Do we still need product design?

After the three days at Edit Napoli design fair, we venture an answer: yes, a lot.

The digital dimension is life for all intents and purposes, and we can peacefully admit that denying this fact might now taste a lot like flat earth theory. However, it mihgt also be time to make peace with another fact, namely, that the dream of a completely de-materialized life, disconnected from analog objects that are not strictly functional – different form seats, screens, communication tools – is as alluring as the Matrix aesthetic, or early-Helmut-Lang cyberminimal outfits but, just like them, represents the past, a seductively past-tense, late-millennium aesthetic.

In various ways we have shown that we still depend on objects, that we seek a relationship with them – not necessarily a healthy one – and that we cannot therefore leave uncovered that territory that is left around us as soon as batteries run out and screens go off.

An extremely physical place such as Edit Napoli, the design fair curated by Emilia Petruccelli and Domitilla Dardi that this year reached its fifth episode, with 98 exhibitors and 7 “Cult” participations is – rather unusually, thinking of the standard of urban chaos surrounding all design fairs – a powerful generator of such thoughts.

Stamuli Allestimento Atrio + Bar Very Simple Kitchen. Photo © Francesco Stelitano

Especially since this year many objects, products, materials have been catalyzed in the Naples-based event, and questions with them. In addition to the ever so effective leverage of an out-of-the-ordinary network of extra-fair locations, where cult exhibits were displayed, the fair itself was the core of greatest intensity. Hosted in a prominent location as well – the courts of the State Archives – similar in scale to certain Fuorisalone locations in Milan, the fair generated an essentially curatorial device where products regained centrality and above all the possibility for users to see them, in the sense of being able to relate to them, to interact with them, and to let reflections arise from specific objects, first and foremost reflections about our space.

A domestic space like that of the 2020s – the space we inhabit, more generally – still calls for new proposals. The archetypes are now fixed, furniture, lighting, decorations, there is no need to reinvent Gio Ponti's Superleggera, and a vase will always remain a vase, whatever its formal reference or its process of handcrafted creation. But ever-smaller homes in ever-connected cities, lives that over the years have re-learned to take place indoors and then out again, jobs less and less tied to a fixed location, home environments that often return to a mission of emotionally counterbalancing the aforementioned jobs, can undoubtedly be filled with timeless icons of design, but they demand to be listened to with a less standardized ear.

Edit provided an opportunity to let such questions emerge. About objects and textiles that make “reuse and recycle” a segment of a process that is finally controlled and efficient (not dead-ending in some inevitable production of waste at the end of the line) while speaking that same contemporary language which is always easier to be spoken by less sustainable materials; about revolutionized furniture, not so much in aesthetics as in layout – a table that manages to be a place of shared pleasure even in homes that no longer have dining rooms – an in relating to increasingly diverse bodies without having to condemn them to compromises that would barely be accepted in a cave millions of years old.

Then comes that other big question that objects call out, and Edit was able to effectively stage in the courts of the Archive, concerning the “design system”: who imagines objects, what the opportunities to develop them and make them visible to those who will then appreciate and use them. In this condensed and curated fair form – with a large distribution buyer on the jury and a dedicated b2c section – the question got the front row, especially because of the opportunity given in space and time to hear it, identifying different kinds of pathways that characterize contemporary scenarios: editorial design looms as a terrain that distances itself from the realm of collectible in the strict sense and, amidst innumerable difficulties (often classic situations of two-three jobs in parallel in order to carry out a project) aims to create and establish new companies, new brands that are capable not only of pandering to a market where floating is already often a forbidden achievement for most, as much as discussing and redefining its assumptions, and questions for the times that are coming.

Archivio di Stato di Napoli. Photo Eller Studio

Wanting to yield to vaguely marketing-flavored expressions, one can speak of a fair that enhances with the frame of a unique past a future that is yet to be written, but the concept that one takes home from this temporary device, after so many questions, is an answer. Is there still a need for product design? Yes, very much so.

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