Interview by Spencer Bailey  |  Portrait by Danilo Scarpati 

Many designers purport to have a global mindset and practice, but few live up to the billing in the way that Italian designer and architect Paola Navone does. For nearly two decades, beginning in the 1980s, Navone split her time evenly between Italy and Asia, and her design work continues to reflect both cultures. Currently, she lives in Paris and Milan, with frequent trips to major cities- and far-flung locales around the globe.

Though she’s become renowned for her eclectic, cosmopolitan style, largely with European brands like Bisazza, Alessi, and Baxter, recent projects with American powerhouse chains Anthropologie and Crate & Barrel have broadened the market for her thoughtfully designed products. (She has also done an outdoor furniture line with the California-based brand Janus et Cie.) Her three-part collection with Crate debuted last fall, with the second phase hitting the market in the spring and the final rollout to come this fall. In the midst of all this, she recently completed two hotel projects for Como Hotels and Resorts—one in Thailand, the other in Miami. 

Navone joins a rare group of designers (among them, Philippe Starck and Marcel Wanders) who offer case studies on how, with the right energy—and in Navone’s case, whimsy—a designer can become as global in impact as some of the brands he or she works for. Surface met with Navone at her Milan studio and home during this year’s Salone del Mobile fair to discuss her rise to the top and why it’s important to not take yourself too seriously.

In 1973, you graduated from the Polytechnic University of Turin, where you studied architecture. Was your initial approach to design through architecture?

Well, at the time, there were no design schools. I was very curious, always looking for what was going to happen next. I discovered that there were, all over the world, architects who were producing something other than what I was learning in the classroom—not real buildings or cities, but utopian ones. These were firms like Archigram in London or Superstudio in Florence. Or others doing more extreme things, like body art in a gallery in Austria, or the UFO group, which was performing design theater in the streets of Florence. I started to run after these architects—physically. I was going to London, to Austria, to Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti in America, to see what the possibilities were besides the traditional education I was getting. I was treasure hunting. 

Eventually, I decided to use all this information in a thesis. It was very unusual. After that, I went to Africa to travel. I met someone in a bar who was going to Africa, and I said, “Okay, I’m coming with you.”

You later went on to work alongside Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass, and Andrea Branzi in the Alchimia group. How did that opportunity come about?

When I came back from Africa, Alessandro Mendini called me and asked me to work for his magazine, Domus, for one year, to realize my thesis in a less scholastic way. He published a little book called Architettura Radicale with me and Bruno Orlandoni, my friend and fellow treasure hunter. 

What happened next?

There was this guy in Milano, Alessandro Guerriero, who was this energetic freethinker. He put together all these people in a funny way and pushed us all to invent a new direction in design. We made a crazy, beautiful, totally noncommercial collection—and during Salone del Mobile there was a huge party for it. The experience was very important for me because all of the other architects were older than me. I discovered then that design was a possible career, so I started to work in it, and I’m still here!

In general, what has been your approach to your career?

My life has always been an unplanned trip. Everything has happened by accident. If I have nothing to do, I go to the beach, I go to the movie theater—I don’t design a chair. I need to have a reason to work. Work is not a need of my mine. And thank God it’s a job that always has a little percent of fun. I also try to keep this fun for the people who work for me. We don’t need to suffer in life. We already have enough problems. 

Was there a breakthrough moment or project that put you on the map?

Yes, I won a competition from Abet Laminati, which is like Formica in America. It’s the most important high-pressure laminate producer in Europe. They asked several people to design laminates, and I found this so intriguing that instead of sending one design, I sent 50. They asked me, “You like this job?” I said yes. My first job was with them. This was Invoice No. 1. I worked for them for 30 years until a few years ago.

You lived in Asia from the early ’80s until 2000. How did your experience there evolve your practice as a designer?

I learned a lot. Over there, I was working more on craft, because the factories in Southeast Asia were more about craft than industry. Then, when I was in Italy, I was doing more industry than craft. I’ve always liked both.

That mix is largely what you’ve done in the last couple of years with American brands like Anthropologie and Crate & Barrel. How did you get involved with those two companies? 

Anthropologie first asked me to do a small project in India. It was my vision for Indian products. We had a mutual contact in New Delhi, a many-years-long friend, and it started through him.

Crate & Barrel is another adventure—everything is an adventure. Marta Calle, whom I didn’t previously know, wrote me a nice note in the mail. She told me, “Five days ago I became the new Crate & Barrel president. I would like to come to Milano to see if we could have a collaboration.” I said yes, fine, why not? So she came for one hour—it was as if she was never going to go away. I said, “Listen, I have to run, but maybe we can have a dinner on Sunday.” We had that dinner, eating in this ugly restaurant with very good fish. She asked me, “If you work for us, what would you like to do?” I said, “Maybe we have to invent one theme and develop this.” She asked, “What kind of theme?” I said, “A dinner with friends.” This became the theme of the first collection. We designed everything to organize a dinner for friends: a table, a chair, a lamp, drinking glasses, trays. 

It has been an experience that’s different from what I usually do. Crate & Barrel is a big, very efficient machine. They have a time frame that’s very strict. We learned how to correct a sample only once, and the second time, if it wasn’t as we wished, we had two choices: Keep it as it is or cancel it. We had to learn how to make decisions quickly.

Let’s talk about your role as creative director at Gervasoni. What does that position entail?

Everything! This boy, Giovanni Gervasoni, came to me about 15 years ago. He was working in finance, and his father and grandfather had this company in Udine. He told me he wanted to go back and work for the family’s company. I said, “You don’t know anything about furniture. Do the work you’re good at. You’re not fit for this job.” For two months I tried to convince this guy to not go on this adventure, but he was so stubborn. I eventually said, “Fine, I’ll do something for you.” When I did the first collection, his father, who was still at the company, said to Giovanni, “This is a disaster. You’re going to ruin yourself.” But the collection was a big success. I’m still there working for them. Giovanni and I have become friends.

I’ve kept a connection to the company’s origins. They used to be weavers, so I always try to weave something—often in an unconventional way. What I do for them is always very simple, very friendly. The pieces aren’t so difficult to produce. I don’t like to fight reality.

So you’re both a dreamer and a pragmatist.

I don’t know. I don’t like to overwork. I can work a lot, but I don’t like to be stubborn. If you don’t know how to do something, then you should do something else.

Design is like an omelet. I can make a very good omelet for you with herbs. If you don’t like herbs, then I can make it with mushrooms. If you don’t like mushrooms, then I can make you another kind of omelet. It doesn’t matter what ingredients I use as long as I give you a good omelet, right? That, I think, is a good example of how I work. I like to make good omelets. 

Are you one of those people who think of cooking as design?

No, when I’m cooking, I’m cooking. [Laughs] I like cooking. It’s relaxing, like yoga. I love chopping onions.

You’ve previously described your style as “soft,” and that seems to reflect what you’re talking about here, which is malleability. 

Yeah, I don’t like to invade the space of people so much that it hurts. Maybe you wake up with a headache in the morning because you drank too much the night before, and when you have to face a chair that’s aggressive, it’s wrong. There’s a difference between product design and interior design. When I do an interior, I sometimes like to do stronger projects because I’m designing a stage for people. But I don’t like aggressive products.


For more of the interview with Paola Navone, order your copy of the May issue here.