Stefano Giovannoni: I tell young talents to “fly high, and be pragmatically visionary”

Stefano Giovannoni is one of Italy’s leading designers, and has collaborated with a long list of famous companies – including Flos, Saab, Lavazza, Seiko, Cappellini, Nissan, 3M, Samsung and many more. Born in 1954, he was one of the founders of the Bolidista movement. After working with Ettore Sottsass and Alchimia-Mendini, he taught at Milan’s Domus Academy, the Design University in Reggio Emilia, and the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Genoa; more recently, he held workshops at prestigious international schools such as the Royal College of Art in London and the O. Kochoska Academy in Vienna. He has designed many iconic objects, including the “Girotondo” series for Alessi – co-created with Guido Venturini and now a best seller with seven million pieces sold – and the “Bombo” and “Vanity” chairs for Magis. Giovannoni has also collaborated with Chinese companies such as ZTE, creating a smartphone now in the hands of 16 million people. Last year, he took his career on a new course and founded his own brand, Qeeboo, rounding up works by five design names: Studio Front, Marcel Wanders, Andrea Branzi, Richard Hutten and Nika Zupanc. We had the chance to chat with Giovannoni and asked him about his projects. Here is what he told us...

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I am working very closely on Qeeboo – the brand I launched last year – and Ghidini 1961, the brass and copper object manufacturer where I am art director. I’m also art director for Immagine, an air freshener company part of the Little Trees group that has just launched my products in supermarkets. It’s an interesting project because it’s the first time design meets the mass market with truly accessible products. We are also developing a wide range of projects to fine-tune brand identity and packaging design for food companies in South Korea.


Do you have a favorite project?

Qeeboo and Ghidini 1961, for sure. The former because I finally succeeded in launching a brand of my own, which allows me to make decisions in complete autonomy; the latter because it’s completely different, and puts me in the opposite position – or perhaps in a complementary role. The market seems to be responding well, but building a brand requires huge care, in structuring the company and tweaking both manufacturing quality and new product development.

How has design changed over the past few years?

It has definitely changed a lot. In the 1990s, industrial design penetrated into all markets and completely transformed them. Just think of home goods, which I worked on so much, or fields that had barely been explored until then – like bathrooms and boats, where design has brought great elements of innovation. In a world that is full of objects, industrial designers’ best sellers or successful products are not cross-market items that can intercept wide target segments anymore, but products with a strong identity, more connoted and selective.


How did Qeeboo start?

I aspired to create a new brand for a long time, because I have worked for so many years for leading design companies all over the world that I have been able to build my own know-how, on strategic, creative and even technological and marketing aspects.


What are the challenges in creating this type of design brand?

It’s a start-up, amongst many others: first of all you have to understand what strategies and direction to take, find the right collaborators to build an efficient work team, grow a distribution network, manage suppliers and inventory. Along the way you find a bunch of quacks, people who can develop your e-commerce for 2,000 euros and others who ask for 100,000: at first it’s not easy to find your bearings and understand...

You selected five design names for Qeeboo: Studio Front, Marcel Wanders, Andrea Branzi, Richard Hutten and Nika Zupanc. Why them?

I chose friend designers who usually express themselves through a storytelling code that features strong and immediately recognizable signs. I recently added Studio Job because I believe Job Smeet is the most interesting designer we have today, in terms of creativity: he is a real visionary, and I immediately felt in tune with him.


On your website, Andrea Branzi describes Qeeboo as “the Dolce Stil Novo of design”. What do you think about that? Do you feel like a “Dante” of contemporary design?

Andrea Branzi references Dolce Stil Novo because Qeeboo objects are by nature the complete opposite of products traditionally inspired by the bourgeois and market culture – although, as Andrea says, they are “even more invasive”.
This vision certainly gave a positive shake to the bigot context of design, bringing over time a new wave of innovation, pushing towards emotional and mediatic design that is more democratic and closer to young generation.

Dante left a strong “legacy” for posterity. What message would you like to convey to future generations with your projects?

I believe that the meaning conveyed by my plastic products for Alessi and the communication power of Qeeboo objects both express a fresher, smarter, more democratic idea of design.


You are art director at Ghidini 1961, which has a very different visual language from Qeeboo’s. What kind of design approach do you follow in the two companies?

Both Qeeboo and Ghidini have a unique identity that is definitely different from any other company. I’ve often hired the same designers, although their work radically changes in terms of materials and technologies that tie in with the two companies’ core businesses. Today, Ghidini represents a more sophisticated professional image, with industrial technologies used for an elegant and rich material like brass. Qeeboo strives to give a new identity and dignity to plastic – a “cheap” material that however is “mediatic” and extroverted, and perfectly adapts to the sculptural quality of the brand’s products, sublimating this feature in metallic objects with shiny silhouettes.


Do you consider current Italian design as competitive as it used to be a few years ago? 

I am convinced the best manufacturing and cultural know-how is still in Italy. The most interesting designers in today’s international scene – from Jasper Morrison to Job Smeets – work in other countries but still recognize the crucial importance the masters of Italian design had in their professional background. However, it’s not easy to work here in Italy because players don’t move in synergy and design schools are far from giving young students the education they need.

What is the future of design?

Design is in constant transformation, and must adapt to the constant changes in the context in which we live. Today, however, it’s important to keep a strong identity and strong basic structure in one’s creative approach, because that’s an aspect that seems to have crumbled into infinite facets. A basic creative (not schematic) and general (not specialist) culture is essential, despite the fact that schools nowadays tend to favor specialization.


What do you think makes “good design” today?

Being part of your own times and having an identity that can be immediately perceived.

You’ve taught at many prestigious international schools, from the Royal College of Art in London to Design Quest in Osaka. What differences have you noticed in design approaches around the world?

Design schools in different countries base their methods on two different cultural approaches: the Italian and the Anglo-Saxon one. The former is more “intellectual” and found its best example in the early Domus Academy and in the Faculty of Architecture in the 1970s and 1980s. It is structured and based on heterogeneous and complex subjects that converge into the education plan. The Anglo-Saxon approach is more “empirical and experimental” and allows students a lot of freedom and independence in choosing their educational path; it does not believe in teaching a lot of history and theory, and focuses on individual practice and “making” instead.


What is your advice to young designers who dream of following in your footsteps?

Fly high, always stay on the other side of banal official culture, imagine extraordinary objects, things that have never been seen before, and learn how to be pragmatically visionary.


Interview by Barbara Palladino


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