Exclusive interview with Rodrigo Rodriquez

Matrix4Desogn, architecture and design magazine, interviewed Rodrigo Rodriquez, President of Material ConneXion Italia and Compasso d’ Oro for his career, which told how innovation has shaped his life.

13 July 2016
It would take more than a lifetime to retrace the milestones in the career of Rodrigo Rodriquez, the great advocate of Italian design who is now President of Material ConneXion Italia, licence owner of the biggest international research and consultancy network for materials, innovation and sustainability. However, in addition to his remarkable experience as a director at Cassina, let’s at least mention some of the other illustrious positions he’s held:

• 1980-1986, President of the Federlegno-Arredo Trade Union Relations Commission
• 1982-1986 and 1991 to date, President of the Trade Union Commission of the Union 
Européenne de l’Ameublement (EuropeanFurnitureUnion) – UEA.
• 1986-1991, President of UEA
• 1990-1993, Chairman of the Advisory Committee to the EEC Commission for the Directive on Protection of Industrial Design
• 1991-1993, Vice president of Giuri del Design (Design Jury), co-founder of ADI (Industrial Design Association) and Confindustria (Confederation of Italian Industry)
• 1993-1995, President of EIMU (Italian Exposition for Office Furniture) – now Salone Ufficio
• 1995-1996, President of FEMB (European Federation of Office Furniture)
• 1998-2002, President of Federlegno-Arredo
• 2001-2006, Deputy vice president of the Fondazione Fiera Milano (Milan Fair Foundation) and member of the Board of Directors of Sviluppo Sistema Fiera spa
• 2003 to date, Member of the Confindustria Arbitration Committee

Compasso_oro_ADI_Rodriquez

An unstoppable rise, always looking ahead to the future following a path where every step has meant not just a personal achievement, but also – more significantly – progress for the dynamic world of design. The design of today, yesterday and tomorrow, innovative design and design that holds a particular, essential “curiosity” is what we spoke of with Rodrigo Rodriquez. Here’s what he told us.

Let’s start with the present. You’ve just been awarded the prestigious Compasso d’Oro prize by the ADI for your career. What does this award mean to you?
“It’s great to know that you’re valued by your industry, especially when the jury is made up of competent, professional people, as it is in this case.!
The reasons* for awarding me the prize I find particularly gratifying – those who are used to cutting cloth and sewing dresses are well aware of what I’ve been trying to achieve; some of the adjectives that were used were perhaps a little intense though… I particularly appreciated the kind gesture from the President of ADI who wanted to present the Compasso d’Oro to me personally.”

Your CV includes directorial positions at some of the biggest design companies in Italy, not least of which Cassina, a brand that owes its success in large part to you. What do you remember of that experience? Is there any other aspect of your career that you consider a turning point, or that you’re particularly proud of?
“I was lucky enough to marry the boss’s daughter… Working in a company run by entrepreneurs like Umberto and Cesare Cassina was a stimulating experience, so I decided to concede to the many suggestions that were made to me and have the story written as a book, published by Skira; I wrote a few pages of it myself, there’s an introduction by Mario Bellini and brief afterwords by Francesco Binfaré, Andrea Branzi, Paolo Deganello and Gaetano Pesce. Forgive me for referring to the book rather than giving you a direct answer to your question; the book is entitled “L’indiscreto fascino del design – breve storia del design italiano dell’arredamento attraverso le esperienze di un imprenditore” (The indiscreet appeal of design – a short history of Italian furniture design through the experience of an entrepreneur) and it describes amongst other things the transition from being a company run entirely by the owner to one that ALSO includes skilled professionals on the management team. I would also add that owing to the prestige that Cassina enjoys in the furnishing sector, I also gained management experience of which I’m very proud. Let me take this opportunity to mention the generous contribution that many “associate entrepreneurs” have made by diverting some of their time and energy away from their own companies in order to promote the sector or the associations to which they belong.

*A committed and passionate entrepreneur with solid management training that developed into the heart of design culture, he has been able to look for and put into practice organizational and relational models that have marked the evolution of the Made in Italy industrial landscape and culture. New environments, new materials and new formulas for the sharing of knowledge are the most fertile ground for his curiosity and generosity expressed in a career commitment to the spreading of Italian design values throughout the world.

Magistretti-e-Rodriquez

You are now the President of Material ConneXion Italia, a highly innovative company. What can you tell us about this new phase of your career?
“The common thread that connects the positions I’ve held over time is my fascination with innovation. I accepted the position at Material ConneXion Italia because I believe in the potential of the business idea, the growing importance that innovative materials have in the production of durable consumer goods. Material ConneXion’s mission, as it was conceived by George Beylerian in the 90s, and as we, the Italian licensees, interpret it, is to contribute to the effort that small and medium-sized companies are making to innovation in Italy, proactively forging links between the suppliers of innovative materials and processes and the users, thereby creating permanent access to new materials and new ways of using existing materials for the design industry, with a particular emphasis on sustainable materials. We’re doing it for the companies and designers who recognise the need for it, and sometimes, discreetly, for those who are not yet aware of it… ”

Material-Connexion-Italia

You’ve been in the design industry for a long time and you’ve worked closely with national and international designers. What do you consider to be the situation of design in the modern era? Do you think Italy still represents a focal point of creative excellence, even taking into account the success of global initiatives like Salone del Mobile? What do we need to improve?

“One of the strengths of Italian design is that Italian companies, or rather Italian entrepreneurs, speak the language of designers; it’s no coincidence that designers from all over the world prefer to work in Italy – they see more potential for their talent here than they do in their own countries.
This coexistence of languages and different “poetics” is what gives Italian design and the items it produces their competitive edge.
If we look at the number of master’s students enrolled on the Polidesign course at the Faculty of Design in Milan, we can see that Italian design is becoming increasingly important throughout the world. In the five years between 2011 and 2016, the master’s course enrolled 1,886 students, 898 (48 %) of whom were Italian, 453 (24%) international students and 515 (28%) enrolled on franchise classes taught by Italian tutors in China.
You mentioned the Salone del Mobile; come to Milan and see the exhibition, take part in the myriad events – truly top quality events, some of them – that bring Milan to life over the course of the exhibition. It’s an obligatory ritual for anyone involved in the furniture industry and design in general, commercially or otherwise.
When I proposed to the General Assembly of the ICSID (International Council among Societies of Industrial Design) at its meeting in Copenhagen in September 2005 that Salone del Mobile should be promoted from associate member to promotional member, I emphasised how this event is the best expression of the role that trade fairs play in our industry and the contribution they make to it; the French would say it’s our “métier”.
For both types of consumer – exhibitors and visitors – a fair is not just a marketing opportunity, a coming together of supply and demand. It’s also:

• an opportunity to compare products, which stimulates competition;
• a chance for companies to communicate their identity with their exquisite ephemeral stand designs;
• for small businesses mainly, an opportunity to attract orders, up to 40% of their annual production for some of them;
• an exchange of knowledge between operators;
• finding out the megatrends that will affect future demand;
• a chance to close deals and build alliances:
• a response to the increasing need for communication, training and information, hence the importance of conferences, seminars and meetings;
• collateral events, including shows, on themes that illustrate the “state of the art” in the industry, its foundations and its values;
• a showcase for innovation in the products on display;
• finally, for the Made in Italy sector – the companies that disseminate information to the rest of the world about the quality of life in Italy, and in doing so influence the way that tastes and lifestyles evolve, in the service of what I described above as “Italian-ness” – design is a driving force.

I’ll come now to your mention of “the situation of Italian design”, and I’ll tell you about a brief but intense exchange of ideas that I had with a British designer, Ross Lovegrove, who works mainly with Italian companies. I met him at the opening event for an Italian company showroom in London, and we were both holding a glass of something in our hands, English-style; “excuse me Rodrigo,” he said, “can you explain to me why Italian furniture design is not as authoritative, even vociferous, as it was between the 70s to the 90s, when there were people like….” and he mentioned a few names. I was about to answer, but before I could say anything, he blurted out, “if Italian design dies, we’re lost!!!”

In your opinion, what’s the most significant change that the design world will have to confront in the near future? What challenges are in store for designers and companies around the world?

“I’ll give you two answers, both related to product design.
The first is to do with the gradually increasing change in how the process develops from innovative idea to finished product. Years ago – in a nutshell – the designer would put forward his own idea, the product of his own talent, his own imagination, his own curiosity and therefore having a high innovation coefficient, and the market, which was still at that time driven by manufacturers (in industry jargon we talk about producer markets and consumer markets), then bought the idea. Nowadays attention is gradually re-focussing on the idea that innovation must respond to what consumers want. Innovation driven by the user (user-driven innovation) together with innovation driven by demand (demand-driven innovation) are the opening concepts of the discussion paper prepared by unit D2 of the EU Commission’s DG IMPRESA. In summary, we’re more attentive to what the customer, or rather perhaps the consumer, wants or is demanding without even realising it.
My second answer, and here I’m referring back to my answer to your third question, is that when choosing from the materials and processes that are now available by dint of new technology allowing innovative ideas to be put into practice, companies must also take into account other criteria such as eco-sustainability and energy efficiency. Designers must expand their knowledge, their awareness I should say, of the performance features of the various materials available, and make use of their psycho-sensory potential. Materials can and should be at the centre of the business strategy.”

What advice would you give to young people hoping to start a business in the design field? What values and skills should they focus on? What does the market expect today?

“I’ve tried to supply answers to these three questions with what I’ve already said. I’ll just add what Achille Castiglione was in the habit of telling his students: “if you’re not curious, don’t bother.”
To put it a more positive way: be curious!”

Castiglioni-e-Rodriquez

What’s your next goal?

“My next goal? To carry on doing what I’ve always done, but try to make fewer mistakes.”