Interview with Denis Santachiara

Paola Proverbio: The 1985 exhibit “La Neomerce. Il design dell’invenzione e dell’estasi artificiale”, created by you and supported by Montedison’s “Progetto Cultura”, was definitely paradigmatic, as you clearly showed the way towards a new design based on ‘soft’ electronic and computer technologies, of which you saw sensorial and poetical elements. After may years, what direction you envision for design?

Denis Santachiara: The most important thing in design is the presence of some strong motivation, of a context constantly renovated by new discoveries – as it was in the 1960s with plastic materials. Differently from other arts, design is not an autarchic form of expression. It is a complex system. Today I still believe the future of design is strictly connected to the development of technology. The only limit is that while using technology design is more concerned with materials than with its potential influence on the productive process; actually, such process is the main factor of change, as it determines the cultural configuration of objects, and not merely their shapes.
As soon as 1986, when I contributed with Alberto Meda to the editing of Ezio Manzini’s  book, La materia dell’invenzione (1986), I started reflecting on diversified seriality. It has been a long time, then, since I first saw the web as an environment offering a chance for real developments in design. This belief brought me to the creation, with Tiziana Cippelletti and Paolo Trezzi, of Monastero Santachiara in September 2004.

Tell us more about this venture.

The original idea was to encourage rapid manufacturing in less than avant-garde businesses, acting in many different ways. I also concocted a project for an exhibit at the Milan Triennale, as I had done for “La Neomerce”. I clarified in an article this idea (Tessa, R., 2005), in relation to the so-called Personal Factory. However, I was too far ahead of the times, and the operation could not be continued. Even today, the web is still perceived by businesses as a mere communication device, a tool for advertisement and image-building, and not as a working environment, while many designers – and especially those of the last generation – are absolutely up to date with this shift. It is clear, then, that the design world has not yet established an actual connection with the world of the web. I believe when this encounter happens, it will facilitate the birth of a new context of renovation for design; maybe times are just not ripe yet.

In the exhibit “Principia. Stanze e sostanze delle arti prossime” at the 2011 Fuorisalone in Milan, though, you foregrounded this important approach to design, something people have been talking about for at least a decade.

Yes. That was for me another manifesto-exhibit, a post-media event through which I wanted to show another possible future development for design; I chose several principia ruling the disciplines connected with technology, and I put designers in front of a question, in order to understand in which direction design itself should be headed. So again I insisted on the meaning and importance of the Personal Factory, since through it design can express new linguistic and poetic moods, while rapid manufacturing makes it possible to produce a piece or a thousand at the same unit cost, that is the main goal of mass personalization.

Mass personalization, of course, but in some cases self-production, as well. As you have pointed out, it is possible to reach a total autarchy of commodities, based on open-source strategies. In 2007 you installed a 3-D printer in your workshop, and you began creating models. Can you tell us more about your direct experience with both production and these upcoming forms of project?

As a matter of fact, I go in many different directions, as I try to take advantage of all the opportunities opportunities offered by this new context: Open Search Design, Co-design, Open design, post-serial Design On-demand. As for Open-search design, in 2010 I conceived a motorcycle utility which contains GPS, electronic toll collection system and charger. I designed it for my motorcycle, but once the project is available online, clients can download the math from the website and print it out in ABS format at the closest service using 3-D printers. Through a simple parametric software, you can change the math and customize the attachment based on the specifics of your vehicle and also your personal taste, by adding text and images.
The same is true for a set of glasses I designed, with both a customized mount and a simplified assembling process, in order to make every step compatible with the entire production system.
The interesting side of such system is that you do not just print models, but actual objects of immediate use: for instance, I recently printed a metal door handle. As for co-design and co-creation, I designed a set of shelves allowing clients to adjust them based on their needs and taste. The project was chosen by Quirky (, a New York-based online platform selling everyday objects. Through the community, designers, consumers and business associates rate the products and suggest possible improvements, from colors to prices. After this pre-marketing stage, Quirky decides whether to produce the object and sell it through its website and its partners, including Amazon, Apple etc.
As for open design, I joined forces with Campeggi to create “Santapouf PRO” (2010), a soft, colored, customizable ottoman with a built-in inflatable emergency bed. My inspiration was the “continuous profile” sculpture by Giuseppe Bertelli (1900-1974), who during the regime believed in the possibility of one head thinking for everybody; in a democratic, open, technological, liquid, connected society, each of us thinks with his or her head. My idea was to use CNC (computer numerical control) technology to cut polyurethane. For now, my ‘pouf’ has my own profile, but it can take on the face of each client. You just need to send your profile to us through smartphone, e-mail and so on. Our goal is to suggest an idea of design which could be customized without getting outside the price range of standard industrial products.
Another possibility I explored is design on-demand: I was recently asked to make a project for an urn (architects have always designed family tombs, while industrial designer have created customized family urns). In my project, you just need to send some pictures to have one made with your own face. The first urn has a primary shape on which the ‘client’s’ features are added; the second is a transparent cylinder containing many small boxes that can be given out to relatives and friends. It is obviously a challenging, thought-provoking matter, but it concerns all of us.

Paola Proverbio, Politecnico di Milano –

This interview was taken during a conversation with Denis Santachiara for the research published in: Proverbio, P. (2012). Denis Santachiara. In Pagliardini, V. (ED), I Protagonisti del Design. IT: Milan. Hachette.


Manzini, E. (1986). La materia dell’invenzione. Milano, IT: Arcadia

Tessa, R. (2005, April, 13). Nuove tecnologie, una seconda rivoluzione per il design. La Repubblica. 

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