Architecture & design Marco Piva embodies an intriguing mix of the poetic spirit and practical purist.
A designer inspired by the unbearable lightness of being
Marco Piva embodies an intriguing mix of the poetic spirit and practical purist "We've just come through the Middle Ages - all the elements are now in place for a new Renaissance," declares Marco Piva. While he based a lecture - Italian Design: The Pursuit of Beauty - that he delivered at the Italian Luxury Interiors Show in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, on on the premise that the new must come from the old, it's no surprise to learn that his design hero is Leonardo da Vinci.
And, it seems, Piva is well on his way to being as prolific as his hero. Since opening his eponymous design studio in Milan in 1984, it's been hard to keep up with his creative output, which ranges from corporate and hospitality projects to light fittings, carpets, quirky chairs and innovative infrared heaters, as well as industrial interior design. He has numerous projects to his credit in the UAE, too - among them Tiara Hotel on Palm Jumeirah and the master plans for Porto Dubai and Rawdhat Abu Dhabi. Yet few would recognise them all as Piva's work, for this is a designer and architect who approaches every project as a one-off; there's no heavy-handed "signature", never a sense of "here's one I made earlier".
When we met he was gearing up for the Salone del Mobile in Milan where, as part of Interni magazine's Think Tank exhibition, he unveiled a "concept of wellness" installation called Beauty Cave. It's about volume and space which, translated into the physical realm of the installation's interior, looked like a limitless colour tower or a cloud. "Technically, it's pieced together by metal panels but the space created is like a cave full of stalagmites and stalactites. It's all soft and rounded forms," enthuses Piva.
He is, it seems, inspired literally by the unbearable lightness of being. For further proof, check his Light Hours, a giant lamp that, he says, is based on a jellyfish, "It's a representation of time moving slowly and rhythmically. When suspended it is dynamic and a representation of time in suspension. Technically, it was designed with the fabric in mind and it's also very practical - it allows for light and shadows as well as being easy to clean."
Easy to clean? It's intriguing that Piva considers such prosaic matters but he is an interesting juxtaposition of the poetic spirit and practical purist. His Ayers lights from Tattoo are best sellers, being both accessible (they're available to order online) yet seemingly inspired by the intractable Australian rock formation. Thus proving that his design syntax is organic and essentially elemental.
Ayers also embodies Piva's abiding love of craftsmanship and apparent desire to constantly challenge and expand the abilities of the artisans and manufacturers he works with: the lampshade is made of mouth-blown Murano glass that is exceptionally rich in colour; the larger, suspension lamp version is the biggest single-piece object ever to have been made by the Venetian glassblowers. While Piva believes that light is both a tool of design and architecture, "we react to its texture and use", and has used it to dramatic effect in several buildings (notably in the public areas of T Hotel in Cagliari, Sardinia, and on the facade of Una Hotel in Bologna), he also favours the water element. Aficionados were eager to see Moove - his new, super-sleek bathroom collection for Jacuzzi that also had its debut in Milan last month.
In all of his designs there is an element of surrealism, perhaps most apparent in the Dali-esque Double Life sofa. "I firmly believe you should recognise yourself in the object and there should be joy and amusement in life." The sofa is both voluptuous and minimal with its metal legs - an element he often uses for upholstered pieces. The companies he has designed for read like a Who's Who of modernity (ranging from Leucos, Pedrali and I-Radium to Moroso, Mariposa and Bonacina) and, while he respects the different ethos of each one, they have all allowed him to indulge his fantasy. Take the acrylic Miss You Chair for Pedrali - a synthesis of transparency and organic shape which gives the impression of a ribbon as it unfolds. Or the Balloon, a swivel chair woven with wicker underseating on a four-base frame. Utterly different from each other, original and ingenious, yet both are a continuum of his design ethos. "I'm aware of consumer vibrations and the need to reuse materials and reinvent ways to use glass and steel. While it's an ethical approach to design, it's one which is based on simplicity."
Essentially Piva believes that architecture should be recycled too - that it should be dismantled and rebuilt to better suit and interact with the landscape. Double Life may also be the symbolic name of his present project - a block of flats designed for Business Bay in Dubai, that has a landscape which can be harvested on several of its floors, this "sky gardens" idea is both apocalyptic and forward-thinking.
It is essentially his empathy for both buildings and products that has gained Piva credibility and kudos in the design world. In 1987, he founded the IDA, International Design Agency, an Italian interface for a World Design Network system and, from 1988 to 1991, he held the position of Italian Commissioner for the European Community Spring Project for innovation and technology transfer. He also spearheaded the EDEA (European Design Expert Association), which is a strategic design consulting company bringing together sociologists, marketing experts and designers from Germany, France and the UK.
In spite of these roles he is very grounded and straightforward - a demeanour far from the clownishness and posturing that helped turn Philippe Starck or Karim Rashid into household names. On a day-to-day design basis, he sees his role as being a three-way relationship between consumer, production and designer. His laboratory is as much a place to experiment with existing materials, such as glass and steel, as it is a place to dream.
It's this ethereal aspect that binds his oeuvre together. "If you don't dream, you're dead. I see life as a continuum, like a wave, it's continuous and fluid."