She has been very much in demand for many of the new launches as part of Salone 2018. Born and raised in Milan, Elena Salmistraro spoke to us about her world of strange characters, baboons with puzzled expressions, and colour sampling. “Next year I’ll be disappearing for a while...”. Effectively, her collaborations this year included Timberland, Bosa, Brera Design District, Lithea, Replay, BluBleu, CC-Tapis, Subalterno 2, London Art, Mog and Dilmos. And this is a designer with a family, and who mostly works alone. She did a little of everything for these companies, from the large fertility tree in Piazza XXV Aprile to the statues of deign gurus, from oversized wallpaper to 3 metre by 5 metre Sicilian stone panels, not to mention illustrations, murals, masks, furniture, furnishings and carpets. A true “world of Salmistraro”.
What is your relationship with illustration? In reality I begin with illustrations because I like to draw, I went to artistic high school, so in a way I started as an artist, not a designer. Also, at the time, when I was still living with my parents and the time came to enrol at university, I wanted to attend the Brera Arts Academy... and my parents said no, I should at least get a degree! So I enrolled at the Politecnico, first in Fashion Design and then Product Design. I have to say it was very useful, because it provided me with that aspect of rigour that I lacked, and the techniques that I learned there allowed me to bring my drawings to life, transforming them into 3D.
What is your relationship with objects? In reality, all of my ideas come from my drawings, they are all fantasies of mine which then become objects. Last year I created the Polifemo cabinet, with a central eye which opened. It is a representation of my imagination transformed into an object. This is the way I want to go. I want to have fun and do something that I like! I also tried to do minimalist design, really applying myself and trying to convince myself that true design was this, that it was functional, but then I cast aside that idea and I am now so much better for it... despite the fact that I always try to take function as my starting point. When, last year, I won the International Furniture Fair award, I first of all couldn’t believe that I had won an award, but above all it was hard to believe that someone liked my work. It was a shock for me!
How did your career as a designer begin? It started straight away. I worked in two design studios, trying to gain experience, but I realised that it wasn’t the right way for me, and so I set up on my own and began to produce alone. I wrote to the first companies, who ignored me completely, and I thought, what do I do now? I thought about the cheapest material, which is ceramic, and I enrolled at Cova, a ceramics school here in Milan, following an evening course in handbuilding, then with the wheel, and then I learned how to make plaster moulds, and I gradually started to make my first self-produced works, which I sold, but this changed my work, because I had also become an entrepreneur, I needed to promote, to get in touch with shops. Then I stopped, I wrote to the companies, and they finally opened up to me, and so I no longer produce for myself.
Tell me about your world... My world is a little detached from reality, it is a place for me, where I take refuge and I can be safe, and so when I am a little stressed, I go there, and I draw. It is a world populated with strange characters, there are large-beaked birds, there is a monocled notary, a fantasy world where I can let myself go, playing with my imagination and with shapes.
What is your relationship with Milan? I am very closely bound to my city. There was a time when I wanted to get away from here, but since I opened my studio and things started to go my way, from a professional point of view, I am very much devoted, I like it here and there is a real buzz now, there are lots of initiatives, and in any case it is, as always, the capital of design. A lot of famous architects come here, there must be a good reason why. So for now, I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying right here. I am very much tied to Milan. My grandparents were from Milan, my parents are from Milan, we have been Milanese for generations, as very few are. My husband, however, is Sicilian...
What does it mean to be an ambassador for the Brera Design District? There are events which I have to attend, and they had me make the Timberland installation, where I was able to really show my design and my feminine touch. The theme this year is empathy, and in fact I have an empathic way of designing, I am really a very empathic person! When I draw, I am moved, at times I cry, and it is all a big mess, and what I am most interested in is expressing the emotions I have experienced to others.
I want my objects to pass from home to home, to absorb all the energy, and speak about what has happened and about the feelings of others. My final objective is to move others.
I like the idea that my object could become the object of someone’s desire, that someone wants to have it, they want it in their home. It might seem foolish, but it’s not.
You are a little Shamanic... Yes, I feel a little like this. Once I was in La Rinascente [a department store in Milan] and there were some lamps that I had designed for Seletti, and there was a lady who was telling her daughter how beautiful they were and how she wanted to have one. I was standing nearby, and I really wanted to tell her that I had designed them! It was really moving! Thinking that they wanted something that I had made. This makes me feel good, and I like the idea of making others feel good too. Knowing that this woman would have gone home, proud of her lamp, made me believe that in the end she would have felt good too.
Can you give us three tips for surviving Salone?
Get away from the world of design by having an aperitif at Ugo, on the Navigli, listen to High and Dry by Radiohead, and take a packed lunch from home to avoid the queue at the bar.