Walter De Silva comes to Milan after twenty years, as President of the Mobility Design Lab, the research and training…
The first thing I was curious about is your collaboration with Hay, and how it started, how it developed and especially which ideas you’ve focused on when you had to develop these projects.
It started actually when Mette Hay asked me to do the photo art direction for the upcoming catalogue and the design of the catalogue, which was 8 years ago. At that time most of the visuals had been done in-house, and we felt very free to do create something new. One thing led to another, so the photographs were the starting point and then the catalogue was the start of all the visual identity, such as the stationary and the ongoing graphics.
Do you apply some few principles that kind of create a general identity?
When we started out on the photo art direction the main principle was to give the products total focus and create a special recognisable world around it. I already then saw HAY as something big and wanted everything from the catalogue format to the photo shoots to be big!
This company has grown fast since then so for the ongoing graphics we are trying to set up a general guideline, but for many years I was changing the design as I was doing it, so it was more organic, but now there are more people involved so there has to be more guidance.
Do you have to delegate some part of the work to others now?
Yes, it’s a much bigger company now.
During this collaboration, you started switching also towards product design: was it because of Hay or was it already in your plans?
It was something that I wanted to do at the time. Since I graduated in 1995, I was working as a graphic designer and art director, but for some reason, I always ended up working with product designers, industrial designers and architects and I have been very much in those types of companies and those type of clients since. Also, after 4 years at studio Lissoni here in Milan, I thought that when I would set up my studio in Stockholm I wanted to do more products myself and I started with what I knew, such as paper and colours.
I think this is quite evident in the products you design…
It worked very well because your products fit very well in the company. And then, you started working also for others! Being both a graphic and a product designer, how would you describe your design process?
I would say that for me, the creative process for graphic design and product design is not so different, only the act of production is obviously much longer when you do a product versus when you create a printed material, which is much quicker. Often, when I am about to design a product, I start with paper anyway, sketching, because I want to touch it and feel it. I can’t really think in 3D so I really want to physically have the product in my hands.
It’s an addition for me to explore products, I am learning so much and after many years of mainly print, I felt that I wanted to learn about other materials and processes.
Speaking about your learning process: you studied in Sweden and then you had this experience in the United States. What was the main difference between these two design cultures?
I don’t know how much is due to the countries cultures or to the schools, but the school that I went to in Stockholm was very much about finding your own expression, being individual, finding your language and so on, and less about the reality of the profession. I was only 23 when graduating and wanted to complement this education with more studies. For me, it worked out well because Art Center was much more focused on technical skills and business. It was a very good match mixing a school very focused on individual talent to one focused on business. I needed to get confidence in both worlds.
Did you come back directly to Stockholm afterwards?
Yes, I worked at an advertising agency as well as with an artist, architect and a scenographer called Carouschka on many great projects for a year, then I started my design studio, with other collaborators. We wanted to float around different areas, graphics and industrial design, fashion, illustration, architecture and more, and we did it for five years, working together and inspiring each other.
Scandinavia is, in general, very well known for product design, especially from an Italian perspective. Is there something specific that you want to tell us about Swedish design?
We think that Italy is the country known for product design! I think that overall, the Scandinavian graphic design is usually quite “simple”, there’s is an ambition to peel off and to keep it as simple as possible, essential and it’s the same for product design. I feel that now that the world is really open, with social media and so on, I can’t really distinguish what is exactly Swedish from what is exactly Dutch. Maybe 40 years ago it was possible, but now there are some shared tendencies for sure.
You also worked here in Milan for studio Lissoni. Was it very different to work here in Milan?
When I arrived I thought it was such a luxury and that the people working there were so lucky for working on such big projects, for major brands and great clients and they only had to do the design, which is the beauty of being hired as a designer. I thought it was quite a privilege to work like that, with those clients, such as Boffi or Porro or Living Divani and with colleagues from all over the world.
I’m sure that during Salone del mobile it was a very busy time for you.
Yes, we were doing lots of catalogues, stand graphics and invites.
Given your experience, is there any suggestion that you would like to give to someone who is just beginning now in this field of design?
Yes, there are many! But mostly this two: be curious and work hard! Really hard, because there is no other way, no shortcuts. But it’s not necessarily tough to work hard, it can be fun actually, it’s not necessarily a problem. Also: make mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes, and a lot of things come out from that.