Ilaria Marelli: from “am I up to it?” to “I wish I had designed Alexa”

Ilaria Marelli

Experimental and eclectic, ranging from products to communication to installations for exhibitions and events. Hugely enthusiastic and (still) a bit shy.

Ilaria Marelli, born in 1971, and based on the beautiful shores of Lake Como, is an architect and designer. Trained at the Milan Polytechnic University, her thesis centred on the issues around strategic design and the relative services, under Professor Ezio Manzini, with whom she has continued to carry out research into sustainable living. Ilaria takes a strategic approach to design, which for her means working out which themes to develop and how with whichever company she’s working with, in order to build common values and identities.  According to the demands arising from given situations, the net result might be the product, the communication, exhibition or event installations (she’s been working with Pitti for years), or all of it put together! She’s passionate about experimenting and exploring uncharted milieux, which makes her work hard to pigeonhole in any particular style or sector. As she puts it herself, it’s more a case of a “fluid consultancy methodology in the field of design.” 

Pitti 2020

Pitti 2020

After university, I remember that you started working alongside Giulio Cappellini, is that right?

My first real professional experience was at the company alongside Giulio Cappellini, where I served my apprenticeship in the fields of both product development and artistic direction. There I also had opportunities to get to know a lot of great designers and creatives, which was hugely interesting to me. I remember, for example, my first meeting with Shigeru Ban (later a 2014 Pritzker Prize-winner) about his collection of cardboard furniture, projects with Paul Smith, installations at Superstudio with Emiliano Salci. It was undoubtedly a hugely stimulating period for me from both a creative and a human point of view.

Andrea, Olivieri

Andrea, Olivieri

What was your first professional project?

My first was the ARA lamp for Nemo: I remember that I’d prepared a series of proposals for the company, then shortly before our meeting the idea for that lamp popped into my head and I sketched it as best I could on a piece of paper. They liked it and then, needless to say, I developed it properly and it then became a very successful product for the company, marking a fundamental step in my career as an independent designer.

Do you have a routine in the studio?

I have to say that I’m a bit slow in the mornings, so after we’ve all had coffee together, I fiddle about a bit for the first hour … I answer emails, take care of secondary things, then around 10 we discuss the projects and divide up the tasks. After that we might do some revisions depending on the status of the various ongoing projects. I’m often the last to leave in the evening, because that last half hour of peace is like gold dust. I use it to pull everything together after the day’s work and tweak the plans for the following ones. Obviously, that’s when I’m not travelling, or doing inspections, events etc., which are the bread and butter of our work, but clearly these have been reduced to a bare minimum over the last year.

Pitti 2019

Pitti 2019 - Photo by Giovanni Corti

Is that one of the aspects of your work you’re most passionate about?

I get very excited when I realise that we’ve made great strides with the support of the studio for our client, in terms of offering, communication or even just awareness of the value that design can bring to a company. Then, I have to say I really love learning new things, experimenting, so it’s crucial to be able to visit not just the production companies but also the distribution points.

: Which side of your work do you find most tiresome?

I have to say that the managerial side and the everyday management of the studio are wearisome, obviously I keep tabs on them, because it’s right to be aware of what’s going on, but I admit I wouldn’t mind having a partner to take care of it!

Allure, Slide

Allure, Slide - Photo by Miro Zagnoli

: If you had to start again from the beginning from a professional standpoint, what would you change or improve?

: I’d certainly start with self-esteem. I really toiled over the decision on whether to start working for myself and worrying whether I was “up to it or not.” Perhaps this is to do with being a bit shy – which I still need to overcome. I always find it difficult to put myself forward, which means that I’ve tended to work with companies who summon me for a job, and every so often I’ve regretted not being more proactive in situations that interested me.

What’s your first feeling when you complete a project you’ve been working on for a while?

I feel very emotional. I have to say that when a showroom or a display launches, and you leaf through the first copy of a printed catalogue, or present a project for a product, there’s a feeling of celebration, of having carried off a team effort. I also have to say that I feel a bit empty for the first few days after that, because really every project is a creature that you nurture and once it starts gathering its own pace, you do miss it!

ad catalogo Gaber

ad catalogo Gaber

What projects are in the pipeline and what are the ones that will shortly appear?

IM: I’ve just presented two lamps in the field of product design: Aura and Allure for Slide, for indoor/outdoor use, which explore a new and promising sphere for the company. I’m also working on two projects for upholstereds, one contract and one for exteriors, a collection of honeycomb furniture, an audio system, and various other concepts that are still at an early stage. I cross my fingers and hope I’ll make it in time for the next Salone! I’m also working on consultancy projects for communications, and projects for company showrooms. Now, while trade fairs are still in stand-by mode, companies have managed to create reception spaces on their own premises, which have a frequent and flexible turnover for showcasing their projects. In the fashion field, I’m working on new concepts for fashion retail, the logistics of which obviously need to be rethought from a phygital perspective.

Turntable, Como Audio

Corporate Design consultancy, Como Audio - Photo by Luca Casonato    

Is there an object you wish you had designed?

Alexa, in all its physical variations. I like the idea of having a tool you can communicate with through speech, although I often argue with it.

A curious and amusing work anecdote?

: My first fashion shop in Tokyo, in 2006, was a competition between 3 design studios, for delivery by 10th July – I could never have envisaged that Italy would win the World Championships on 9th July! So, the evening before the project was due, I was hugely anxious about delivering it on time … all the alpha male assistants had disappeared, I’d managed to buttonhole a former Turkish intern and my former Dutch flatmate, who was working for Aldo Cibic, to give me a hand and so on, photoshopping renderings and formatting the pages with a minuscule television I’d managed to procure at the last minute, while the whole of Milan was bathed in an unnatural silence! Thankfully, at least we won – both the World Championships and the competition for the shop!

10 August 2021