The Global Italian
One year in the U.S., three years in Tokyo and ten years of traveling back and forth to Bangkok to visit his partner. Italian designer Stefano Mirti might be born and raised in Turin and work in Milan, but he is, without a doubt, an international designer.
Even before he began traveling to Asia, Mirti reflected on the relationship between Italy and the world through Ph.D. research that compared the “completely European” Franco Albini with the “real 20th century American designer” Charles Eames. “Albini dreamed of industrial development and sought it through typically Italian methods, the tools of a craftsman. In contrast, Eames dreamed of craftsmanship and sought it through typically American methods, industrial techniques and technologies.”
Today, Mirti’s work is recognized around the world. He has brought his insight to new generations of designers and leaders at the Design Institute Ivrea, Bocconi University and Naba Design School. As the founder of Interaction Design Lab he recently led “Wonder Breakfast,” an intercultural workshop to discover and subvert Italian breakfast habits. Taking time out from his projects (and perhaps even his breakfast), Mirti shared with us his observations on living abroad and designing in a global world.
What made you decide to go to Japan for your post-doctoral studies and how did the experience affect your approach?
Truth is it happened by chance. I wanted to finish my studies with an experience abroad and my university, Turin Polytechnic, offered a scholarship to Japan. If they had offered one for Mexico or Mozambique I might have gone to one of those countries … as often happens in life, events (especially important ones) happen by chance.
I thought that doing a postdoc in Tokyo would mean learning new things about architecture and design. I didn’t get that it was more about learning new things about myself, understanding what my limits were and how to overcome them, coming to terms with an essentially hostile world and positioning myself in relation to the world I left at home.
… It wasn’t easy, but it was interesting and if I were to go back in time, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. My advice to young people would be to find a similar opportunity. In today’s globalized world I think students from Milan who study in Barcelona or the Netherlands are essentially staying at home. The world has grown and you can’t live your life inside the old boundaries and decide not face different realities. It’s not a luxury to meet others; it’s a necessity. Without this you won’t understand anything about our world and the consequences will be horrendous.
You’ve said that you’re done with living abroad. Why?
… The main problem is that Italy is an amazing place to live. Life has an almost dreamlike quality there… Right now I don’t feel the need to live outside of my country. What’s more, the huge crisis Italy faces today represents a great opportunity for designers. The old world has crashed and it’s time to create a new one. Right now Italy is an interesting lab where amazing things can happen. Considering that I travel often, why should I move somewhere else? This is the perfect moment to stay and work in Italy.
Considering your experience as a professor, how much of design can be taught and how much is innate talent?
I don’t really believe in innate talent. If I did, I wouldn’t dedicate my time and energy to teaching.
When I think of what skills a designer needs, I think about a cake cut into slices.
A big slice (let’s say a quarter) is where you come from, your family and your background.
The other big slice (about as big as the first) is made up of social skills, like knowing how to reply to an email, being invited back to dinner with people you’ve dined with. These are fundamental competencies that you can’t be directly taught.
The third slice is the “skill” of being in the right place at the right time (some people call it luck, but that’s not exactly it).
The final slice is what you’ve gained in school. I think the importance of this slice is in inverse proportion to your age. If I had a child, I would put a lot of energy into understanding what the right nursery and elementary school would be … by the time you get to university a big part of your education is already over. I’ve taught in all types of school in all sorts of places, both important and amusing. I would say that the most interesting years were spent teaching kids in junior high. If I had to choose between a super-university and the nursery school around the corner, I wouldn’t hesitate on which one to pick…
Is it a plus to be Italian in your field?
Maybe. The most important thing is to have lived abroad for enough time to understand what it means to be Italian. Three years in Tokyo gave me the ability to understand thousands of things about Italy, the strengths and weaknesses. Let’s say that in a global world when you are aware of your DNA you can create some fascinating short circuits on a planetary level. So, it’s not about being Italian or French; it’s about having the ability to understand who we are and how we create connections with other cultures.