Russell Taylor

Russell Taylor,
Director ItaliaDesign Field School

Senior Lecturer in Design,
School of Interactive Arts + Technology,
Simon Fraser University

More Info

PROFILE: 2009, Gruppo Sei

Russell Taylor
I try to never take things for granted.
What we have been able to do in six consecutive years of this study is stunning.

For myself, as Director of this program, having been there (Italy) for all six years with all six groups and 102 students over that time, the place and its rhythms  have burrowed deep into my soul. I am so grateful for this. I am so grateful each summer to spend rich time with twelve exceptional learners that I respect so much. Our undergraduate students at SIAT are so passionate about design, and the level of intelligence, good will, commitment and creativity as a mix is intoxicating as an experience – one that I am so honored to be a part of and to contribute to.
Over time the logistics of moving people around the country have become more manageable and the mistakes and mis-steps fewer. I have gotten better at recognizing the kinds of students who thrive in this scenario as well – which is creating more successful teams who are seamlessly moving through this incredibly complex scenario more fluidly. The work we are doing I am very proud of and through this work we have become experts in this unique field we have carved out. We have developed an unbelievable network of friends and colleagues who treat the students as family, and I am so astounded by and grateful for that. From Andrea, Marino + Cristiano at Dolciano, Ingrid + Giovanni in Firenze, Carlotta and Michele in Milan, Massimiliano and Micaela in Rome, Lia at, Massimo in Milan, Alessandro in Pitigliano, Daniela, Gionata and Giulio in Montepulciano, Paolo in Cortona. When these friends meet a new team, they share everything they have anew, make them feel welcome, and cared for. And in this way we can scaffold the opportunity for students to find deep roots to build their own experience from, and then their own way, and to come away with a rich sense of a country that I can say without hesitation will resonate in their hearts and souls for the rest of their lives. As it has in mine.
Learning should be like this. But it takes tremendous resource. So, we are grateful, to SIAT, and our Director John Bowes in particular, to SFU, to our and to our families for supporting this kind of learning. Our families sacrificed for us to pursue our dreams and to make something of ourselves. We hope to repay that debt. Ideas change the world. Ideas mixed with experience, change people.
So, what is it like studying in-field in ItaliaDesign?
What makes it so unique? What do we do? Why should we all spend so much resource to go do this, to go so far? If you have these questions, this is what I will write about this year (below). I will not attempt to be brief, so read on knowing that it is a story that has to play out – as is ItaliaDesign each year. Our lives are stories. Indeed, it is hard to report it back any other way. I hope I tell it well.

+teaching space: learning space + design space
In the days that we spend together as a group – walking, tasting, listening, working, walking, touring, talking, thinking, walking – I now have it at the point where virtually every day the students are being exposed to something mind-blowing. Often it is two, three, five or more experiences that when put together make some of the best days of our lives. I try to plan the days and the interior experiences to build, like music. There is in “experiential learning” modalities that affect every sense, and thus the triggers for memory and the making of meaning are so much deeper. An early Christian church, a cool slope of grass, a view over the river, a crypt far below the street, a plate of spaghetti vongole, a glass of cold Frascati, a mosaic-tiled apse, a look, a gesture, a breeze, pistachio gelato, un caffe doppio, silence, laughter, kindness, brusqueness, cold water on your feet, a bel vedere, the cool of night. And so it builds.
Just being in one of these places is good, very good. But doing it with the purpose we have, the preparedness we take in, the inquisitiveness and curiosity we demand of each team, molds these moments as they build on one another into moments of deep understanding and the reflection of life, the world, and ourselves. I’d like to talk a little of how these days occur to the student; doing this program, in my reflection of this past year – with one of the best groups I have ever taken over. An astoundingly stacked team – twelve people with kindness and empathy and intuitiveness and personal intelligences. The seven weeks ultimately are one long class that once it is over a sense of accomplishment and new level of understanding have been reached by all and shared deeply. I like these long non-linear stories. Maybe it’s the Fellini in me. Maybe it’s the first book my mother ever bought for me, by A.A. Milne. I just think that we should strive for that level of art in life, and not be satisfied with convenient conclusions in our storytelling. As in my teaching, this may be a story that winds about a bit, but ultimately, in the winding about we come around a corner eventually and there before us is a moment in which we can see it come together. Maybe only briefly, but we know it. Feel it. Space, I always tell my students, is something you feel. And surely ItaliaDesign more than any other thing is a space: a teaching space. A learning space that you don’t just think or know, or recall.
During ItaliaDesign we spend long days together. It is not a two hour class twice a week. It is usually – meet to start the day at “astounding place x” (perhaps the Circus Maximus or Piazza del Popolo or Beccaria) at 8am and don’t be late. We walk and walk and stop at a few more astounding places. We eat lunch together at an astounding trattoria and rest in the cool air, we reflect, laugh, have a glass of Frascati. Eat astounding food. I spend considerable time in Italy, so being a foodie, I seek out the best Carbonara, the best Vongole, the best Pistacchio gelato, the best bistecca fiorentina, etc. I share this with the groups so they learn to seek these places out themselves and skip past the more mediocre offerings. They have kitchens in all the places they stay, so they then try these dishes out back at their places at night, over a glass of Sangiovese, and some laughs. After lunch, we walk some more, see more astounding stuff. Students have studied most of this back at home (in the full IAT 391 course we all do in the term before departure), so we have “content experts” who speak to the group about what to look for before we enter a site. We enter, say, a Roman church that has been layered over with the passing of time and find the original Roman bits, the Early Christian bits and in one day we see parts of enough to reconstruct in our minds a full Early Christian church -it’s rarely all whole. Why? To see it all come together in our minds. To see the innovation of forms and processes. Yes, they innovated and had technology in 350 AD. To marvel at the craftsmanship. The students observe the use of things like light: the basis of all space. We linger, we sit in awe some times, we sit in silence or we quietly talk in small groups where appropriate. Then back out into the Italian sun, that light, as it changes through the day, we all walk away as off being carried by some force not ourselves. We avoid afternoons. The light is bad. We avoid tourists and tourism. The vibe is bad. And then often we are back at it, going until 5, 6, 7, 8. We disperse, do our laundry, go out to a great place for food or make it ourselves. We do this for maybe 5-6 days in a row. Then we reflect and work on projects that capture what we have been seeing and experiencing. As we progress through the seven weeks we space things out more, get out earlier to avoid the heat, break off earlier and enjoy long siestas. We spend less time looking at things and more time seeing beyond surfaces. Reflecting. Stopping. Noticing. Being in the place. Being in the moment that is occurring.

+ a room without a view: aesthetic experiences
So, in other words, not merely “viewing” in the way that most people experience Italy – often just in terms of a great buildings or works of art. Which often really is just another form of “consumption”. Aesthetic experience can be very intense and it is an important part of what we do there. But, it’s not the whole reason why we go to Italy on this study and it would miss what Italy truly has to teach us.
So let’s discuss that aspect of our work in Italy first.
We study the great works that will be in the places we visit in a full seventeen weeks of coursework prior to flying to Italy. In my first two degrees I spent a lot of time learning art and architectural history and my knowledge of these areas and what we can visit while in Italy has expanded vastly since then. So I know what to look for and make sure we all know why it matters before we arrive. Italy has been continuously urbanized for thousands of years, so there is a lot to see, to choose from, and we can go find the things that are not what most people are going to see, thereby increasing our odds of having “genuine” experiences. I feel for tourists sometimes – when they arrive and don’t know what they are looking at. Getting shuttled from the Colosseum to the Sistine Chapel and out. And experiencing a city like Rome from above in an open double-decker tour bus. Maybe they’re afraid of the clutter and chaos down there. But as anyone who spends time in Rome will tell you, this is where the life of the city really is and walking between them is one of the great joys. It gives you time to digest what you just saw.
And after awhile the tourist leaves Italy once they get tired of looking at old stuff. The same old stuff that yesterday’s busloads also saw. But there is so much more there. I have seen things, felt them  – experiences through aesthetics that have profoundly altered my view of what we should and can produce as designers and creatives in this world –and as people, citizens. But these are not what the tourist sees. They take too much work. There are “fast” aesthetic and “slow” aesthetic encounters. The fast is the intellectual equivalent of a Big Mac. The slow is a memorable five course meal made by “mamma”. The Colosseum has become a “Big Mac” experience, for the most part.
Students will become better and more sensitive in their own practices by having these opportunities to have their own experiences with such work. Often it is the works they studied back home that they most eagerly anticipate and that can have the greatest effect. And this was why originally I wanted to teach this material this way. I always thought it has less impact to arrive and then speak of the work. When students have seen the work in pictures and studied it, the reality of it will almost always transcend the simulacra (unless you go looking for iconic imagery such as “the Mona Lisa”, the “Leaning Tower”, “the Trevi Fountain” which have all lost their power to transcend through tourist degradation and over-exposure). You simply cannot imagine the golden shimmer of Cavallini’s angel’s wings or the Campidoglio at night. But with something so cerebral as the latter, the knowing allows our minds to articulate that feeling that it is special. With the former, you have to dig much deeper to even know where to find them.
This year, standing in front of Ghirlandaio’s “Adoration of the Magi” in the splendidly small Museo degli Innocenti, I got those kinds of chills that art can create in us. I had never seen it before. Ghirlandaio’s color, and his ability to weave expression and gravitas is unmatched. I stood in the room alone for over an hour. Not a tourist to be seen. While they elbowed each other like hive ants two blocks away at the Accademia to crane up at David. Why do people go visit the things that everyone else is going to see? Why is a Michelangelo “better” than a Ghirlandaio? Why is one as famous and iconic as Michael Jackson and the other unknown? I don’t know. But I am glad to have the Adoration to myself on this afternoon, while the afternoon sun bakes outside and I repose in a cool loggia. I’m not an artist, but I know that art can move us. Maybe its mostly aesthetics, but there is the latent and the manifest in all things.
I know that each student had their moments like this one I recount to get across how personal such moments are, and the moment was deeply personal. Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul” had this affect on one, I know. I saw it. I saw her face. At the other side of the small chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo church where this painting still resides, is the companion, “Crucifixion of St. Peter”. Not six feet away at the same time, I saw one of our other students in a deep spiritual moment looking into this amazing canvas. Both students were standing mere feet apart, looking at two different paintings, tears in their eyes, for different reasons. But the aesthetic result was undeniable. And the personal attachment deeper than it is possible to describe. I was lucky to have a great art history master who I blame entirely for causing me to love this stuff in the first place. I took her second year survey course and when she spoke of things like the sensuality of Donatello, I never saw the world the same way again. Her name was Josephine Jungic and any student who ever had the pleasure of sitting in one of her classes would say the same thing. She made me want to learn. She brought out the intelligence and curiosity in me. She said that when we would finally get to Rome and Florence and see these works in person it would be “like finding an old friend”. And that is exactly what it is like. And sometimes those old friends become our new masters, our maestros. They provide the paradigm of possibility. Each student on ItaliaDesign will come home with their own new maestros, but all will find them.

+ new maestros: studies in innovation
For example, others really took on the challenge of discovering the great Baroque architect Borromini in Roma. Massimiliano Fuksas had spoken to me about Borromini three years ago in reference to his own work of today. It sparked for me a renewed interest in Borromini. What I found was a true master of innovation, a true architect of space, and buildings he left behind that resonate with intelligence and rigour. You can unravel his mind. My kind of guy.
Many coming to Roma know nothing of Borromini, but most know something of the work of the sculptor Bernini –the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the Triton Fountain, the Piazza San Pietro, how could you not come upon his work in the city. The two -Borromini and Bernini -were bitter rivals in their time. Why? The two of them were redefining their practices and their disciplines at the same moment in history. Or they most capably represented the ideas of their time in different media. We as a group went up to the Villa Borghese this year to see the great Bernini sculptures commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. My goodness – Apollo and Daphne. Perfection. You simply haven’t seen a sculpture until you’ve seen Apollo and Daphne. Gasp.
One of our weird missions this year was to take a side: Bernini or Borromini. This is actually very tough. Bernini enjoyed favor and lived longer –so he made more and he matured and tried new things. His work spanned sculpture, architecture and urban design. But he was a sculptor at his core. His papal sponsors wanted him to fit the mold of the “renaissance man”, such as the multi-disciplinary Michelangelo. Ultimately he left significant works in all of these areas. But he was not a pure architect: he just didn’t get space – as an architect his work was theatrical and impressive but, lacked subtlety and, well, “feel”. As a sculptor- wow. Outside of Michelangelo: no contest. Borromini on the other hand worked almost exclusively in architecture and engineering. His life was short and every work was a progression of a few thoughts. The great Brunelleschi also was like this. The designers I admire the most in Italy who are producing now  -Alberto Meda, Carlotta de Bevilacqua, Paolo Rizzatto, all work this way. Borromini’s greatest work is the size of a downtown loft. San Carlo Borromeo is so different, even if the tourist found it they wouldn’t know what to make of it. It is at first glance immensely un-dramatic. But the students arrived prepared to engage this great debate. They have read a book that covers in great detail the work of both men and how their lives overlap, and they all have it in hand so they can work through every detail. And when we arrive at San Carlino after ascending the Quirinale Hill from the Trevi side, it is raining and grey. Really raining. So, however geeky, we arrive and seek shelter in the little chapel at the Quattro Fontane corner, and all pull out their books and piece by piece they go through the building, detail, by detail assembling the whole and understanding by way of profound gestalts the genius of the place. Another thing I always say to my students is that “space either makes more space, or it eats space”. If there was ever a place in the world to come and study this phenomenon, San Carlino is perhaps it. The genius of Borromini is how move by move, part by part, part to whole, he assembles a space that is ten times its size. Some will be more moved by this than others. But I want all to see how the reward of assembling it logically in the space reveals the mind of the designer, his process and his motivations, his philosophy and his “box of values” as Carlotta da Bevilacqua says. Designers, the good ones, don’t go from project to project responding merely to the commission and the client and what is in front of them at a given time in their career. They develop deep interests in particular themes and lines of thinking they will work out through every commission and project. This is a profound lesson for a young designer. So, you see, we weren’t just looking at stuff.
For some of the group, this clicked, for others it was another part of the day. Some had already sided with Bernini – who could blame them. But for the student for whom Borromini becomes a new maestro the next step is profound: the personal finding of the development of this “box of values” in other works around the city. What are they looking for? Maybe they don’t know. But I know they knew they’d found it when the space spoke to them in their further walks and forays into the commissions the artist or designer left behind. And then the next amazing thing about the ItaliaDesign field school opportunity kicks in: time in each place that we stay in to let things sink in and to return and to further the study personally. Or just to soak it in. I recall a student in 2008 who returned to the San Salvi church to draw the Ghirlandaio Last Supper every day for a week, alone. Just he and his master. The drawing was not the point or the outcome.

+ sinking in
Together as a team we went to see Borromini’s San Carlino church and cloister, St. Ivo alla Sapienza, and his work at San Giovanni Laterano. But these were warm ups for personal voyages by a few to find Borromini’s tomb in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini and in the same church, his last work hidden beneath the high altar, a small crypt, in his signature white on white. I had visited and told a student who I could tell was taking on Borromini that she must see the staircase he did at the Barberini Palace and San Giovanni Fiorentini. They are as contrasting as is possible. The Barberini staircase is masterful, turning stone into caramel. A unified vertical thrust that changes forever what we think “stair” is. The crypt is smallish and dullish. It is however, also, typical Borromini. You walk in and wonder if that’s all there is. But by now she would have known to spend time in the place, and let it reveal itself. You find it by asking the church care-taker, a wonderfully friendly African man. That, yes, you may enter the Crypt on your own without charge and that you enter, over there, yes, by walking onto the raised floor of the high altar of the church and then behind the host where you find a small light-switch and plunging stone staircase that leads down into the crypt directly under the high altar down a winding, dark, damp stair. Pure heaven! Of course we are somewhat used to this by now as so much of modern Rome is actually beneath street level. But this is special: Borromini was here! But aside from you and the caretaker no one is visiting this gem today. A mile away at St. Peter’s, tens of thousands jostle and take endless photos of everything and anything. Will this “capture” their experience? I’m not sure why they do this. But for the two students who went to see the Barberini stair on their day off, and then to find Borromini at San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, something unique and personal is seared into their hearts. Borromini has spoken to them.
These moments and experiences will resonate with the ItaliaDesign students for their entire lives. I have come to know the Italian towns and cities we go back to each year so well, so that as I find a great place that is suited to a certain student I will prod them to go find it or take them all myself  – as many as we can fit in. And so, in this way, day after day the experiences layer and layer – ultimately changing us all, forever. And we all run home and talk about it non-stop at the end of the each day back at our apartments in Rome, Dolciano, Florence and Milan. And yet, for some reason it’s hard to tell people outside the group because it is virtually impossible to tell the story and make it meaningful. It’s personal. It’s a story that you can’t tell.
OK, so that’s the aesthetic part of what we do (and how we do it differently). But there is so much more.

+ italianita: being Italian, learning to live well
I teach all of the classes on the Field School myself and so taking them to all of these places is, for me, the best way for them to understand (we can’t possibly see it all, and that’s not the point anyway, and students then strike out on their own to complete their own pictures). But the effect noted above, and that building and layering is necessary because the ultimate learning goal is for them to understand what is latent and not just manifest in contemporary Italian Design. Context is key.
And it is the context that we are truly studying in the aesthetic experiences. This context is crucial for them to gain an understanding of Italian people, and it is Italian people who make these things still today. Italian families own the companies.  And it is “Italianita”, the “being Italian” which is ultimately what attracts people from around the world to Italy in the first place.
What we really learn from Italy, what people have been coming here to learn for centuries: how to live. And how to live well. They don’t come to see art at all for the most part. They just don’t know that. But if the tourist gets away from all of the art, this second Italy is what they come home with. The Italy of “being Italian”.
And there is then another kind of understanding of “Italianita” here as well. It is true that by the end of each day, we’ve done at least one thing during which all the stars align and the perfection of the moment is just hanging in the air. And any of the students who have done the ItaliaDesign Field School with me over these six years will know exactly what I mean by those moments. Usually silence is involved, light, people, place, and often…food. Sometimes the impact is breathtaking, but sometimes the day or the time is wrong. Often, the light is wrong, the place is closed without warning, and we move on to the next without any hint of disappointment because we learn that in this magical place, somehow it always leads, after a winding path to something that will knock us all over. Again. We learn to trust this. Not force it. Again. Learning to manage this takes time and patience. It is a ‘learning” all its own in fact. So; for those who think that what I am describing is endless days in the sun without disappoint and efficiency, well, you haven’t been or spent much time in Italy! Italy CAN come to you. But more often than not, you have to EARN it. Once you figure this out. You learn to let it come.
You learn patience from Italy. In one of the most impatient lands. Italianita.
For example, let me suggest a typical day.
If you wish to SEE this day, it is included in our Roma slideshow set to a song by Bloc Party called, “Here We Are” on this website.
This year we planned a day trip from Roma to see one of the amazing pre-Roman era Etruscan tomb complexes, the Necropolis (city of the dead) at Cerveteri, 4000 years ago a thriving city and urban civilization. Over the years I’ve taken the groups to Tarquinia and to Cerveteri and to the Etruscan tombs surrounding Chiusi. This year we went up from Roma 60 kilometers or so to Cerveteri to see the Etruscan cumulus tombs first.
But it was rushed. It was cool, but it didn’t hit like it had in the past. Maybe it was just the light. It was good, but not transcendent. Then in the past we have gone on to Tarquinia to the painted tombs. This place always knocked people over. But we had a plan to spend some time in Pitigliano and eat lunch at a fantastic trattoria I have taken groups to many times before: because the food is amazing and the host is so committed to food, to growing, to quality. The place is called “Il Ceccottino” ( ), and the host is a man named Alessandro. He is a supreme host of his place. This is the great tradition of the Italian Trattoria, to eat in the manner that it is as if eating in the dining room of a family. I wanted Ceccotino to be the feature of the day. After this the plan was to go on to the mineral-sulfur baths at nearby Saturnia. This is a place that the students have always loved. You just have to know about the place and be able to find it. There is literally a crashing waterfall of warm mineral water flowing out of a river and then cascading down into successive pools in which parties of 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 people lie and soak in the open air. It’s free, no charge to swim (see the video!). Then the small pools become another cliff, and more water falls, that stand over a river into which all of this warm water flows. People swim here as well, more freely. Everyone goes home stinking of eggs, but the place is like nowhere on earth I have ever been. This year, I had planned to get there later in the afternoon after the sun cools a bit as usually we arrive earlier and between the sun and the 95 degree water, it can get pretty hot. A perfect plan borne out by experience.
Saturnia: this is Italy. The Italy beyond the tourism and the single-minded fixation with cities and art. This Italy is the part I really like to share with the groups. They are seeing things and experiencing things that it is almost certain no one they meet will have been to, or ever get to. I hate to even bring it up at a certain level: tourists have a way of destroying such places. And poor Italy is drowning in the negative affects of global tourism. As the number one tourist destination in the world, Italy is paying the price for all of its beauty and charm, culture and assets.
But then the other part of Italy – and maybe (in some strange cosmic twist) this is where the hope lies for retaining something of the Italy we all go there to find. And this is where the “Italianita” really kicks in. The other Italy is the one that drives people insane who are not Italians. And frankly it drives Italians nuts too, but they either come to accept it, ignore it, don’t see it, or know that nothing will ever change and that the only way to survive it is to complain and get to the front of the line wherever possible. This other Italy is the one of broken and closed things. This other Italy is a place of infuriating systems and bureaucracies. Stunning in their ineptitude.
And thus, the second part of this story is the part where after leaving Cerveteri with plenty of time to reach Pitigliano for our anticipated lunch at Ceccottino we hit a sudden unexpected traffic jam on the Coast Highway that has ground things to a virtual halt for what seemed like 30-50 kilometers – in the baking sun, with all of us stuffed into two vehicles with no air conditioning and nothing but our good humor to keep us from exhaustion, getting really hungry and the mid-afternoon approach only making things hotter. I have driven this route dozens of times, this has never happened. Must be something big, I think. When finally we get to the clogged point, it is merely a point at which the highway narrows to one lane, and, another lane curves in to merge from the nearby ferry port at Civitavecchia. It seems that a ferry has emptied, that there seems to be a lot of Italians on the road we are on and the merge is just not going so smooth. There is a traffic cop with one of those lolly-pop sticks waving people on. That effort does not seem to have helped. Almost two hours from one end to the other that normally takes 10 minutes. Once past this point, one lane widens to two about half a kilometer later, and – we’re off. Meanwhile, the reservation I had made with Alessandro has long ago come and gone. We finally arrive in Pitigliano unsure if he will be closed and park the vehicles. We walk (half-jog) through the lovely town and arrive at their door two hours after our reservation and well-past when they close for lunch. There is Alessandro. He was worried about us. That we are late is not an issue, that we are OK and hungry is. Ice cold sparkling mineral water is on the table in seconds, followed by plates and plates of antipasto and as we sit under those sun-shades and the breeze flows over us, Alessandro brings out one course of astounding-ness after another. Caro amico. The chairs are so comfortable. The street is quiet and the square is our living room. OUR living room. There are no other restaurants, no tourists and only a few kids kicking a ball and playing. The students stack Euro coins at one end when we are done in appreciation of the young waitress who stays hours after lunch to see that we are happy and feeling satisfied. Pitigliano is actually in the bottom western-most corner of Tuscany and not in Rome’s region Lazio. The students have visited their first Tuscan hill town. They have tasted their first Tuscan cuisine. They experienced what Italians mean by “Slow Food”.
I worried so much before arriving because I knew that Alessandro would worry and wait. I hate inconveniencing people like this. For me, all of this has fallen away. Once again this master of the art of food and hospitality has weaved his magic. I am so grateful. I am so full. The moment I valued most in this day, despite how close it came to not happening at all, hit the mark. And not a single person at that table that day will ever forget this. Many said later it was the best meal they had in all of Italy. The patience, the Italian art of ‘slow’, or “piano, piano” has once again weaved its hand.
The students have finally arrived in Italy. We have been in Roma for over a week. But we had to get out of Rome to have Italy really sink in. And maybe it is in the chaos of Italy that we really find its true beauty. And part of that is, without doubt, her people. Maybe the meal was that much better after so much had gone wrong. Maybe this is how Italians keep themselves sane in this crazy country. With the things they CAN control and the places where quality is not an option for them.
When we return to Rome we appreciate doubly so its chaotic urbanism. And we stop looking for perfection and begin to find peace in patience and anticipation. The traffic that seemed chaotic begins to have a pattern, and the drivers enter a dance with you as you cross that crazy corner across the Via Teatro Marcello that once scared the bejeezus out of you. You realize that you must move with the pace and not against it. You are in a river and you must not try to move across it as if you were back at home in another river. Every move and gesture begins to align and have purpose. The sacred and the profane align. And then all hell breaks loose the very next day.
So, in this day, in this one example, you get an idea of what it’s like participating on the ItaliaDesign Field School. We do everything together. I take you to places that will blow your mind. BUT, they don’t work out the same every time. Something almost always goes wrong, because that’s Italy. And then when you no longer expect it, the most beautiful, most stunning, most memorable things happen. And that happened at some point, every day for 51 days. And when it does, we all look at each other, and see completeness in each other’s faces and we all share this moment. Know that maybe life is like this too. That’s a pretty valuable thing to know at 25. Rome is our minds, its streets our lives.
As the study goes on we make sure that people increasingly take the time to find these things for themselves and find the Italy, the space, the experience they personally came here to find. The group days were training for this inevitability. We do that specifically each year in Florence where we do the “Transcendent Moments” project that must be done alone, and students must encounter the city in a personal and open way. By the end of the study all are experiencing both of these. The moments add up, one by one. Our joy is rather hard to hide, and hard to explain and yet something we all understand. We all share. Never a bad meal. Never a bad tomato. Risotto with Asparagus. Risotto with squid ink. Sicilian Spaghetti with prawns. Grappa. Campari Sodas. Vino Nobile. Perfection. Day after day, after day. And as my mom always said, “in the end we only remember the good times”. And that’s Italy. That’s how they survive the bad stuff, the dark heart, the corrupt politicians. Because that’s how the Italians do it. With a GREAT plate of pasta. “Here We Are” .

+ teaching is telling stories: small things
So, why am I telling this story?
When I sat down and tried to think of the amazing moments of 2009, I began to realize that those happened literally every day. That every one of these students will struggle to tell you what happened, because, well, where do you start. That to separate out “what was you favorite meal?” or city or town or piazza is virtually impossible and pointless. But we can’t tell you everything either. You, the reader did not experience this and you probably don’t want to know. I could go on like this even about the smallest things ands so could the students. I think that life is about telling stories. And on ItaliaDesign the stories stack up. They’re busting to get out and can’t. The students come home afterward and can’t explain it to the family and friends. But we wish we could share it. And often they are the smallest things that change us so much. Let’s talk then about small things last then, as it is these that truly define Italy and our experience there.
For example I discovered a root vegetable this year that for some reason I had never really liked before. But the vegetables in Italy are just so fresh, so tasteful, so crisp. Tomatoes are a revelation. You have to really work hard to eat a bad tomato in Italy. This year I discovered “finocchio”, which back home goes by the less luscious name of “fennel”. They served it at one of my favorite places in Roma, the Der Pallaro trattoria near Campo dei Fiore as part of the antipasto. Just raw, not cooked, nothing at all on it – not even olive oil. Just slices of this white root vegetable. I ate it without really noticing it. But a few weeks later I kept thinking of it, craving the taste. It tastes a little like licorice, but very subtly. When we got to the San Ambrogio Public Market in Florence, I looked for it. That market gets the freshest vegetables from the surrounding Chianti countryside. The fennel were large, firm. And when I cut them up and ate them for lunch back at the apartment, plain, no oil, nothing as they had served it Rome, heaven. I try it back here in Vancouver: it’s not the same. Good, but those finocchi were just so flavorful. Last year it was Rucola that hit me, Arugula here. The legendary Baffetto serves rucola on some of his pizzas in his famous and always packed pizzeria near Piazza Navona in Rome. Now, I am a rucola nut. Grow it in my garden, hoping to re-capture that taste and how that is connected to place.
Same with espresso. You haven’t had coffee until you’ve had it in Italy at one of the great Torrefazioni roasters who serve their brew out front in a caffe. There are two of legend in Roma, Tazza d’Oro (cup of gold) and Sant’Eustachio. Both are within a block or two of Piazza Rotondo, site of the Pantheon. They are there for a reason. Up until the 19th century coffee roasters were restricted to operating in one square in the city of Rome, because neighbors complained of the smell. The square was Piazza Colonna. So one has to imagine coffee roasters surrounding that great square beside the Corso at the center of which then and still stands the column of Marcus Aurelius where or near it has stood since antiquity. When this ordinance changed in the mid 19th century the torrefazzioni moved into available spaces close to this base and their customers, and both Piazza Rotondo and Piazza Sant’Eustachio are within three to five blocks distance from this original agglomeration as a result. Well, that and the water: the acqua virgo feeds this area of Rome. The best aqueduct water of all. Good water makes good coffee. Tazza D’Oro and Caffe Sant’Eustachio are here because of this history. I love stories like these.
The students residence was about 4 blocks away from Tazza d’Oro and so if I was ever in there – and I try to make it a habit as often as I can get there – I inevitably ran into a few of them getting their morning espress or cappuccino or macchiato or marrachino. You have to try them all at this place. And once you have, any coffee that follows inevitably must measure up to this standard. Espresso in Italy is perhaps one of the few things that all really miss once we get home. It just isn’t the same anywhere else. Tea drinkers are converted. Non-coffee-drinkers become espresso and cappuccino drinkers. And I think this is Italy also: these small things, these tastes, these rituals, these practices, and carriers of the tradition of the artisan and of quality. I make sure to expose the students to this stuff too. And we do this every day as well. These are social practices grounded in culture.

+ contemporary italy and creative economy
OK, so what? Why do this? What does this have to do with design? Why will this make an Italia grad a better student, graduate and designer in practice?
Ultimately, it is really important to me that our students leave this school and university and are able to gain full employment in the field for which we have trained them. That they can enter, progress and work in management roles in the creative field. If ItaliaDesign cannot do this, for me it is not good enough. We must then connect all of this context and experiential learning to the practice of their field. Each year, this culminates in our final two weeks in Milan, where we conduct our dozen or so interviews with Italy’s great designers, architects and design manufacturers.
In Italy the ItaliaDesign student meet and interviews thoughtful designers who always ground their work in social practices and culture. They learn first hand that design can be a social and cultural and critical practice AND it can be economically viable at the same time – and THIS is what we learn from Italy, specific to design. That Design can be a social force, AND a significant engine of innovation and economic success. From Italy, we learn: it can be “both/and”. Design in Italy is intimately connected to Italy’s economic success and market durability. I think without it they’d be lost economically. Design activities make up an enormous percentage of Italy’s GDP, and Milan has the highest number of new patents of any major city in the world. Milan is Europe’s largest city-region. Most people don’t know any of those facts. But its why we are here, in Italy, each year. There is much to learn here in contemporary terms. Inevitably the project is about design and innovation, but to my mind, you cannot understand the excellence of Italian Design without understanding the context above. And so, we don’t spend all of our time in-field just dealing with design. It would miss the point. But after gaining this deep context, and then after speaking with the designers we interview the students are profoundly changed by what they hear. Most undergraduate students will not go on to Graduate studies and thus I think we have a responsibility to focus our efforts on the task of helping them to be as competitive as possible in the emergent creative economy. ItaliaDesign’s greatest outcome perhaps is this last aspect. But when this knowledge is connected to the personal learning above, it is virtually unbeatable. Some of the very best SIAT students get selected to do ItaliaDesign, so they are good when they come in. But when they leave, they are extraordinary and the world becomes possible for them. And the network of ItaliaDesign will always be with them. Opening doors.
It is, of course a non-linear and extremely personal voyage for the graduate of our program, and I always tell our students to expect a few years of settling in and “paying your dues “ before the opportunities and path become clear. But, I am extremely confident that the students who complete ItaliaDesign have a competitive advantage due to the many experiences and exposures they have while we work together for the one-year of commitment on the project.

+ friends who just happen to be famous
I know that they come home more open, more calm and patient, more flexible, more aware and more clear. They take risks. They are more confident. Once you’ve seen Borromini and Bernini, you never forget what’s possible. That work is not “art” – it’s innovation. It’s technology. They piece together how someone with a “box of values” pieces it together in their own time and they see that it’s possible for themselves. They don’t look on the work with “I couldn’t do that” reverence – they begin to realize, I COULD do that. And they come home expecting the stuff that careers and lives are made of: goals and dreams and vision. What a program we’ve made that we can put them in front of  Massimilano Fuksas, who again won Italy’s Gold Medal for architecture this year. A friend who shares his time with students because he is after all, a Roman first before an architect, and you have come into his home. His staff have to chase him out to his next appointment because he sees that we are playing and he likes the conversation and he likes what we are doing. And then you step back and realize he is outside of perhaps Renzo Piano Italy’s greatest living architect. In the presence of this greatness how did we get here? Come to be here? Because of the stories we were able to tell that 102 students and I helped to craft. After the last time I interviewed Fuksas and he spoke of Borromini, I looked at what he had said and I found the same thing: a man driven by his craft and his visions and his dreams. And that is all we all are passionate about. Even these students. And that is what we have in common, and it is this that Fuksas understands. And that’s why he spends his valuable time with a bunch of Canadian Design students he does not know.  And the students? They come away from Fuksas’ office no longer thinking “I can’t”, but, “I think I could”. We can – IF we take the time and apply the rigor to figuring out the innovation challenges of our time. As Massimiliano Fuksas has done. To slow it down – “insect speed”. Fuksas is a teacher. And he GETS teaching. That’s why we get in there. Because he gets that we value that.
And I believe the same is true of Carlotta da Bevilacqua, who on top of being one of the world’s leading experts on the emergent design of LED lighting is simultaneously running one of Italy’s most interesting and venerable companies in Danese as it’s CEO. But Carlotta also gets why teaching matters. She and Massimiliano I think could not be more different. But in this, they are the same. I have known her for some years now. I have interviewed her three times. And each time the students come away inspired and changed. And particularly the young women in the group. She becomes their new maestro. She probably does not know this, but it’s true. Again, we have gained entrance to one of the most influential figures in contemporary Italian design. An accomplished designer, a visionary, a passionate guardian of the legacy of Munari and Mari.
So again, as with Fuksas, why are we so welcome? When we are in her office, it is her home and we are in it. And she will give us everything she has in the milliseconds she cannot even afford. And she does it because she gets what we are doing. Believes that we are doing something valuable. That we are part of the same network of passionate designers who seek something better by way of sharing our ideas.
I think time stood still after she swept into the board-room at Danese’s head office on Milan’s Via Canova, as usual trailing chaos behind her. She greeted me, lit a smoke, tapped it on the 1957 Bruno Munari-designed ashtray she always uses and then just blew all of our minds in a 45 minute free-from on what matters in design today (see the interview on this site). When I was at the Salone del Mobile in Milano in April, I must have seen five or more lighting projects she had designed just this year, in a year that no one seemed to be showing much of anything. All of them stunning, precise evocations of her “box of values”.  I saw major new pieces for Danese. I could see it had been a hot year, yet again, for Carlotta. I have met very few people who are as productive.
She now spoke to us of all of the new projects for Danese that had kept her busy – commissions and collaborations with international designers Ross Lovegrove, Marti Guixe, Enzo Mari – and her own work for Danese such as finishing the “uno” lamp. Her discussion of this in our video interview this year is stunning (just watch it). Even cooler, she showed us prototypes for it back when we interviewed her in 2007. So we saw it develop over time.
And it’s the same, here is this rock-star of a woman who has no time to spare playing in the back yard with her dog, and us, while her staff try to coax her into her next appointment, already waiting. So, this is what we do in Italy, on ItaliaDesign, and why it should matter to a young designer considering this program. For what we do in Innovation and Design, there literally is nothing like this in the world. In Italy, we are utterly unique. In Canada, the same. But, for me, it is not about that. It’s about the students and who they become. They return home and our program is better because of the standard they bring to every course thereafter, to every project. They find opportunity, they spend little time on mediocre things. The design their lives.
Your life is a story you create. There is no job but the one you make for yourself and that goes for careers as well. Thanks Gruppo Sei, for all the stories. I am grateful for you and indebted for all of your hard work and contribution to the project. I will never ever forget this year. Grazie. Thank you to all of our friends and partners in Italia. We are so grateful and we will not squander your investment in us. Our goal: to give back to Italy everything we took away and more.
Forza Gruppo Sei. Sempre.

italiaDesign is an undergraduate field school and research program offered by the School of Interactive Arts + Technology (SIAT) at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. italiaDesign is a sister program to