Since founding Design Gallery Milano in 1988, Mario Godani and his wife Brunella have pioneered not only the market for design but also the very concept of limited editions and design as art.
As design is increasingly sold as art, it is telling that that the market for the two genres is not yet comparable when one considers the leading dealers. Who is the Gagosian of the design world? Nina Yashar of Galleria Nilufar, Loic Le Gaillard and Julien Lombrail of Carpenters Workshop Gallery and David Gill of his eponymous space would all be contenders. But who represents the Picassos of design, as Gagosian does? The answer might well be Mario Godani, who with his wife Brunella, is the founder of Design Gallery Milano, which since it was founded in 1988 has worked with a roll call of icon and influential designers including Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi and Michele De Lucchi.
Though virtually unknown outside of the design community, Godani is highly regarded as one of the pioneers of the design gallery as we know it. Which made his gallery’s latest exhibition, Simplexity, a must-visit during the Salone del Mobile that took place last week. Showcasing new pieces by the likes of Branzi and De Lucchi, as well as “icons of our gallery”, Simplexity encapsulates Godani’s intellectual approach to design. “What the pieces represent can be very sophisticated but the work itself is very simple and vice versa,” he says. “The exhibition shows the evolution of design as there is a different modernity to the more recent works.”
In the middle of Salone, when Milan is giddy for the work of a new generation of designers, Godani is concerned about the young talents that do not have a gallery to nurture them. Amongst the many nuggets of advice he gave in the interview that follows, he noted what should be the priority of a designer: “What is important is the emotion of the piece which is found in the materials and the quality of the project.” A simple statement that might prove complex to communicate to the new guard – the simplexity of the design world according to Mario Godani.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury is a mix and a connection of quality, money and power. Quality needs money and money is created by power.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
An object that is unique for you and not available to anyone else.
Simplexity is the name of your exhibition that takes place during Salone. How did the show come about? What is the relationship between the simple and the complex?
Simplexity is a small collection of new pieces together with pieces from our archive that deal with the fusion of simplicity and complexity. Sometimes the shape, form or project can be very complicated but it is in fact designed for simple everyday use. And sometimes the object can intellectually be very complicated but made with simple forms. This fusion is very modern. In this exhibition there is technology and also natural materials, for example the bookcase made with a tree that is framed by laser cut stainless steel. Another lamp is made in porcelain which is very natural but is framed by Corian, an industrial material. It’s a mixed media approach. The natural, the simple and the complicated.
Why have you chosen not to work with any of the next generation of designers?
We are an old gallery. Young designers are not my cup of tea. I say that seriously. The dynamic and language of young designers is a bit different to my approach. For example, they study a spoon or a tray for a long time – objects that are microcosms. I like the idea of a designer who wants to create pieces that change a domestic landscape – a designer that can change more than the aesthetics.
Younger designers sometimes don’t have any help or they don’t have a gallery. And they think that they must produce just so that their work can be seen. Their projects might look good on paper but the result is not quality.
You are known for presenting experimental prototypes produced in a very limited edition. In your experience, what happens when you free designers of production constraints and industrial design principles?
My experience is that there is a designer, there is a project, there is a gallery, there is a lot of discussion and there is passion because the first piece, the prototype, must be the final piece. My experience is working with Ettore Sottsass, who was a very creative designer. For each project, he had three to six different solutions. Like a miracle, at the end there was only one solution, something different again. But it was very natural and easy, achieved through discussions. And very good quality.
As a pioneer of creating the market for design, how would you characterise the current market?
The market is depressed as everyone knows. But despite this, there is an interest in the gallery pieces. There is a real interest in the show. Young designers, students, collectors, gallerists have all been to visit.
Who are the collectors that you work with?
My gallery has always attracted mostly Italian collectors but at the moment we have a lot of French collectors because Andrea Branzi, who is very important to this exhibition, has exhibited a lot in Paris. We work with some American collectors too.
You were one of the early champions of Ettore Sottsass. Which other designers do you see similar potential in?
I like the work of Ron Arad of course. It is impossible to improve the quality of his design pieces. He has total control. I also like the work of Marc Newson, which again is very high quality. There are some young designers from the Netherlands exhibiting in the same street as my gallery. They’re showing small objects that are well done and which are new ideas. They’re very talented.
How has the role of a design gallerist changed since you began?
When I started the gallery was actually a showroom. The first pieces we made with Sottsass were exhibited in a showroom, a space where designs for your house were exhibited. We realised that there were pieces we could make that are not just for your house – pieces with a difference. So we became a gallery that exhibited unique pieces that were not designed for a house. Then we decided that was too elitist so we began to work with limited editions. Limited edition meant we could control the quality while also keeping the market. This is how the gallery was made.
And what is the role of a gallery today?
Today it has changed again because the designers sometimes want to bypass straight to art. There are design galleries that produce a unique piece, like a piece of art. A unique piece in design is something strange because a design should be a repetition. The role of a gallery today is to create a very complicated unique piece for one lucky customer. Of course, the prices have increased unbelievably. The language and the dynamic of a design gallery is now the same as an art gallery.
As someone who understands the concept more than most, where do you stand on the design as art debate?
When I started, Sottsass said that he never tried to be an artist and he didn’t like it if an artist wanted to be a designer. He didn’t need to be an artist. Today, there is also fashion to consider. Fashion brands that want to create design pieces. At Salone del Mobile all the fashion labels are involved in design projects. It’s very strange.