance of design).

Other buzzwords that found a sounding board at Design Week and that show the way forward for the interior design industry in Italy were sustainability, innovation and training. It all starts from the tradition of craftsmanship, while maintaining a close relationship with the latest production technologies such as the rapidly evolving world of 3D printing. While working on making products and production processes “greener”, emphasis is being placed on materials, especially wood, but also plastics, resins and metals, as well as on how much research labs and other industries have discovered and developed, from new alloys to more flexible, more resistant and lighter compounds, and studies are looking into the positive relationship between boutique firms and large-scale factories, between sophisticated research and the most promising trends in high-value production. And within this landscape, training can play a key role in preparing new designers, chemists and factory workers who know their way around nanotechnologies, as well as in bringing the existing workforce up to speed with the latest discoveries in the world of high-tech.

With its interior design district in Brianza and its connections with Italy’s two other production powerhouses, Veneto and Marche, Milan is at the very core of this strategy. Here you will find manufacturing and a set of expert services for the world of interior design, beginning, of course, with the exhibition services. There is an international-level polytechnic school that specialises in architecture and design and a robust collection of other universities with excellent schools of economics, not to mention the human science faculties that are so essential to sophistication in creativity. There’s finance (which will prove particularly useful if it can figure out how to better meet the needs for growth of small and medium enterprise and of start-ups in particular). There’s a dynamic media and communications industry and a vibrant presence of contemporary art, another key to stimulating innovation. In short, you’ll find everything you need to boost Italian manufacturing and give it even greater opportunities for internationalisation.