You designed a superb little bottle for a balsamic vinegar, based on a sphere and a cube. And also a bottle of mint syrup as a parallelepiped. How did you come to choose these iconic geometric forms? The first perhaps to evoke an ampoule, and the other a picture?
We are creatures equipped with unconscious perceptions, and things enter our heads even though we don’t notice at the time, even when we are distracted. Do you see this geometric shape? Mint has a cold taste. And here you can feel the coldness with your eyes, you can hold it in your hands. Balsamic vinegar, however, is not a cold experience, it is warm and smooth, so its bottle is warm and smooth too. There are thousands of things hidden inside these drawings. I start from practical functionality, but I have to communicate through a shape. I start from logic, the logic of function, in order to arrive at aesthetics. Over the years (especially working for decades with Aldo Mantovani) I’ve become a bit of an engineer, partly renouncing youthful utopias. Even though, as an expert, I also recognize that utopian random freedom can also produce substantial concrete ideas.
On top of this big table in the conference room, we have set up a little gallery with various kinds of pasta shapes: gnocchi, ravioli, tortellini, cappelletti, trofie... what would you say from an aesthetic point of view?
Pasta-makers are geniuses. Geniuses. Listen to this… we’ve all seen traditional African masks. Carved from wood by shepherds, informal artisans. But as sculptures they have had a huge aesthetic influence around the world, on Picasso too, for example, in their casual, spontaneous freedom. Something similar could be said about pasta-makers. They invent this and they invent that, without being architects or engineers. When I was asked to design a new pasta format – marille – I reworked an inspiration from the world of motorcars: a cross-section of the sealing material on car doors, which is also produced by extrusion. Afterwards everything was analyzed by the technicians, palatability was discussed endlessly. But these completely normal gnocchi here in front of us are… simply insuperable!
The innovative qualities of marille would have been amazing: smooth on the palate outside and ribbed on the inside for the sauce to cling to…
Not only that: let me tell you something you may not know. A classic macaroni has a constant cross-section. Marille, as you can see in the technical drawing, has various different sections, this one, this one, the third one plus the final fold. Imagine the central intersection during cooking. The whole idea was that the pasta could be overcooked everywhere, except in that one place, so that when you bit it you could still feel that it was “al dente”. The project was initiated with the idea of composing a dish with low sauce content. And for this, after the first tasting ceremony in Milan in 1983, I finished up in Newsweek. I didn’t get there for my cars, but for my pasta I did.
But, returning to these more traditional – and less beautiful – ravioli…
Works of genius. Fruit of human intelligence which, without even wanting to, creates art.
We were not obliged to praise everything, we can be critical if we want to. The ribbed edging on this ravioli can hardly be called “beautiful”, this twisted cappelletto resembles a piece of offal… you can’t tell me you would have designed them this way?
But it works! Let the pasta-makers get on with it, let them express the geniality of functionality which you can only enjoy to the full when eating it. They’re geniuses, mostly unrecognized by history. Maybe they had worked their flour and water on a table in a back alley and as they worked it they came up with shapes which the whole world admires today. In that ribbed edging, which I personally find beautiful, I can see my grandmother cutting the soft pasta and lightly knurling and tapping it. I can only bow down before the things which these experts, in their simplicity, have passed down to us. Expo Milano 2015 would do well to transmit this kind of message, to pay tribute to the unknown authors of magnificent things. Let us render honor to the importance of what they did: stretching back to centuries ago, they started food out on the road that eventually led –for example – to Gualtiero Marchesi.
You always mention Gualtiero Marchesi with great pleasure. Why?
I’m happy to talk about him because in my opinion, in Italy he was the first to show something beyond just eating. I still remember the first time I saw his golden square on the round shape of the risotto. I was astonished. My father used gold leaf to make picture frames… What Gualtiero did, in a moment when in Italy we could finally say we had sated our appetites, was to turn food into an attraction. His risotto with gold and saffron expresses poetry and exerts an attraction far beyond its exquisite taste.
What is the relationship between the aesthetics of a dish and its taste?
Between various food presentations we can certainly choose the most pleasant. But what will our judgement of the dish be? What has been transmitted visually must offer, when eaten, some corresponding taste experience. If you eat what looked good and it tastes bad, it will automatically start to look bad too. Like a car: if it doesn’t work it’s no good.
One of Expo Milano 2015’s key themes is sustainability. You were one of the first people in the automobile industry to focus on this, back in the 1980s, with city cars and modular prototypes, cars with reduced bulk, electric, hybrid, even constructed with recycled materials. What does “sustainability” really mean? Not just avoiding dirt, I imagine…
Avoiding waste. It means avoiding waste. Unfortunately this is something that still has to enter our society’s collective head. I grew up in a modest environment, but people from wealthy backgrounds, or just wealthy people, are not conscious of this need. The more they have the more they spend and the more they waste, and all affluent societies waste heavily.
But you have demonstrated, through an endless list of car models, that efficient and intelligent cars are also beautiful and desirable. How did you decide to transmit these signals, contributing, at least, to a certain global awareness?
It’s simple. Simply by following logic. If I can reduce costs, bulk, fuel consumption, if I can give people what they need, it’s logical to do so. This approach sometimes clashes with fashion trends and status exhibitionism, at which point the only solution is to make laws. Stricter laws.
Barilla launched a competition for a 3D food printer: some amazing pasta formats came from that… Rosa, Lune, Vortipa. What do you think of them?
Beautiful. There are an infinite number of possible forms. That’s how we make our calenders. Nowadays you can do anything with technology. For designers this is an ongoing opportunity to exercise their creativity, an explosive process, really dizzying.
You are known all over the world and you have worked all over the world. How is Italy seen from abroad? Is there a common denominator which can confirm that Italian Quality is appreciated as much as it deserves to be?
The common denominator is individuality. Individuality is creative, in an undemocratic way. Design is authority, instinct, ability. Italy, well, maybe it’s rather living on its laurels, cushioned by past glories. Among our positive aspects, we can count good taste… although I fear that is fading away somewhat. Things that happen, that are part of life. In a couple of thousand years’ time, do you think that such a thing as a Piedmontese character will still exist?
On the subject of birthplaces, what is your favorite dish?
Risotto. I love it. It’s a dish I adore. And if it’s been prepared by my friend Gualtiero, on that magnificent black plate, the yellow risotto and the golden square. But also, you know, one or two dishes which I sometimes cook, a bit bizarrely.
You cook as well?
I’ll give you a recipe. Macaroni alla vodka. For four people. For four people you put in a saucepan 100 gr. Butter, four or five pieces of red chilli pepper, 70 cc. cooking crème, and stir. Then take a bowl of hot water and mix in red ‘piemontese salsa rubra’ tomato sauce, and add that to the saucepan. Then add a glass of vodka and a spoonful of cognac, remove the red peppers and stir in 250 gr. Grated cheese, to make a cream with this alcohol, this red cream, five to six minutes at the most. Meanwhile cook the pasta, along with 5 mm slices of potato, and then drain while still al dente. Now place in a serving dish and immediately cover with the hot cream from the saucepan… to be eaten instantly.