Beginnings: can you trace the trajectory that lead you to study design?
Ever since I can remember, my early childhood was marked with creative anecdotes. I grew up in a house which had a small room in the basement that I converted into my own studio, decked with a painting easel, colour paints scattered all over and sketches pinned to the walls. At school I was always drawing and doodling on copybooks, especially during lessons which did not interest me. I longed for art classes, and as a kid I excelled in art history. This was when I began to notice my artistic drive, and propensity for creativity.
I would sometimes spend summer vacations at my cousin’s house by the sea, and enjoyed observing their father, who was my late uncle Frank Portelli, surrounded by his paintings and sometimes with a brush in hand; these moments had a huge impact on me. As I grew up, my educational priorities changed and after studying economics and sociology at university in England, I came to realise that I wanted to develop my innate creative skills for a future career, yet without any idea of where it would take me. So as a start, I enrolled myself at a design at academy in Italy. Initially, I was tempted to opt for beautiful Italian cities like Florence and Rome but ultimately I choose the less clichéd and industrial city of Milan, since it was and still is, the most important hub for design creativity. In time I came to realise that this was the right choice.
Between obtaining your MA and setting up your studio, there is a span of 10 years; how was your time employed?
After my final graduation and after four years living in Milan, I was raring to go. I feared the idea of returning to Malta so soon, as I knew it would be impossible to apply my new skills back home. I also feared the idea of setting up a design practice immediately and without work experience, or clients. Therefore, I decided to achieve experience and learn the trade by working for Italian design brands before setting up my own practice. Besides, I needed to earn a living as the pressure from home was high; I had to prove that it was possible to provide for myself with my new mission. I was lucky from the start, since I promptly got myself a job with Baleri and a year later with Driade (…in its heyday) which was a unique opportunity at the time. The latter experience opened up my mind and allowed me to fine tune. Five years later, I started doing small freelance design consultancies and this was a preamble to setting up a design studio which was my final objective and ambition.
You set up your studio in Milan in 2002 – was it a natural choice based on your studies and training?
I moved to Milan in 1988, which became my new home in every sense. I got well acquainted with the city and the language, which made things easier. I soon came to realise that living in Milan brought huge benefits for my work, providing me with cultural input and exposing my profession to new contacts, so it seemed natural for me to stay on. Milan is geographically positioned close to two important design production hubs – Brianza and Veneto – and it was important to make oneself visible in this context and to build new collaborations with design brands and clients. I recently toyed with the idea of having a small studio in a laidback, remote place, to alternate between the stressfulness of city life, and Malta topped my list. Admittedly, I never found the courage to take this step, perhaps the time is not yet ripe.
What drives your work?
Creativity is the main driving force behind my work which is a process that requires intuition to recognise the correct ideas as input to a new project. Unfortunately, the right idea doesn’t always come when it is needed, so I sometimes find that distraction is the best way to stimulate a re-thinking process. Ideas invariably come from different sources, new technologies or materials, observing people’s behaviour, exhibitions, travelling… the list is endless. My Arezzo table lamp for Oluce for example, was inspired by a bizarre funnel hat which I saw on a beautiful fresco in Arezzo painted by Piero della Francesca (La Leggenda della Vera Croce); so this contemporary shape became a perfect light diffuser. Discussing my ideas with my assistants and clients is an important habit of mine, since different points of view can improve solution possibilities. In product design one inevitably needs to be aligned with the client’s production reality and market expectations, which means building a fine balance between their requirements and one’s own creative vision. In interior design and architecture, the creative process is similar but more complex as you’re working on different scales and dealing with many players where creativity is strongly linked to problem solving. My formation as a designer helps me regard details in interior design or architecture as a necessary value of a large-scale project. I use details in design to give added-value to a product whereas in interiors and architecture details are necessary to create quality atmosphere and a sense of well-being.
What ideas, and alternatively, what constraints do you feel are driving design at the moment?
In the last decade, design culture has changed substantially, and design consciousness has penetrated markets worldwide becoming the hot thing also in new economies. Design products are ever more democratic and the market has become highly competitive where young design brands are competing alongside iconic ones. The contract/hospitality market has exceeded the domestic market, so by consequence quality and price today sadly carry more value than products that are innovative and pioneering. Several design brands are more concerned in generating best sellers rather than investing in high technology or innovative trends; so ultimately, design is driven by a commercial attitude rather than a cultural one. On the positive side, sustainability is a growing concern which is gradually influencing our design culture, though not as fast as it should be.
If you were given the opportunity of handpicking a project to work on in Malta, what would it be and why?
As a designer, I normally work close to industry which allows me to be creative within technological parameters and sometimes also extends to craftsmanship or a mix between industrial / handmade production for a production series.I believe in Malta this can be somewhat restrictive, though, actually, I have never had any real opportunities.That said, I would love to work on a symbolic project for my country, something that stems from our traditions and culture. For this I thought of re-designing the Maltese iconic dgħajsa ‘tal-pass’ which actually has made a big come back in recent years as harbour ferry transport and is becoming a popular alternative for people living around the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. The boat design seems perfect in proportion and function, though the idea of re-interpreting and modernising this beautiful stream-lined ferry is an ambitious and unique challenge, which I would love to tackle.
Advice for upcoming future designers and creatives?
The prime responsibility of a designer is to transmit emotion through his creativity where straightforward and direct ideas carry most weight, so in a nutshell ‘keep it simple’.Finally, to quote the great designer Achille Castiglioni ‘Se non siete curiosi, lasciate perdere’ – ‘If you are not curious, just forget it’!