Segno Italiano, Through Italian Eyes

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The collective Segno Italiano, which has been celebrating artisanal Italian cultures since 2010, has created the new space design of Maison d’Exceptions.
Two of the founders, Alberto Nespoli and Domenico Rocca, reflect on the values and motivations which drove them to launch the Segno Italiano adventure, whose goal has been to aid in the development of a selection of local producers and broadcast the history and heritage of Italian design across the world.
Here, they respond to our questions and explain how their attraction to fashion allowed them to imagine a forward-thinking original space design for Maison d’Exceptions that will showcase international textile expertise each year in Paris during Première Vision.
Why as designers have you chosen to focus on heritage and Italian expertise?

Alberto Nespoli: To start, we have had several academic and professional experiences abroad – notably Japan, Australia and the Netherlands. This travel has helped us understand that Italy has artisanal potential but the skills are often unrecognized.
Domenico Rocca: Italy is full of knowledge and expertise and every region has its own specialities linked to different materials and final products. It is a rich heritage that must not disappear and as an Italian designer it is a great benefit to be able to closely study it, so that we may learn techniques and specific processes. Moreover, the object forms that we have come to know as archetypal and profoundly rooted in collective memory have a timeless beauty rarely matched by contemporary forms born from trends and passing fads.
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Este Ceramics
AN: Back in Italy in 2010, Domenico and I began imagining the project Segno Italiano. The brainstorm was developed through two case studies. The first was an observation of the fashion sector, which has successfully valued Italian know-how all over the world. The second was the work between Slow Food, which defends small producers and the unicity of local products, and Eataly distributers who internationally market Italian gourmet products.
DR: Segno Italiano is a business project and cannot only benefit the designer’s eye but also must be able to support our heritage commercially.
AN: As a designer and entrepreneur, I chose to develop Segno Italiano as a pioneer model aiming to highlight excellent Italian artisanship in the furnishing and decor sectors. The goal is to establish a system by which master craftspeople can promote their work throughout the world.
How do you select the producers with whom you collaborate?

AN: The work comes from extensive research on territories as well as archival studies. We prefer workshops and companies with an established production history. Centenarians, in most cases. They are an inexhaustible source that nobody at this moment, apart from Segno Italiano, is truly tapping into.
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Este Ceramics (Archives)
DR: We always seek out very specific techniques and product typologies that stand out from one another. They must be very characteristic of their territory, like good wines and cheeses that are viscerally distinctive through aroma and taste and speak to their region.
AN: Italy is famous for its industrial design grand masters: the Castiglioni brothers, Joe Colombo, Franco Albini, Ettore Sottsass. But we have forgotten the origin of all of this in Italian artisanship. We complete our archival studies and research with a commercial analysis and draw up exclusive contracts with select producers. We then map out development strategies with our artisanal partners and choose market targets. The work is complex and requires different professional profiles for the Segno Italiano teams: artistic director, product manager, interior designer, sales director, press office, etc.
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Empoli Glass
Designers often favor novelty, but the distinctiveness of your approach lies in the contrary, in the valuation of traditional design. You often find yourselves in the archives of the workshops with whom you collaborate. How do you manage to renew what comes from the past?

AN: Segno Italiano works with “evergreen” archetypes, breaking with ideas of ephemeral fashion. The global vision of Segno Italiano is built on domestic scenarios (such as the table, the outdoor life, the study, the living room, etc.) which themselves are composed of classical collections of objects that interrelate harmoniously. We enter into ateliers on our tiptoes, with great regard for these masters. We learn their skills with respect and we choose some objects to re-issue with slight modifications for the global market. In the case of certain items such as the green glass of Empoli, it had been twenty years since somebody had blown according to the traditional methods. We successfully relaunched production and discovered how contemporary the classical forms can be. The work of artistic direction is necessary to give new life to our objects. Based on Italian know-how, we conceive new objects and interior designs for restaurants, apartments, hotels and businesses, with respect for traditions (which to us is an innovation). New collaborations are born from the worlds of art, fashion and dining. For Segno Italiano it is necessary to understand tradition in order to be able to innovate.
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Empoli Glass, Este Ceramics and Copper from Trentino
DR: In addition, we systematically highlight production processes, their histories and materials. And we do this unconventional way compared to the traditional cultures of the workshops: short video documentaries, scenography that presents the product, work with digital technologies. These means of seeing and valuing the past at the same time manage to keep our work aimed towards the future. We have a vision for our project on a global scale and what the eye does not yet know is always perceived as new. So, it is wonderful to allow people on the other side of the world a chance to see a chair that has 200 years of history. This is a way in which we renew the past.
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Sedia leggera di Chiavari Tigulline, Segno Italiano
You have designed the new scenography for Maison d’Exceptions. How was this idea born and what was the origin of the project?

DR: We were inspired by the work of Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis group, the architecture and design wave in 1980s Italy, and we tried to translate these forms in a light, temporary, coherent construction in terms of materials. It was a way of re-understanding an exhibition stand.
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Maison d’Exceptions, 3D Rendering
AN: We imagined a contemporary scenario by working with metallic materials and traditional techniques. The idea behind the conception is to create a changing, chameleon landscape composed of several archaic, totemic forms whose organic arrangement in the space can be reconfigured each season. The colors are sober so as to showcase exhibitors in the best way. Light is brought in in a punctuating manner, as a range of accessories that make it easier to display and examine samples. Elegance and simplicity are the working rules of Segno Italiano.
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Maison d’Exceptions, 3D Rendering
You have created a setting in which to house some of the world’s rarest textile expertise. What is your own relationship with fashion?

DR: Fashion relies on mechanisms that are totally different from design and even more distant from a slow world such as the world of craftsmanship. It is exactly for this reason that fashion interests us. We pay more attention to its rapid annual rhythm than to the products themselves. Obviously, there are personal attractions to certain brands and types of products. I am, for example, very fond of hats and leather shoes!
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I piatti rotti si lavano a casa, Segno italiano x Antonio Marras
AN: We have also worked with young designers to design boutiques, objects and display materials. But not only; what interests us is the 360-degree creative world. We think that only the intermingling of artistic disciplines can spawn the best projects. We appreciate the minimum, provided that it is well made, and our interiors are designed with great care and detail. To do this work we must learn about the fabrics and best practices. I think that, in this respect, Maison d’Exceptions is a very similar project to Segno Italiano.
For further information on Segno Italiano.
Cover Photo: Portrait of Domenico Rocca and Alberto Nespoli by Valentina Sommariva
Photo Credits: Segno Italiano