Italian architect and designer Paola Navone brought her colourful world to Maison&Objet Asia recently, delighting the crowd with a presentation of her interior design work. Afterward, Narelle Yabuka asked this renowned creative figure about her longstanding interest in the traditional crafts of Asia.
25 March, 2014
From a studio in Milan, where she employs around twenty people, Paola Navone directs interior, furniture, and product design projects that resonate with a unique, eclectic style that is impossible to categorise. Hers is a popular vision; Navone is Art Director for Gervasoni, and has designed for a long list of brands from Armani Home to Poliform, Habitat, Poltrona Frau, Natuzzi, Crate and Barrel, and many more.
Her taste for modern design and traditional craft techniques – along with her untiring curiosity –have fostered a particular fondness for creative explorations in Asia, where she has travelled and collaborated with craftspeople for decades.
We find out more about her experiences, observations, and goals in this part of the world.
You work with craftspeople in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines to produce furniture and objects. How do you connect with them?
I’ve worked in Asia for many years. For quite some time I was working on big projects funded by the United Nations and the World Bank. One project was called ‘Innovation in Handicraft’, with innovation referring to style rather than technique. We tried to create opportunities for craftspeople to land in our market with a product done using skills they already have, but achieving an innovative style.
I made a lot of contacts through that work, and I’ve made new ones along the way. Actually, I’ve bumped into some of them here at Maison&Objet. I’ve met a man who made a chair for me in China, and the daughter of a lamp maker I met in the Philippines twenty years ago. She has a booth here.
Recently, for the Como hotel interior project at Point Yamu, I went to a ceramic factory 100km south of Bangkok. I had déjà vu, and realised I had been there ten years before. I was now meeting the son of the owner. He’s a brilliant boy. He went to Germany to study new techniques and materials, and now he’s producing improved ceramics but still firing in the dragon kiln.
What’s a dragon kiln?
It’s a traditional Chinese-style kiln from 2,000 years ago. It’s a tunnel in the ground – like a huge worm under the soil with just its back on the surface. It’s big enough to walk inside. There are holes at the surface and they put wood in them to fire the ceramic. I was so happy to see this guy still using the dragon kiln. He did a lot of nice things for the hotel.
Tell us about the benefits of these kinds of collaborations.
Well, the benefit for me is that I can do something I’d otherwise be unable to. My ideas can become real. The producers, if they are curious, will collect one more bit of information to use in the development of their craft. Some of them do, some don’t. Some might build ideas for starting something else.
Twenty years ago, your first stop in Asia was Hong Kong. What drew you there?
I had a boyfriend there.
I see! What are some of the things you’ve observed about Asia’s furniture and product design industry since then?
Well it’s not possible to generalise because all the countries have different materials and skills. Indonesia used to produce 80% of the world’s raw rattan material. At a certain point they decided to stop exporting it, which pushed the Indonesian people to produce finished products. It was a big change. Many companies started up, and some of them did very well. Now a lot of Western companies produce components or full woven products in Indonesia.
Thailand is very sophisticated. They weave a lot of different materials, and they do beautiful bronze. There’s a very interesting imperfect ceramic tradition in Vietnam. I developed a lot of components for furniture that one of my Italian clients produces in Vietnam – for example, table legs, stools, things like that. I like to promote imperfection.
The furniture and product design industries constantly demand freshness. How do you balance the need for freshness with your embrace of traditional techniques?
Tradition doesn’t have a shape. It’s something you can use as a medium. Freshness is a design attitude. I always try to design very friendly and non-aggressive products that can sneak into your house and give you the feeling that they’ve been there for a long time.
Tell us about your love of travel.
I do travel all the time, but I think travelling is also a state of mind. It’s not about how many kilometres you go. It’s the way you look at things that makes you travel. You can travel with your brain more than your foot. I travel in my mind.
Look out for new items designed by Paola Navone for Baxter and Gervasoni at the Salone del Mobile Milano, 8–13 April 2014. Also check out the upcoming issue of Cubes Indesign (#67), which features Paola Navone’s Como hotel interior project at Point Yamu.
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