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The culture of the 999 cities: stories from the history of Italian design
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Estimated reading time
4 Minutes

The culture of the 999 cities: stories from the history of Italian design

It was one of Italian design’s most memorable days. It was certainly a one-off. Late June, 1989; Aspen, Colorado, USA. Invited by curators Paolo Viti and Bill Lacy, sitting among the stalls and platforms of the open-air pavilions at the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA) are Gae Aulenti, Ettore Sottsass, Italo Lupi, Mario Bellini, Alberto Alessi, Bruno Danese, Andrea Branzi, Antonio Colombo, Aurelio Zanotta, Michele De Lucchi, Achille Castiglioni and a very young Paola Antonelli.

Each one of them plays several roles: speaker, expert, artist, designer, interested observer, enthusiast, audience. A week of encounters, demonstrations and informal talks explains to Americans and the wider world the principles on which Italian design is founded - as written by Antonio Macchi Cassia. It’s an exceptional week: today you can simply type any of these names into Google to discover one of the stories of Italian design, and lose yourself in a whirl of creativity and entrepreneurship. And in that week, all those stories were sitting together in one place.

Tolomeo Mega Led floor lamp

The culture of the 999 Italian cities

Eight years had passed since the same couple of curators had held their first symposium on design in Italy. It was a great success, reported in contemporary news pages. And so, we could say that the two architects and products of the Olivetti industrial and cultural world let their hair down and turned their minds to something more exciting. No rules, just mystery and creativity.

Italo Lupi is the art director responsible for creating a small and unusual book: The Italian Manifesto or: the Culture of the 999 Cities. It's not a poetic title lacking content: the first part is a declaration of intent. The second - even today - represents the world of Italian design (and perhaps Italian politics, economics, society…).

It required a phrase that could modify and emphasise our intentions, to provide a frame for what makes Italian design different from other kinds of design and why this is.
Paolo Viti e Bill Lacy
Tavolo con Ruote coffee table
April foldable chair

The culture of the 999 cities, in other words the ability to create diverse works and to operate in many disciplines, to give expression to art forms and personalities that are seemingly irreconcilable, but recognisably Italian. The legacy of cultural diversity - a defining trait in Italy - which in those years spread like a virus in the world of Italian design. A poetic phrase that concealed a serious discourse, yet without forgetting its irony:

And for the literal-minded, it opens the possibility of a debate on the question of whether there are really 999 individual cities in Italy, or only 989.
Paolo Viti e Bill Lacy
Achille Castiglioni e Paola AntonelliAchille Castiglioni and Paola Antonelli

Achille Castiglione’s lesson

The most vivid memory of that week we have today. An amateur video, restored by Flos for the second edition of the Milano Design Film Festival, of an inofrmal talk by Achille Castiglioni, introduced by Paola Antonelli (currently curator of the Department of Architecture and Design at the MoMA in New York). A small piece of the history of Italian design which still conveys the contagious enthusiasm that should mark every creative act.

Taraxacum 88 S2 Pendant Lamp
Mezzadro stool
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