Objects that stimulate the imagination | by Alessandra Coppa
I managed to talk to Gabriele Chiave on a stopover between flights as he was returning to Amsterdam after a trip to Doha. As artistic director for Marcel Wanders, he was designing the interiors of the new Mondrian Doha luxury hotel, reinterpreting the Arab tradition in a contemporary language. The first time I met Gabriele was during the De Truffle workshop I had organised with Alessi to design a kit for displaying, slicing and preserving Alba white truffles and where his project won the honourable mention.
Although Gabriele is not yet forty years old, he has already gained enormous international experience.
“Although I have Italian origins, I was born in France and have travelled abroad throughout my entire life. My mother, father and sister are all diplomats, so I grew up in various parts of the world, including Africa, South America, Italy and now Amsterdam.”
Has this influenced your approach to design?
Travel has certainly informed my design vision and my cultural approach to every project, because I believe that projects are always connected to people, culture and places. My passion for design perhaps also stems from the fact that both my father and mother have always collected antiques, purchasing furniture and objects all over the world, from Syria and Venezuela to Africa. My father was also a modern art collector, so our house was filled with objects that I sometimes ended up breaking but hoped not to get found out. I studied at the IED in Milan, then worked for several design firms in the city, including Marc Sadler’s practice.
How smooth was the transition from school to Marc Sadler’s studio?
At school I was directed towards a prevalently “functional” approach to design that centred on industry and materials. When I began working with Sadler, who is an innovator in the study of new technologies and functions, I was able to further develop this aspect as the studio was working as Ideal Standard’s European research centre. We created projects for taps and sanitaryware. All in all it was a great “industrial exercise”. This experience provided my first important training in the field of industrial design.
When did you begin collaborating with Alessi?
During the four years I worked with Sadler, I began organising the Alessi workshops along with Laura Pollinoro. We would invite 10-15 emerging designers to these week-long workshops and explore a variety of design themes, from the lightness of steel to food design. We would call established designers to give the theory lessons and Alberto Alessi would supervise the projects. At the end of the week we would present the work of all the designers and the workshop would be concluded with a tour of the company to see the various production stages.
And then you too became an established “Alessi designer”…
Alessi is now my second family. Starting out from those workshops, Alberto Alessi asked me to propose some objects of my own. In the space of two days I produced a sketch for Tripod, a trivet. It was my first “Objet bijoux”: I thought of Tripod as a jewel for decorating the kitchen.
That marked a very different design approach compared to your background in industrial production…
I believe that an object’s function is essential, but at the same time I like to use design as a way of communicating and expressing personal messages of various kinds. Designing an object is like writing a letter or a book. Design tells a story, it narrates a process or brand in different ways. When carrying out a design project I like to add intrinsic details linked to our traditions and culture, so the object’s function is not immediately recognisable. Tripod, the Apostrophe orange peeler, the Chestnut pill box, the Aramis knife sharpener and the Cheeseplease cheese grater are all objects that appeal for their soft, rounded forms, independently of their function. They stimulate the imaginations of people gazing at a shop window and stand out from a multitude of objects. They arouse curiosity and make you ask: What is this? My intention is to give objects an element of surprise that makes people buy them solely for their value as a topic of discussion. This introduced a sense of playfulness to what was an initially more technical and functional approach.
How did your collaboration with Marcel Wanders begin?
In 2007 I moved to Holland and, while pursuing other projects, began acting as an intermediary between Marcel Wanders and the company. My first project involved designing Alessi cutlery for the airline KLM. During the last ten years Marcel and I have produced around 200 products for Alessi. In January we are launching a new collection following Circus and Dressed. Circus consists of a series of coloured, festive kitchenware items inspired by the timeless beauty of the world of the circus, while the Dressed collection consists of more elegant tableware ideal for special occasions. Although decoration runs through the entire collection it is sometimes hidden away, for example on the non-visible undersides of the cutlery. The past intertwines with the present and the concept of heritage, bringing the beauty of the past into the present to create the future. In a way this is the exact opposite of the functionalist contemporary design mentality: it marks the rediscovery of the aesthetic values of the past and for example celebrates decorative ceramics. At the same time though I’m continuing to work as a designer with Alessi independently from Wanders.
The Dressed collection seems to me to represent a very different project vision to that of Italian design.
Over the last ten years I have carried out projects with Marcel in both Italy and Holland. While Italian design is focused on industry and mass production, Dutch design is much more bound up with art, craftwork and the idea of a limited edition. So after ten years spent in Milan forming ideas and convictions centred on the world of industry and 3D, I found myself in Amsterdam where for three months Marcel put me to work exclusively on handmade products! That shook me out of my convictions and mental constructs and enabled me to discover an entirely new world. Marcel was looking for someone who could communicate well with Italian industrial clients, and after six months I was appointed head of the design team and was responsible for overseeing product design for Cappellini, Bisazza and Ceramica Bardelli.
So you have experimented with ceramic materials?
I have worked extensively with ceramics, one of the purest, most historical, malleable and versatile of all materials. We have designed tiles, bathroom collections and mosaics. With Marcel Wanders we designed a collection of ceramic vases for Moooi. All the vases are produced and decorated by Royal Delft, a Dutch company that has been producing the splendid Delft Blue ceramics since 1653. This collection revisits and revitalises Delft Blue craftwork, proposing new forms and decorations. For Ceramica Bardelli, Marcel and I designed an interior ceramic wall tile collection consisting of hand-decorated double fired tile with a matt surface.
When did you begin working in interior design?
While working with Wanders, I spent five years concentrating on products. Then I was appointed artistic director and worked alongside him overseeing the entire creative approach of the practice. I also began carrying out interior design projects for hotels and brand communication. We’re now working on hotels like the Mondrian in Doha, where we have drawn inspiration from a range of elements including Arab geometric patterns, giant columns adorned with golden eggs, a flowered “tree of life”, a video installation based on the flight of a falcon, a giant narghile, carpet with geometric motifs, decorated windows, ceramics and mosaics.
What did Marcel Wanders teach you?
With his multidisciplinary creative mind, Marcel opened my eyes to fresh perspectives, and this wide-ranging vision has shaped me enormously. What I love about my work is its variety. I feel a need for cultural diversity, for different methods and approaches. Marcel’s vision of the world fulfilled this need. He always finds different ways of delivering value to a company and enriching relationships enormously.
The son of diplomats, Gabriele Chiave was born in Metz, France in 1978 and spent the first nine years of his life and adolescence hopping from one country and city to another, from Dakar to Caracas, from Buenos Aires to Milan and Rome. In Rome he completed his French baccalaureate diploma, then attended a 3-year Industrial Design course at IED in Milan. Over the following 5 years he worked as an external collaborator on major projects for Emergency, Rotari, Epson, Toshiba and Pirelli. Some of his most significant professional experiences include collaborations with Marc Sadler’s studio and with renowned Italian design firms such as Alessi (he was involved in organising 7 workshops coordinated by LPWK/Alessi), Dainese, Foscarini and Serralunga. In 2007 he joined Marcel Wanders’ practice as head of the design team, working alongside Marcel Wanders and Karin Krautgartner, as supervisor of all product design and interior design projects, and as art director for a series of prestigious brands. A lover of art, jazz and travel, Gabriele Chiave explores new horizons for both work and passion.