Interview: Talking About 2019. At the roots of Luxury: when numbers become experience
Host: Nicoletta Polla-Mattiot, Editor In Chief of How to Spend It and “IL”, publications from the editorial group Il Sole 24 Ore. Guests: Stefano Zecchi, philosopher and writer, Marco Turinetto, professor and university researcher
Nicoletta Polla-Mattiot: Here at Rimadesio and in collaboration with How to Spend it, Sole 24 Ore, we are talking about luxury, its roots and how the numbers have become experience, how perhaps luxury is, nowadays, not only part of our imagination but part of our everyday and how it shows up on different levels in everybody’s lives.
Throughout history the word luxury has had a number of different meanings, it is most certainly easier to contextualize through data. Worldwide, in terms of consumption, in 2018, there were 425 million consumers of high-end products totalling an expenditure of 920 billion euro. In the next 5-6 years there will be a steady, estimated growth of 4-5%. Beyond the single product sectors there are two types of luxury separated by a clear lead in growth: the so-called experiential luxury has undergone a much more significant growth than personal luxury.
We could therefore say that the product is Storytelling, that Luxury is experience and history is the story of something that is not attributable to the single object.
NPM: Let me give you, Professor Zecchi, the most difficult task: Can you give us a concise definition of luxury?
Stefano Zecchi: The word luxury has a double root, one being Lux and the other Luxuria. Lux, as you may well know, means light – so intelligence that enlightens what happens and what surrounds us.
Luxuria is that self indulgent erotic sensation which is not always controllable.
NPM: I would say that that we have just contextualized the term. But you know, if we are talking about luxury as a concept, it is not a concept that stands still, it evolves and is subject to change. Would I be right in saying that it has undergone several changes over time?
SZ: A number of important anthropologists, such as Marcel Mauss and Levi Strauss, studied the case of some tribes who mysteriously disappeared- not due to an epidemic or any war- they simply disappeared… They looked into the reasons behind this phenomenon and discovered the concept of gift exchanging- the tribe leader, in order to show how important he was, made a gift to the other tribal leaders, who, upon receiving it, wanted to show in turn that they were in no way inferior. In this way, this exchanging of gifts, with the objective to “up the stakes” if you were, was created, whereby the most luxurious gifts were a symbol of more importance and power. This led to a sort of economic breakdown of one of the two tribes, which in turn led to its disappearance or to being absorbed/acquired by the other.
Staying with the idea of giving the word a quick, concise definition, luxury is the unequalled testimony of invaluable beauty, this invaluable beauty is called Luz. Luz is something intelligent which allows us to interpret a sense of being. Luxury ends up engaging and captivating our lives both emotionally and sensually.
NPM: This aspect of exchanging gifts is interesting to take up because actually luxury often connects an idea not necessarily tied in with gifts but with goods, purchases, investments and so on. So perhaps what arises here is the idea that luxury can be considered just that when there is an added value. Since its beginnings in Italy, in “How to Spend It”, I have often enjoyed interviewing people who are not especially connected to the world of design. I often ask them what luxury means to them and the most recurrent answers are connected to time: time to do things, to enjoy things, to read, to buy. This idea of “more” can be found also in everyday expressions “I took the luxury of … for example. At the same time we encounter another easy word-pairing “luxury-superfluous” and so I now ask Marco Turinetto, who hypothesizes a concept of necessary luxury, for his ideas on the matter.
Marco Turinetto: I start off with the idea of time because, I have to say that maybe it is the only thing you cannot buy, you need to spend it well and here I touch on the idea of culture. Let’s say that those who know how to spend well are often more educated, they know what to buy and know what value to give to things, I mean, those same values we mentioned before. Giving value to the superfluous that perhaps become necessary and that we perhaps have as an objective in our everyday lives.
I have always been fond of cars and when I was a young boy I remember there were cars called GT, Gran Lusso so there was already the idea of luxury at that time, trying to give something more, which can be a product or a service, if possible well-made. I teach design and aesthetics at the Polytechnic of Milan and that is why when speaking about high-end products, I often use this word with reference to research and consequently investments in research. After all we are here at Rimadesio which is an example of a company where research is carried out and the consumer is given, together with the final product, a background and track record connected to the company’s approach to well made design.
NPM: Luxury can also repel, it can create detachment. If there is a difficulty to be found in relating it, and I am speaking about a difficulty we encounter on a daily basis, it is the difficulty to make it wecoming, comfortable, something not distant and cold. Marco, before you spoke about design, can all this be designed? And how?
MT: At the heart of everything, there is always a tangible, concrete project and the result can be, as in the case under consideration, an object or a service. Let me give you a general example which helps me outline what I mean: we have always sold houses by the square meter, then we moved on to sell them by the unit. The square meters take second place if the house has a stunning view. With the view I am selling an immaterial space outside the space that the buyer is interested in buying.
So if we think that space has 3 dimensions, a height and volumes, could we sell our homes in cubic meters in the future? New points of view and perspectives in design portray an experience. This experience, which is ever more present when we talk about design and high-end products has a scale of appreciation as it were, and the scale of appreciation increases with the education and level of culture of the user.
NPM: We are going in the direction of immaterial, we are rediscovering the idea of an experience, the value of time dedicated to doing something, creating something, working it with your hands, experimenting with your hands, with your senses, with your eyes. And so I ask you professor Zecchi how much substance can be found in luxury?
SZ: Let’s take a step back, because if we want an answer we must understand that luxury, however you want to define it, historically, materially or immaterially speaking has always gone hand in hand with beauty. Anything that reflects luxury can only be beautiful and this is, in my opinion, the first principle to reflect on. The second is this: Do we know what beauty is? Because if we do not know what beauty is consequently we are not able to fathom the culture behind luxury. Even the most educated and cultured could answer the question “what is beauty?” with “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. What exactly is it that puts you in the condition of understanding what luxury is? Aesthetic education. What is aesthetic education? it is just as complex as the understanding of luxury is, be it material or immaterial, because material is the understanding of a beautiful object and immaterial is the understanding of an experience. Aesthetic education leads you to understand what beauty is and enables you to refine your taste. Beauty is not our subjective vision of something beautiful, there are conditions for understanding what beauty is and therefore for understanding what luxury is.
Luxury is not merely something expensive, it comes undoubtedly at a cost but it is not necessarily the case that something expensive is considered luxury. So how can you distinguish between the two? Through the same culture that allows us to understand what aesthetic education is, something which is often culturally unacceptable because aesthetic education teaches us to make differences and the differences are situations that our culture tends to put on the same level. Beauty is always a decisive iteration of difference, what I see and feel through communication.
NPM: I would say something more obvious than what Professor Zecchi is saying and that perhaps in Italy we are somewhat advantaged with regard to aesthetic education because we grow up surrounded by so much beauty. It is no coincidence then that when we talk about Made in Italy we are talking about a brand. today, more than ever before, we need to be educated on beauty but is being Italian simply a question of pride or does it mean having a natural talent in the field of design?
It is enough to be able to understand the differences and this can come about thanks to a culture that allows for an understanding of aesthetic education. Our modern society has always seen a negative side to beauty. Beauty is seen as being against innovation and modernity. If I talk about great minds like Picasso or Kandinsky for example or I take a dodecaphonic composition by Arnold Schoenberg, I cannot say they are beautiful masterpieces. An abstract piece by Kandinsky cannot be said to be beautiful. In modernity the idea of beauty slips away from opinions and judgements, which in the afore-mentioned cases is the experimentalism of form. Art in modern times believes this judgement on beauty to be superfluous. We should remember that for at least 4000 years, the education of man, and not only in the western world, was an aesthetic one: it was the beauty of art that narrated the sense of the world. Cities like Venice, Athens or Paris tell stories of beauty. Without beauty there is nothing to be told.
So why did brilliant minds like Picasso, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Joyce end up understanding that beauty is no longer the true witness of their work? Because in their time knowledge was scientific and scientific knowledge displaces the sense of truth, which, even if always metaphysical, is not controllable, is not measured in worth or value, which are on the other hand measurable and quantifiable. And that is why we have great difficulty in understanding what beauty is. It is decisive to know beauty in order to understand luxury. Because, I would like to highlight again, otherwise luxury would become merely a moneyed purchase. This goes some way in explaining the demeaning of luxury.
NPM: The point of view of the philospher has changed. What Professor Zecchi said is that the current modern society is the one which struggles the most to understand the sense of beauty and is rather paradoxical considering that at this point in time we are forever putting Like on social media. Saying “Like” or “Dislike” is one of the things we do most during the day. Going back however to Made In Italy, Marco Turinetto, I know you make a distinction on the subject, and is perhaps in someway connected to what we are saying. In your opinion how relevant is it to only speak about Made In Italy?
MT: In one of my books I wrote “From Italy”, which I thought was more correct, perhaps not so in Italian because it means everything that goes from Italy to the rest of the world.
We Italians have aesthetic taste, culture and know -how which goes from forging the materials (and so the product) through to creating and adopting real systems. We can always find at least one Italian in all product sectors and in every company where design, aesthetics and taste for beauty are key. From Italy allows us then to have a great deal of production in Italy for world renowned brands.
Today luxury is mainly the result of partnerships which allow companies to exchange know-how, technological innovation and design. From Italy reflects the idea that foreign companies are well aware of the added value to be gained by working with Italian companies. Creating a system aims to create cutting edge products in their material and immaterial parts. The issue of training becomes an extremely important one: spreading expertise, design know-how, producing outstandingly high quality goods at a high level.
NPM: So far we have talked about luxury from the point of view of consumers. Marco, you made an interesting point that seems worth going back to. In addition yo the idea of aesthetic education, which we have already touched on, there is also the idea of enhancing and valorising crafts (a typical Italian quality) We don’t only need writers, poets or top managers, there is a production process, a chain that must be preseved, and manual labour and artisans are characteristic of the Italian way, that still has, in some segments- Marco you spoke about districts-the fashion and design areas for example, all the production stages in Italy. This is extremely specific and a typical Italian trademark, allowing us to produce excellence and iconic pieces, an idea you both mention in your books, to quote one: Ferrari. A true Italian icon. We have said then, we have a great choice but there are brands that develop such a strong and instantly recognizable identity that they absorb what belongs to other worlds as their own. Besides design then, is there brand design?
MT: Speaking about companies in Italy and B2B perhaps the only limit we have is an economic one. Every company needs an investor.
The risk is to remain at a stand-still, making limited progress for lack of funds, something that could be solved by selling to a third party or parties. I realize that this is a much debated topic but if intelligence in design remains the same, adding the opportunity of injecting capital- which allows for more research and consequently produce more advanced, state of the art products, well, perhaps it wouldn’t be so wrong. What belongs to the brand remains iconic in Italy and abroad.
NPM: Italy is undisputedly the world leader in luxury, considering the number of companies, but their small dimension can be a problem in terms of exports in this highly competitive global market.
MT: We undoubtedly have a great number of world renowned companies, above all in design, which even if they are small, are iconic, they have stunning show rooms and investors choose them for their own residences.
This idea of “everything is here” that is generated when we discover the company’s real dimensions is a true indication of our outstanding skills and the ability to be international.
NPM: I started off with data, touching then on history, poetry and then again on production mechanisms. I would like to explore one last side to luxury that we have not yet considered. the difference between quality and quantity. Perhaps in order to understand the purchase of quality we need to consider its duration, one that requires a substantial investment but which in ecological terms also ends up in a stockpile. I would then ask both of you if this distinction in terms of quality and quantity ties in somehow to what we have said so far.
SZ: Quality is metaphysical, fundamentally cultural. I have to learn how to understand the quality of something. Quantity, on the other hand is apparently a complex scientific problem but in some cases it really is basic: I know how to count to 1 million, 1 million is the amount of money I have- therefore I would say the distinction is decisive. Everything that concerns beauty, luxury, luxury as an invaluable form of beauty represents quality. Then of course, beautiful things that are luxurious come at a cost, but the cost itself for something so luxuriously beautiful has a different meaning to the actual amount of money I can invest.
MT: I would add another word to quantity and quality and that is duration, which is a huge issue today thanks to or because of technology. How many products included in the luxury sector today are technological and have an extraordinarily reduced obsolesence? We buy something that has a value, a value that has been proposed to us and that we accept but within a short time that product will no longer have any value. Duration can also be connected to economic value. Once a high-end product was a sign of quality and duration. Today this is no longer necessarily the case, at least for certain products. technology itself has changed the significance of duartion, providing us an idea of luxury actually based on the idea of short term or non-duration.
NPM: We have talked about quality, quantity and duration. I would like to add another word I am particularly fond of to the key root words of luxury: hands. There is a phrase I love and often quote by a psychoanalyst which goes: ” You can dream with your hands”. Dealing as we are with luxury, not merely focussing on the final product, the possibility that each one of us has to dream with our hands nicely sums up a number of the different concepts expressed here today.
Guida l’edizione italiana di How to Spend it, il magazine nato dalla partnership con Financial Times, e la nuova struttura dei periodici del segmento lusso e lifestyle del Sole24Ore a cui fanno capo anche IL e 24Hours. Docente del Master di Interior Design e di Design Management della Business School del Gruppo24Ore.
Docente e ricercatore presso il Politecnico di Milano con cattedra in Strategie e Sviluppo del Brand e visiting professor alla Tongij University di Shanghai dove tiene workshop su Italian Style. Sempre al Politecnico di Milano è direttore del corso di alta specializzazione Licensing per i Beni di Lusso, polo di formazione sul licensing alto di gamma, unico nel suo genere. E’ docente del Master Lusso della Business School del Sole24Ore. Idea e coordina EXTRA (Value as Attitude), centro ricerca in cui vengono studiate e sviluppate nuove strategie di marketing-design per valorizzare, posizionare e riposizionare brand nel segmento alto di gamma. E’ direttore del master internazionale “Brand & Product Management” presso MFI, consorzio inter universitario fondato da Università Bocconi, Università Cattolica, Politecnico di Milano. E’ autore di numerose pubblicazioni fra cui: Dizionario del design (1993); Automobile. Glossario dello stile (2001); Moda e Design: nuove trasversalità progettuali (2002); Lusso Necessario. Trasformare prodotti e servizi in alto di gamma (2008); Nuove Tradizioni: metodologia, stile, coerenza (2008); From Italy: l’unicità del saper pensare e fare italiano, (2012).
Scrittore, professore ordinario di Estetica presso l’Università degli Studi di Milano. Ha ricoperto molti importanti incarichi, tra i quali: Presidente del corso di laurea in Filosofia dell’Università degli Studi di Milano, consigliere d’amministrazione del Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Presidente dell’Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera sempre a Milano, membro del consiglio dell’Irer (Istituto per la programmazione scientifica e culturale della Regione Lombardia), rappresentante del Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione presso l’UNESCO per la tutele dei Beni immateriali, consigliere comunale a Venezia e assessore alla cultura a Milano, consigliere d’amministrazione del MAXXI (Museo dell’arte del XXI secolo), consigliere d’amministrazione della Fondazione La Verdi di Milano, consigliere d’amministrazione del teatro Parenti di Milano. Tra le sue numerosissime pubblicazioni, ricordiamo: Sillabario del nuovo millennio (1993), Il brutto e il bello (1995), L’artista armato (1998), Capire l’arte (1999), L’uomo è ciò che guarda. Televisione e popolo (2005), Le promesse della bellezza (2006); Lusso (2015).