The art of losing control


Paola Navone is not afraid to make mistakes: an error can become a key design idea. Since her beginnings in the 70s, she has been one of Italian design's ground breaking veterans. She finds inspiration for her designs whilst on her constant travels around the world.

Unlike many of her colleagues, Paola Navone is not happy with simply one or two normal design objects. She engineers entire environments in a motley but generous whole design, reminiscent of the 60s and 70s, with a focus on soft fabrics, thin leather, warm wood and cool steel. Certainly a mix of hand-made and machine-made, but ideally not mass-produced or standardised. InOut for Gervasoni is one of her latest examples: precise steel design for the chairs and tables: seating and table surfaces in tactile wood, with oddly contrasting measurements. And she admits that she still builds on many of the ideas from the notorious 80s design collective Memphis Group; where she - together with Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi, Michael Graves and many others - makes items based on modernism's idea of form-follows-function. Instead, they mixed industrially made with handmade; advanced production techniques with simple, cheap and expensive materials; all in a design with communication as its key element. Today, Paola describes her design philosophy as an attempt to compose opposites into a whole.

"I believe in mistakes; about not having complete control. Many people find this hard to understand, but what happens when something goes wrong in manufacture can be a quality that brings something extra to what was planned.

She runs her hand over her chair, a black and white creation she designed for the French brand Merci, and explains that something had been wrong with the tool, the material got caught and folded up. The surface is not entirely even, but has folds where the pattern was disrupted and is interrupted - creating character. Paola laughs heartily, and thinks it turned out perfectly. She also explains that Kasthall wanted to discard her samples after the machine began to shake, but she thought that they turned out excellently, entirely out of her control. But she doesn't aim to create a random design. She boils down all her ideas from her travels in her large design pot, and after stirring thoroughly, it always becomes something different from the masses.

"Colour is part of everything I do, and I prefer to use colours that evoke the water and the sky. Conversely, I don't like warm earthy tones. Elegance, for me is a mix of balance, simplicity and the imperfect."

Paola's career spans everything from editing at the design and architecture publication Domus, to designing hotel interiors, entire warehouse collections and of course working as artistic director at various design companies. For a number of years, she created collections for the renowned Florentine porcelain company Richard Ginori. Instead of concentrating on her own items, she created a complete environment to lose herself in, with a vast wall of plates. An extravagance of porcelain in traditional and modernist design, but also large baggy soft sofas in a well thought-out restaurant and bar. For the annual furniture exhibition in Milan, in the installation Leathership for Poltrona Frau, she allowed recognised and unknown design objects to take on new expressions in three African-influenced huts, swathed in generously-sized pieces of leather. Her interior environments for the home offer both domestication and the unexpected. She explains happily how she received a phone call the other week from a customer who said it felt like being on holiday in their new apartment. Sofas, cupboards and beds, with shapes and textures that show up in odd places, but are still recognisable. Colour-wise, carefully balanced, yet everything but a perfectionist design with a large degree of sensuality.

Installation for Richard Ginori, 2009

"I don't like aggressiveness. Why should you have to react negatively to a chair when you're in your own home? However, what I like or don't like is less important, but it is important that furniture means something and isn't bland; that it gives me energy."

Is that perhaps a more feminine attitude? She isn't fully comfortable with the question, but does admit that the Italian design industry is more patriarchal than its North European equivalent.

"I'm not sure, but perhaps men do aim more for control. For me, it's not just the material that inspires me - my attitude and sensibilities are different. But, women do have to be at the top of their game, otherwise..."

She actually avoids the design capital of Milan, and mostly lives in Paris. More than ever, she is off travelling, and explains that if she had been a young designer nowadays, she would have moved to Southeast Asia. She explains that the design profession has become slightly fixated on digital tools, and talks about the material worlds she is researching.

"I like extremes. In India, I'm currently working on a creation which is based on handicraft, but where everything is represented digitally."

She never liked school, and laughs when she recalls how no teacher wanted to be the one to be given her degree thesis at the School of Architecture in her home town of Turin in 1973. It was only when she was discovered by Alessandro Mendini that she was able to complete her degree. He wrote a book and founded the cheeky innovative design movement Alchimia, based on her text on radical design. Paola's gifted frontal attack on traditional design then continued in the Memphis movement, which today forms the basis for Italy's strong design position the world over. 
"I've always trodden my own path. Many of today's designers are increasingly also producers - they would do well to daydream a bit more."

Text: Leo Gullbring