MILAN! A choral tale
We asked six professionals from different fields – art, architecture, design, communication, fashion and restaurants – to tell us how they see Milan.
From the April/My issue of ICON DESIGN.
Ever since I discovered, I took, and I left Milan (although not permanently), it has been for me a place of family, routine and friends – or should I say, associates. The magazine Toiletpaper started in Milan's atmosphere of collaborations, encounters and parties. Milan does not go around in blinkers; it’s a horse that knows how to work in a group. Its interest in fashion and design transformed the Milanese art-going public, which listens to messages from different sources. To me, Milan is an antidote to the fear of solitude, a place where you can play the same role in numerous different contexts without feeling uncomfortable, where it is also easy to disappear if you want to. As someone said in Sanremo: nothing is true and everything is possible.
Milan, you were never like the others; you changed whenever it became necessary. It’s hard to spot the traces of your past, because with each new era you looked for a different model: the circular city with Leonardo da Vinci, the boulevard city with Napoleon, and so on. In the 19th century, you demolished everything all over again to make room for Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
Yet your architecture has a unique spirit. Rome has a generous profusion of cupolas and terraces, while your facades are as severe as pinstriped suits. Rome is a riot of honey-coloured travertine, while you have always favoured the opaque grey stone Ceppo di Gré, reserving the delicate pink Candoglia marble for the Duomo cathedral, and for the monument to Sandro Pertini.You excelled during the postwar economic boom. Your high-end condos were inimitably classy, for the connoisseur. The architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni, the great Gigi, gave you sophisticated poise with his crème-au-caramel brickwork. You didn’t seem unduly tough, because behind Gio Ponti’s pointy ceramic tiles lay entrance foyers with a wealth of geometric patterns and colour to celebrate the rite of hospitality.Your last golden age began with the World Expo. In order to feel modern, you commissioned a few skyscrapers from the usual starchitects, while having the sense to pick Grafton Architects to build the new Bocconi University, who in turn chose for the old Ceppo di Gré again. But you got carried away by your enthusiasm, losing precious artefacts by Vico Magistretti, Marco Zanuso and many others. Here and there, ceramics by Lucio Fontana disappeared, and a number of facades were disfigured, perhaps in the name of energy savings. With the current epidemic, the epoch during which you even dared to become a tourist destination is coming to a close. The next renaissance will be the 2026 Winter Olympics. This time, don’t be so hard on your past and remember the exquisite elegance of Gigi and Vico.
I am deeply attached to this city, to the point of calling it home. To me, Milan has always felt like a place steeped in culture and cross culture, like a real European capital. This may be the usual perception of anyone arriving from the provinces, but I have gradually come to grasp the city's identity. It's a micro metropolis on a human scale where great tradition and striving for modernity coexist. Of all its characteristics, one that particularly piqued my interest as a child was design, long before I heard that Milan was called the capital of design. I did not know then that it had been the home and stage of the leading masters, but there was something about the aesthetics of its small things that aroused my curiosity and attracted me years later – things like the lighting and decorations found in the shopping arcades Galleria Manzoni and Galleria Strasburgo, so unlike what I was used to seeing.Design and Milan are two complementary words; the association is immediate. It's not simply inherited from the past, but denotes the pride that all us “Milanese” designers (natives and outsiders alike) take in our trade. We compare notes and stimulate one another to improve, as did the great talents of the past. Design plus Milan equals the presence of craftspeople and workshops thriving in a rapidly changing environment, a perfect mixture of tradition and innovation – which is basically what design has always been.
Milan carries on. Milan starts again. Milan reacts. Then, suddenly, a freeze-frame shows staggering, outsized silence.At very short notice, Milan, a crossroads of rapidly growing global interests, has had to promote informal self-discipline and solidarity to overcome the isolation barriers of late.Communication is made up of rules and respect for others, which have always been characteristic of the city’s genetic code by strict vocation.Its design eclecticism, being a mix of innovation and communication, has enabled the city to gradually build up a sort of biodiversity of skills and professional roles from which it has drawn since the end of World War II. These will prove very useful at this stage of the millennium, so daunting for us all, no-one excluded.
The conjuncture is not one of the best. This imposes a positive and constructive attitude. Optimism, however, is not synonymous with blindness. Milan as a fashion hub is a lively city, maybe not so influential in terms of creativity as it was in the past, but lively. It is still afflicted by ancient, deep-rooted problems. In particular, it lacks adequate support from the institutions and tends not to operate as a system. If these failings were resolved, a virtuous circle of genuine promotion would be created, sparking a generational change that has been very slow. More and more voices are being heard, and at long last, creatives of all provenances are coming to the fore. They mirror growing multiculturalism. But with a few exceptions, there is no strategy to support original individuality. Milan has remained a nest of impenetrable, self-referential cliques that lay down the law. The public-relations people playing their masters of ceremonies are often small-minded. Enough of this negativity! The value of our city is tangible and substantial despite everything. Milan is determined to be commercial: clothes must be sold. Hence its sacrosanct focus on the product. However, the clarity of its message needs to be sharpened, and the tradition of sly-boots and bosom pals must be forgotten. Only by working to improve these aspects can Milan at last regain the cultural and manufacturing prominence it deserves. The raw material is already abundantly present.
After having been considered the world's long-standing capital of fashion and design, Milan is now being acclaimed as a food destination, too.The city has 18,000 restaurants that employ 122,000 people, and the numbers are growing fast.The 2015 World Expo accounted for a sharp boost. Combined with the Milanese eagerness to try anything, there has been a surge in international ratings comparable to cities like London, Paris and New York.The world's cuisines are all found here, along with traditional trattorie and Michelin-star restaurants.The opening of restaurants notable for their designed interiors has attracted an ever wider international clientele. Milan is now Italy’s most visited city, an achievement partially due to its rich variety of eating experiences.For 30 years, I have been promoting new restaurant formats, and Milan has always welcomed them with lively curiosity. My restaurants represent a trip around the world, all in one street – not just gastronomically, but for their atmosphere and exotic settings. See futuristic Japan at the Shimokita; Vietnamese elegance and tradition at the Saigon; metropolitan Mexico at the Canteen; and seafood kiosks from Brittany at the Oyster Bar. All of them are doing terrific. Thank you, Milan!