Q&A

Francesco Bonami talks with
Christoph Radl


Francesco Bonami. Where do we start?

Christoph Radl. From the beginning, or from the end, backwards. The start is always the hardest part, like in work.

When did you really begin working as a graphic designer?

Actually I didn’t know I wanted to do that, I didn’t know anything. I grew up in Innsbruck, a provincial city of the former Austrian empire, nestled in the Alps, surrounded by mountains that rise to heights of 2500 meters and block your view. Instinctively you want to go up there, to see what lies beyond. So I started to know at least one thing for certain, that I absolutely had to explore the world beyond that natural barrier.

Did you study graphic design there?

No, I was your classic school dropout, fed up with the system, so to survive I began to paint the mountains, my Tyrolean mountains. Hyper-realist panoramic panels on aluminium for the ski lifts. My first job involved designing a graphic interface so skiers could choose the best trails for their level of ability: a blue line for the easy trails, a red line for the runs that demanded greater expertise.

That was already graphics.

Yes, though actually, at the time, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted my name to go down in history, for eternity. I thought I was squandering my genius on a temporary work like graphics, with its commercial implications. So I painted. My reference points were widely scattered, from Albrecht Dürer to Henri Michaux, Hieronymus Bosch to Jean Cocteau, but the results were mediocre at best.

You never did shows?

I never did a show. My career as an artist was rudely interrupted when I submitted my portfolio to the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, where of course they sent me packing, rather like what happened to Adolf Hitler about sixty years earlier. Luckily, for me and maybe also perhaps for you, I didn’t turn to politics. I said to myself, well, art doesn’t want me, so I might as well do something else. I went on painting my panoramic panels, and together with a German friend I decorated what was the hippest club in Innsbruck in those days. With the same friend, I started traveling in Italy, near Milan, to produce paper jackets that could be screen printed with customized advertising graphics. In any case I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I looked for a school of design or graphics in Europe, in Paris, Basel, until a series of pure coincidences brought me to the “Scuola Politecnica di Design,” a private school in Milan that had one enormous advantage with respect to all the other institutes, namely that its program lasted just one year and a half. I was already 22 at the time and had no intention of spending four or five years in school. So I came to Milan with the idea of staying for a year and a half. That happened in 1977, but as you can see I’m still here.

You got stuck.

Yes, though for many years I never imagined I would really stay. I lived out of my suitcase, as if I might have to leave from one day to the next.

What was happening in Milan in 1977?

Milan in 1977 was still going through a gloomy period, in the sense that there was practically a curfew at 11 PM, you had to ring the bell at restaurants and they would check you out through a peephole to see if you wanted to try a hold-up or if you really wanted to eat. Nightlife was limited to a few clubs like the Nepentha and Charly Max, where models and local playboys hung out. But then Milan began to wake up. Alchimia, Magazzini Criminali, Fiorucci, people like Mendini, Sottsass, Michele De Lucchi nurtured discussion on postmodern culture. Later I worked with Sottsass for many years, and with Mendini I did Domus magazine, at the start of the 1980s.

So you finished school and started working.

Yes, I finished school, and at the start of 1979, after a short experience with Walter Ballmer, I began working with the graphic designer Heinz Waibl, who had also come down to Milan from the Tyrolean mountains, from Merano. During this period I spent time with the young people who were then to become the associates of Ettore Sottsass; we were all young and we roamed the galleries, and got into discussions on new design, new emotions. At the end of 1980 I began to work for Ettore Sottsass and his Sottsass Associati.

They were all designers.

Yes, I was the only graphic artist in the middle of a horde of architects and designers. I got there at the end of 1980, in 1981 came the first Memphis show, which marked the beginning of a sort of worldwide design revolution. Actually nobody remembers it that well, today, but at the time it was really the big thing.

Sottsass is Sottsass, but at the time he still wasn’t really Sottsass.

He was already very famous among sector professionals, but not in the rest of the world. His fame took off as a result of Memphis. After the first Memphis show, in one year huge archives piled up, with hundreds of articles published in magazines of design, architecture and fashion, all over the world. TV film crews invaded the studio every other day, mostly to interview Ettore. So with Memphis Sottsass became a kind of overnight celebrity, which all happened when he was already 64 years old.

Really?

Yes, I’ll be 59 this year, so I always say I still have five years of anonymity to go.

What did you think about what was happening?

To be honest, I reached that world without much preparation, with no real education in architecture or visual communication. The impact of Memphis on architecture and above all on contemporary design only became clear to me years later. In that period it seemed like the most amazing adventure, and I didn’t realize what we were effectively doing. I just happened to be there in the midst of a revolution of the senses, a challenge to find an expanded interpretation of functionalism. That period left a fundamental mark; many years have passed, and today all that seems normal, emotional experience is now seen as a basic component of the relationship between physical objects and their users. Just look at the i-Phone, which is no longer a telephone, no longer a technological object, but an object that prompts and channels people’s emotions. An absolutely amazing change has happened over the last thirty years, because we are passing from a material to an immaterial world. True design takes place today on such miniscule dimensions that they can only be imagined and can no longer be touched. In the 1970s and 1980s, maybe even in the 1990s, you used a car and if it stopped working on the highway you still pulled over and opened the hood, and you still knew more or less what to do with your hands, at least to get to the next service station, because the technology still had a human dimension, it was not so complex and it was still possible to comprehend things. Today I think we all just turn the key or push a button to start the car, and if it stops we call somebody. It doesn’t even occur to you to try to fix it, at best you might try changing a tire, but even in that case you probably call for assistance. If this is happening in the world of the car, just imagine the world of computers, where nobody understands absolutely anything. We only perceive the interface with which we make things work; no one has the slightest idea what is happening inside those gray boxes. Today we perceive and react emotionally to surfaces, to the face, the interface of the objects that surround us, and some people are better than others at designing not objects but their faces. But I could get lost in this explanation...

This brings us back to the graphics for the ski trails, where you see a line, but it is up to you to be a good or a bad skier.

Yes, the line helps you to understand, to imagine the difficulty or the length of the trail, but the emotion is supplied by the landscape with the blue sky painted by hand, where the sun always shines even with the piles of snow of the real world.

So you worked there in the 1980s, doing what kind of graphic design?

Obviously I did a lot of graphics connected with the world that was central to us, namely the world of design, and all the Memphis graphics, different catalogues, books, posters, textures, postcards for invitations to shows, which we produced in the studio. In particular, I remember one Memphis calendar for Bloomingdales in 1985, because that was my very first project using a Macintosh computer to produce illustrations using MacPaint. But we also did things that were completely separate from the Memphis world. I don’t remember the exact date, it must have been 1983, when Ansaldo – which was still a gigantic state-run corporation that made all kinds of things, trains, nuclear power plants, hydroelectric plants, and so on – came to us, and I did the whole coordinated image, from the logo to the letterhead, catalogues, ad campaigns, trucks, vans, even the name plates for the offices. In those days, in 1981-82, I think, we also began doing graphic design for Alessi. In the 1970s Ettore had already designed objects for Alessi, which are still bestsellers. The present Alessi logo is still the one I designed back then when working with Sottsass.

Today’s logo is yours?

Yes, from 1982, and today I still work on many Alessi projects. We work on a biannual magazine for them to present new products, as well as product catalogues, packaging and so forth. From the 1980s I also remember projects for Zanotta, Olivetti, Olivetti Synthesis, Bieffeplast, and many others I can’t recall at the moment. Halfway through the 1980s, together with Sottsass Associati and Ambrogio Borsani, I opened a small advertising agency, a sort of creative boutique with just a few people, maybe five of us at the start. We started working for the world of fashion with a campaign that was highly acclaimed, perhaps the first campaign for a fashion designer who had never appeared in Italian newspapers, Romeo Gigli. Up to that point fashion designers had snubbed newspapers because they didn’t seem like the right medium of communication for such a precious, artistic product. In those years I also started a long collaboration with Armani, as the graphic designer for the Emporio Armani Magazine, and doing catalogues for American department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue.

In the meantime graphic design was already changing...

Memphisian graphics, let’s say...

Because you are not a pure graphic designer.

Maybe I’m not a graphic designer at all.

Then what are you?

I don’t know. Maybe one of my big limits is that I always try to start with an idea. I’ve never been able to put a project together just by letting myself be guided by factors of aesthetic and chromatic impact. I like to do things that can be narrated in words, and perhaps this is the most characteristic thing about my work.

A story, that is.

It’s there, in many of my works.

You make graphics that can be explained without seeing them.

In theory. The other characteristic of mine, perhaps, is that I don’t think I really have a style. I often look at the things we do and I think we are working as if we were a sort of service station, offering services according to needs. For example, you show up with a Ferrari and you order 120 octane fuel, supersynthetic oil and get the car washed by hand with velvet gloves to prevent scratching. If you arrive with a second-hand compact you order the cheapest gas, run it through the automatic carwash and leave just a small tip. That’s more or less what it is like. When a client arrives, the first thing I try to understand is in what type of world or image the person moves. I try to get in tune with this type of world, and then I insert my icons, always respecting the spirit of the client. When I worked for Armani I did things that seemed like they would be consistent with the world of Armani, which obviously is completely different from the world of Trussardi, which I also worked for in that period. Naturally, I was born in Switzerland and raised in Austrian culture, then I have been influenced by Italian culture, but in any case I think you can always see a sort of purity of language, trying to be as clear as possible in the communication.

When you do fashion, is there one field in which you think you have greater expertise?

No, and this is one of the things that has cost me, in a rather coincidental way. As you know, at the end of the 1990s I opened an office in New York, thinking it might be nice to start working with American clients. I made the mistake of introducing myself as someone who does fashion, design, publishing, packaging, a bit of everything. If a proper American hears that, he thinks: impossible, no one can be good at everything. In American society specialization is cherished, they think you can only be good at one thing, not five different fields. In the United States I noticed this when I went to visit a fashion company and they saw my stuff. I did magazines, I did design, I had worked for retailers, and they said: “Something’s wrong here.” If I went to furniture companies they said: “He does fashion, fashion guys don’t understand our business, so he can’t be any good.” So America was mostly a lark, for three or four, maybe even five years.

You stayed there for so long?

Yes, I invested a lot of time in it for quite a while. One year I went to New York fourteen times, practically every month I would go for a week or two, and I also did some nice projects. But mostly I went to see friends, to have fun.

So you work in Europe and Asia, for the most part.

Japan is sort of a separate chapter, because I went there for the first time in 1984, partly out of curiosity, because Japan was really emerging in that period. Maybe the real reason Japan interested me so much was that I had started to go frequently to a Japanese restaurant in Milan, that no longer exists today, and I was fascinated by the food: the Suntory restaurant near Teatro alla Scala.

Which was very expensive back then.

Beautiful Japanese restaurants where the food is good have always been expensive. Anyway, I didn’t go there by chance – to Japan, not the restaurant – because I had met a Japanese girl, and I went to explore with Antonio Citterio and Marco Zanini, for the first time, all three of us in Japan. After that I kept going back, at least once a year. I was already working there at the start of the 1980s, and one of the first jobs was for NTT, though I now have no traces of it. NTT was and probably still is the largest Japanese telephone company, and back then, in 1985-86, there was an engineer there who was also a bit of a philosopher, who worked on new technologies, especially in the digital area. NTT sponsored a very curious project: the first contemporary art museum without a fixed headquarters. You called a phone number and could ask them to send a work by a contemporary artist to your home by fax, so you could look at it, or choose to listen by phone to ten minutes of John Cage. I made a poster that was used to promote that initiative.

You no longer have one?

No, I don’t, it was rather crazy but fun. Over the last ten years most of the jobs I have done in Japan have been packaging for cookies.

Where do you look for inspiration, in what fields?

I don’t look very far afield for it, I look into my memory, which has changed quite a bit over time.

At the start of the 1980s where did you look, and what did you look at?

Above all magazines, for years I leafed through magazines of all kinds, design, fashion, architecture, gossip, I cut out images, marked them with post-its, searching at random... that is, I wasn’t looking for precise themes, I just chose things that for some reason had made me curious, or struck me, maybe simply because they were very stupid, or very colorful, or very sophisticated, or whatever... Today I browse through the web, I put words in somewhat randomly that might have to do with the world I want to explore in Google Image, and I let myself be surprised by the results. In recent decades there is this constantly growing river of images, an avalanche of images that the web, television, advertising and cinema dumps on us day after day. I often think, today, that it is no longer necessary to invent new images, you just have to choose.

Don’t you think all your work as a graphic artist is running into a crisis today, because of what is happening, or do you think there are opportunities as well?

No, I don’t think there’s a crisis for graphics. We should remember that until the mid-1980s and the arrival of the first computers, graphic design was handicraft. To make a poster, for example, took long, costly preparation. You had to send the photo out to be enlarged, you had to buy the Letraset of one typeface, or if you could afford it you bought two, three different fonts, or you drew the letters one by one with ink. You had to use Rothrings to make lines on Schöller cardboard, which was always expensive, but offered the possibility of erasing with a razor blade if the lines were skewed, and so on... In short, you had to use your experience to avoid possible errors. Because a blown layout did not only mean a waste of economic resources, but also the loss of hours and hours of work. When computers hit the scene all that changed. Computers have stimulated experimentation in a big way, and today designing is often just a question of a few minutes or even seconds, to see if the artwork works or doesn’t work. We have gained the freedom to make mistakes, we are free to try the looniest ideas because it costs nothing, at most you lose a couple of minutes. Today we are all graphic designers, we all choose fonts to write our e-mail and give them colors, we select 72-point to shout and 7-point to whisper, we put images and illustrations on our blogs and social networks, we lay out power point presentations. The web is an endless river of images and messages. You just choose. If the graphic designer could once be compared to an artist who makes a painting, today he is more like a director who puts a program together live, a selector of images taken from image banks, choosing from an infinite range of online and offline fonts, using the right software to put a project together. There is no crisis for those who produce images in today’s society of consumption. People who buy anything today, from a chair to a television set, a car to food, don’t just buy the object itself. They also buy a sort of platform on which they project their emotions, their dreams. Today it is not enough just to design the world’s most functional object, produced as nicely as possible with perfect materials; the thing will work on the market only if its form, its skin, the image built around it, have the capacity to gather those projections. It’s like a man who though he is amazingly intelligent, with a great body that lets him run 100 meters in 9 seconds, gets rejected by society because he smells bad and dresses worse.

You have designed some objects, haven’t you?

Yes, just a few. I designed a bookcase, a flower holder, just for fun. I’ve never thought about it as serious work, though I might start.

There are fewer objects in the world. The object you imagine... or those that move in the direction you are thinking about.

But today designers approach a project as a kind of multidisciplinary collage that has to cover function, production technologies, decoration, communication... It’s a bit like architecture. Rem Koolhaas describes his buildings as a collection of ideas, rather than an integrated whole.

He even used more graphics.

Yes, because as I was saying before, for Koolhaas the design of a building is broken down into many separate design tasks that do not necessarily lead to a coherent form, so a kind of new collage aesthetic emerges.

Your colleague Milton Glaser, who is still alive... I interviewed him many years ago, back in 1994, and he was already old at the time. Computers were arriving and he told me that he too designed with them, but that the computer was deceptive because it made you think you were able to do things, it prompted you to do things you thought you had... while instead, it was a limitation. He used it though...

I think that when new technologies arrive there is always resistance, because we all tend to be accustomed to certain models of thinking and certain actions when we do things. I believe the computer per se is not fundamental for design, but today without computers you would be back on a schedule that doesn’t fit with the present world. You can do everything. For a long time there were people – maybe they still exist today, but perhaps there are fewer of them – graphic designers who did not use computers. It is not fundamental to use one, but it is important to know what a computer can do.

I am certain that in contemporary art there are many artists who also make their works with the help of computers. Certain things would be very difficult or even impossible without them. Even our friend Stingel, who is a classic painter with a capital C, develops some of his patterns with a computer.

Also for his portraits...

In the end the computer is simply a very sophisticated paintbrush that can become a pencil, can become anything. It is not a tool for finding ideas, but a tool to make them concrete. The computer helps you. It helps you to achieve aesthetic results you would probably never have taken into consideration otherwise. In design, architecture, graphics, cinema. The first architectural projects of Zaha Hadid exist only on paper, because they could not be made, but ever since Gehry, with aeronautical engineers, developed software that lets you build and engineer amorphous shapes and metal claddings, like those of the Bilbao Guggenheim, we have seen great proliferation of this type of aesthetic.

What is the biggest challenge you see right now in your work?

I think we are witnessing one of the biggest changes in the spread of knowledge since the days of Gutenberg, the mass production of information that is shifting from paper to digital form. Nevertheless, I don’t think paper will vanish. It will increasingly become the main surface when it is necessary to establish an emotional relationship with the object through its tactile, physical qualities. Daily newspapers and cheap books will vanish – cheap in the sense of low typographical quality on lousy paper – and they will move onto the web, which is happening right now, onto reading devices, tablets, smartphones. Quality will stay on paper. Even today, and for many years to come, a beautiful photograph printed properly on paper is a thousand times more captivating than the same picture on a screen. Digital screens tend to visually flatten everything, erasing the difference between a beautiful photo and an ugly one.

Let’s backtrack... you went to work with Memphis and Sottsass; when did you become independent?

Gradually, almost from the start. With Sottsass Associati and Ambrogio Borsani I founded a small advertising agency in 1984 called Italiana di Comunicazione. Sottsass had no interest at all in advertising, so the independence was total. Also in 1984 I became art director of the Terrazzo adventure of Ettore Sottsass, an architecture and design magazine with contaminations ranging from poetry to science, philosophy, art and anthropology. The meetings of the editorial staff were great training. Once a month the four of us met at Ettore’s place - Ettore, Barbara Radice, myself and Anna Wagner, who was the production director – and we made this magazine during long nights full of smoke and wine, the most beautiful magazine in the world.

So you start to be independent and to move in your own direction.

Well, to be truthful I have never felt dependent. Even when I was still working inside Sottsass’s studio, I still always had the impression of doing my own thing. I have never felt like an artist, I have always worked for clients.

Do you think that is a weakness or a strength in the world?

I wouldn’t know, it is just a choice. After the Akademie helped me to understand that I wasn’t an artist, I took that for granted, and as a result I have always acted like an artisan. I don’t consider it a weakness, far from it.

Do you have projects you have done where you can sense the frustrated artist coming out, or have you managed to repress any such temptations?

That hasn’t happened, because it is a problem that has never bothered me at all. I chose this field because it is a field where one thing is very clear. There is a very precise borderline that comes from the fact that there is a client and a brief on a job to do, which can be paid or not, that doesn’t matter. Somehow I have always felt this was...

Liberating?

Yes, in the sense that it gives me a chance to have fun inside a very simple system, exploring existential problems connected with the image and translating them into works that have to solve a problem. One of the things I have always done, since I left the world of advertising, was to keep the studio as small as possible. I have always wanted to have control over what we are doing, but above all I wanted to have the freedom not to have to take on jobs only for economic reasons, for a structure that would be costly to maintain.

Can you think of a client, a problem you thought you couldn’t solve, and a problem you indeed have not been able to solve?

Every time a job arrives, at first I think: no, I am not going to do this, it is too hard, how can I solve a problem like that? Maybe the most important criterion for the work I do is that I cannot do it alone, I always need the client. If the client does not have clear ideas, or has no ideas at all, as often happens, and if he or she is not capable of abstract thinking to produce an understandable brief, the work can often go astray. As I said, I am not an artist. I don’t like the freedom of a white page, it is not my job. I react. Even now that’s what is happening, we are here to talk about my work, so I react to your questions. I wouldn’t be able to sit down by myself and write thoughts about my work. Maybe this also comes from my experience in advertising, where you always work as a duo, a copywriter and an art director, an ongoing game of ideas, like virtual ping pong. I have always enjoyed the face-off with someone else, to make things together, but also to clash. I’m not the kind of person who likes to be by himself, thinking about how to revolutionize the world or how to make art or graphics better.

How many things you’ve done have really surprised you, for their success, their impact?

There have been different moments in different fields. In the 1990s I worked a lot for fashion, which was often satisfying, also because I have always been attracted by fashion and its ephemeral aspects. Artists, architects, rulers, dictators always think over the long term about their work, always with the idea of leaving something for posterity. Graphic design, on the other hand, is fast, an in fashion it is very fast, because the work practically follows a seasonal pace. When you do an image campaign for a brand it essentially lasts about three or four months, and then it is time for another one. This is something I like very much, and it is part of the fact that I do not consider my work to be that of an artist, it is work that solves a problem, it has to communicate the collection of the moment to the world. After four or five months practically no one will be interested. The other fun thing about fashion is that with respect to other sectors, the budgets available to complete projects are much bigger, also as compared to the world of design. But in the world of design you normally start with the idea that the work should last at least three years, because these are big investments for companies; the sales of a design firm are much smaller than those of fashion, so as a result catalogues have to last much longer to balance the costs.

The things they make also have to last, the objects. The product has to last longer.

You’re right. Lately I have worked a lot for contemporary art, and there the idea of the ephemeral is changing. The exhibition by Rudi at Palazzo Grassi lasts six months, and afterwards the catalogue will be the only evidence that remains of the event.

You have never cared about working for eternity.

No. For example, for years I have had the habit of only signing my things very rarely. At most I put the initials of my agency, R.A.D.L.&. I only put my name on publishing jobs, in magazines and books, but more because the publishing companies want it than because I feel the crazy need to put my name on an issue of Interni or Grazia Casa... even though I know it is counter-productive.

It’s a philosophy.

Not really, maybe just excessive understatement. I have never done anything to promote my activity here: I’ve never done interviews or articles, never written books or done exhibitions, also because it wasn’t necessary, the work just continued and still continues to roll in.

In Japan, in China, do you think there is a world that...

In Asia it is different, because practically no one knows me there, so I have to show that I’m good, right? So I would like to do the first exhibition of my work right there.

You are interested in China.

Of course I’m interested. There are things that cyclically appear in certain zones of the world, namely this “belief in the future.” For example, when I got to Milan in 1977 I had that sensation, because from 1978-79 and then for a period of five or six years everyone believed in the future in Milan. It was an electrifying atmosphere, everything was growing, from art to design, everything new seemed like one revolution after another, and everyone was saying the future was here. Then, more or less from 1984 on, Milan had gotten wealthy in the meantime, and the future vanished, leaving behind only the desire to protect what had been gained. Nobody wanted to take risks anymore. After that things just got more and more conservative. This was precisely the period when I started to get interested in Japan. When I reached Japan in 1984 it was amazing, because you went around talking with people and they all were sure they would do great things, from the garbage man to the big industrialist. Everyone had the same feeling that together it was possible to conquer the world. I went back to China for the first time three years ago, after more than thirty years of absence, and I found exactly the same mood of optimism I had found in Japan at the start of the 1980s. You get the sensation that everyone, even those who haven’t enough to eat today, believe that great things can be done, and that gives you a very special feeling of energy.

There is also the mentality, though. While in America they want people to do just one thing, while in China it is probably the opposite, because basically if you go to the studio of a Chinese artist it is like visiting your studio. As if there were twenty artists, but actually just one.

Exactly. This exhibition with the wallpaper, this sort of skin for the gallery, is like the transition of what we see today on the Internet into a kind of physical space, I think. If you explore Tumblr, all those collections of images are just like that, only in this case it is all the result of a work group.

Radlskin, that would be a good title for the show, or maybe Radlsnake...

Yes, maybe Snakeskin, it is a very interesting metaphor, the skin that is shed yet remains the same, very temporary, very eternal. Something comes to mind I never thought about before... actually, the job of a hairdresser is not that different from mine. A customer comes in who only has a vague idea of a hairstyle, and the talent of the hairdresser lies in interpreting her desires in the best way possible, which has to do with form, color, with a certain amount of manual skill. One month later it all needs to be done over again. Not bad, right? I think hairdressers are very similar to graphic designers.