Milan-based curator Federica Sala on recent projects, community building, and ushering in a new era of design
Clocking over 25 years in the design field, Milan’s Federica Sala is known for her astute, curatorial approach and thoughtful collaborations. In addition to curating acclaimed exhibitions that focus on design greats from yesterday and today—think Achille Castiglioni and Max Lamb, for example—she also until recently led PS, the chic, powerhouse communications agency she cofounded with design consultant Michela Pelizzari.
These days, Sala continues her independent curatorial work, focusing on presentations that inspire and connect. One such project, the current Viavài pop-up exhibition in storefront windows on Milan’s famed Via della Spiga, was developed in response to the pandemic-era shuttering of museums and galleries. It's at once an homage to the city of Milan’s creative spirit and a symbol of resilience for the surrounding community.
We sat down with Sala to hear the latest from her hometown, how the past year has impacted her work and perspective, and what she expects moving forward. As Sala says, “A new era is coming, and this is a super interesting challenge.”
How has the last year reinforced or changed your perception of design’s role in the world?
I think the recent online project Design Emergency, started by Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorn, perfectly demonstrates the role design has in offering us a way to think differently—especially right now—and in creating solutions to functional problems, emotional issues, and civil and political evolution.
Design should reflect society’s changes by conceiving and putting in place the right instruments, those that can actually respond to our shifting needs. For example, in Formafantasma’s recent Cambio exhibition at Serpentine Gallery, design offers answers to the problematic wood supply chain. And the Kenyan company Gjenge Makers, founded by entrepreneur Nzambi Matee, produces alternative construction materials like bricks made with recycled plastics. These two examples show how design can respond to contemporary global challenges. And transforming the end-user from someone who simply consumes to someone that thinks for him or herself is also itself a design practice!
Design can bring ideas and stimulate debate. Good design combines culture, art, and practice to trace a new path for a society in flux. We need more design. We need better design.
What lessons have you learned in this period—personally or professionally—that you’ll take with you moving forward?
Personally I’ve experienced a new appreciation for nature. I’ve always lived in a city, but this year I had the chance to spend many months in the mountains. This has been an incredible discovery for me, and I think I’ll carry this need for nature and simplicity forward.
On the other hand, it also reminded me of the importance of collaboration and sticking with people and building projects together. This new collaborative dimension is what directed my actual professional choices and brought me a new desire for engagement in civil society. There’s a new significance to words, ideas, messages, and generally, a connection to the human community that I’m bringing with me into my professional life. We need to be more responsible, and we need to think differently about the way we conceive, design, produce, and consume. A new era is coming, and this is a super interesting challenge.
What creative projects have stood out to you over the past year?
I found the first project presented by Luca Lo Pinto, the new director of Macro Museum in Rome, very interesting. This past summer, they brought art to the beaches next to the city with the exhibition Tracce/Traces by Lawrence Weiner. Each day, an airplane flew over the shoreline with banners offering different messages. It was a very interesting way to present art and culture outside the museum walls and bring it to people.
For your own recent Viavài project, on view now, you and your collaborators have enlivened the empty storefronts of Via della Spiga with art installations, offering citizens in that area a dose of much-needed inspiration. What are the biggest takeaways for you from this project—perhaps in terms of public response and/or cultural and economic impact?
VIA stands for Visiting Installation Art. It is a project founded by entrepreneur Lorenzo Lombardi and photographer Valentina Angeloni that started with the storefront window exhibition Viavài that I curated. The idea is to fill a void left by the empty storefront windows due to the pandemic with cultural content that citizens can enjoy by simply passing by. It is something you can see in total safety, transforming what feels abandoned into a cultural hub.
It shows how we as individuals or small groups can easily invest in culture—for the simple pleasure of giving something to others. This is a little model of a new cultural economy that is locally based, underlining the relationship between spaces and people. It helped to bring out the memory of the streets and those who have animated it over the years. In fact, the starting point was the boutique run by Marisa Lombardi for many years; her shop featured the best fashion designers in town from the ’60s on, driven by her passion for art, design, and architecture. The original shop was designed by Ettore Sottsass, for example. Bringing back a sense of that history is a very nice way to keep the memory alive of all those who, over the years, have made Milan a hub for fashion, design, and creativity in general.
Your 1+1+1 exhibition was also quite exciting. Tell us a bit about what made this exhibition so special.
1+1+1 is a project conceived by Elena Quarestani for her nonprofit space Assab One in Milan. The program began in 2017 and mixes art, design, and architecture. The first three editions were curated by Marco Sammicheli, and I took up the baton this year for the fourth edition. The difference this year is that we stressed the idea of dialogue, asking the participants not to conceive a monographic exhibition, as in the past, but instead to work together in the same space. So each participating studio—Loris Cecchini, Michele De Lucchi and his research group AMDL Circle, and Pentagram & Friends—presented a concept to all the others and then worked together on the plans, exchanging ideas and positions. The results were presented as a big collective show where the sense of community, of building something together, was the real focus.
Are there other projects you’ve worked on in the past year that have been similarly rewarding?
I’ve actually been very lucky this year because I had the opportunity to work with a lot of new people, and, despite the situation, this brought a lot of new energies and ideas and proper team work. For example, there was the mini series of interviews called Around Enzo Mari, conceived for Radio Raheem for Triennale di Milano. It was my first time on radio, and it was a great experience. And of course the conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Francesca Giacomelli, and Nicola Pellegrini has nurtured me a lot.
What’s up next for you?
I’m waiting with trepidation for the opening of the new ADI Design Museum in Milan. It will hopefully open in April. It’s a museum that the city of Milan has waited for for many years, and I’m proud to be part of curating one of the monographic exhibitions that will complement the main exhibition about the history of Compasso d’Oro. I’ll be curating a show that’s an homage to Giulio Castelli, entrepreneur and founder of Kartell company, and one of the nine founders of ADI in 1956. It’s about his prominent role in building a system for Italian design founded on a faith in the role of networking and associationism.
Before that I’m also curating the new edition of Life in Vogue, a project born in 2018 by Vogue Italia to invite creatives to present interventions in contemporary offices. This year, with all the broken boundaries between private and public, it seemed only natural to do a digital version of the exhibition, in order to allow designers and architects to really think out of the box. The exhibition will run 13-18 April ( the dates of Milano Design Week before the Salone del Mobile had to postpone its opening to September 2021).
What are your thoughts on the year ahead more broadly: What are you expecting, looking forward to, or hoping for?
I really hope this will bring back with force an interest in common goods and objectives, to the value of pulling altogether in the same direction. I hope to see collectives of artists, designers, and entrepreneurs putting aside individualism for a bigger community vision. We have to be better, we have to be bigger, we need to help each other and share ideas.
It is the right moment to bring back the Global Tools research done from 1973 to 1975 by a group of visionaries from the Italian Radical Design and Architecture Movement—such as Andrea Branzi, Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini, Ugo la Pietra, Franco Raggi, Superstudio, UFO, and Gianni Pettena but also Germano Celant and Luciano Fabro—to move beyond past models and conceive a new education for people that flows throughout life and culture and creativity.
Thank you, Federica! ◆
Sala’s Viavài exhibition is on view in the storefront windows of Milan’s Via della Spiga through the end of March 2021.