The 86-year-old Piero Alessandrini brings a fresh, new perspective on furniture design to his joint exhibition in Dubai.
Back to the future with furniture designer Piero Alessandrini
Architect Piero Alessandrini, 86 years old and dapper in a sky-blue shirt, is telling me how much his work means to him. In fact, he is telling a translator, in the measured, melodic tones of his native Italian, who duly passes the information on. "I totally love my job. It means life to me," he enthuses.
I'm left wondering how many other people, after 60-odd years on the job, can still summon such passion for their chosen career. I also imagine how glad Alessandrini must be that, as a much younger man, he decided to drop out of medical school, defying his father's express wishes that he become a doctor, to pursue his passion for architecture.
It was obviously a good call; Alessandrini's long and illustrious career has included commissions for the Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi Arabian oil magnate Adnan Khashoggi, the Agnelli family (of Fiat fame), the Italian ambassador to Riyadh, Mario Maiolini, Cardinal Virgilio Noe and the aristocratic Spalletti Trivelli family. He has also met Queen Elizabeth, who specifically requested an introduction during her first official visit to Italy in 1961.
We are meeting because Alessandrini is in Dubai to unveil his latest collection of furniture, which is being showcased in an exhibition entitled Art Generation, currently underway at Dubai's La Galerie Nationale. On the same day, Alessandrini is also due to take part in the first of a monthly series of talks organised by Design Days Dubai, entitled Design Stories. It's a busy schedule for an 86-year-old but Alessandrini seems unfazed.
Although he was responsible for redesigning the Italian Embassy in Riyadh in the mid-1990s, Alessandrini has done very little other work in this part of the world and this is his first visit to the UAE. Nonetheless, he has a great appreciation of the region's architecture. "This area of the world is obviously very important for new ideas since it's not subdued by an invasive past. There's more freedom of thought, in a way. Europe has a number of cultural and social rules and obligations to follow. And that can be an obstacle to freedom of expression. Not always, obviously, but it can happen. Here what you feel is a bigger amount of freedom and, for an architect who at the same time is also an artist, this is extremely important."
Freedom of expression has always been a cornerstone of Alessandrini's design philosophy, he explains. "I have always had a certain way of thinking about things and my first concern has always been defending my own ideas - from external influences and from traditionalism. This has happened through my career."
Well into his 80s and Alessandrini is still pushing boundaries - most recently by reassessing traditional approaches to the design of social housing. "I felt the need to do my best for people who are not that wealthy. If a person doesn't have much money and is able to buy an apartment made up of one room, I feel an obligation to create the best single room apartment ever."
Instead of the standard 25 square metre, square-shaped, "ugly" studio apartment, Alessandrini is proposing a triangular-shaped space that has "more windows, more air, more angles and more perspectives". His designs are being implemented in Rome, with the first due for completion this month. There are also plans to roll out the concept in New York and Japan in the future.
Also on the agenda is the renovation of a villa in Rome, which Alessandrini describes as very complex, "because you always need to respect the style of the building, but whatever you do during the process needs to have its own identity, without following what's already there".
The need to constantly come up with new ideas and new solutions is fundamental to Alessandrini's work, and is as important to him today as it was 60 years ago when he first started out. "The main point is to be able to create and invent new things without repeating yourself. Our brain obviously stores so many things from the past, but you have to keep this in mind without being too attached to it. Our brain is a filter for the past but you have to move forward. It would be unfair to simply look at the past and create something similar to that again and again."
Hence his love of modern materials such as methacrylate, the lightweight, transparent thermoplastic that he used for Colourless, the new furniture collection being showcased in Dubai. The material is "ethereal but also strong", he says. "I wanted to create something very rich in detail and materials for Dubai. But at the same time, without forgetting elegance and minimalism," he explains.
The collection also highlights Alessandrini's preoccupation with sustainability, which he considers to be the single most important issue for designers and architects in this day and age. "Sustainability is definitely a major challenge for architects and designers because human intervention has often forgotten the importance of nature. And that caused problems. The concept of sustainability is out there and you cannot ignore it.
"In my humble opinion, sustainability means respecting materials. It means not having an extremely strong human intervention on materials. Sustainability means going hand in hand with the material according to its own potential. The Massenzo table [part of the Colourless collection] is a good example of this. I didn't cut anything, I didn't glue anything. I just softly and gently folded the material and joined two different pieces in a very gentle way."
For Alessandrini, design - whether of buildings or furniture - is a delicate balancing act between aesthetics and functionality, and it is the responsibility of all designers to respect this balance. "I believe that at times, beauty is a very big focus for architects; maybe a bit too much. The aesthetic aspect and the structure have always gone hand in hand, but one doesn't have to prevail over the other. It is actually possible to create something that is beautiful while respecting the identity of a perfect structure."
Art Generation, a joint exhibition by Piero Alessandrini and Arnaud Rivieren, is on at La Galerie Nationale, Unit 27, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai until October 31.