Being Marva Griffin

Marva Griffin

Marva Griffin, Ph Giulia Virgara – Istituto Italiano di Fotografia for Milano Design Film Festival

A chat with Marva Griffin Wilshire, the Salone del Mobile talent scout, Venezuelan by birth but Milanese by adoption, always on the look-out for promise.

On the desk in her office, a hop and a skip from the Sforza Castle, her lengthy list of daily appointments looms large. Mail to be sent, telephone calls to be returned, Zoom meetings to chair, flights to take and juries to be part of. Then there are the piles of books, photographs and design awards next to her computer and, framed and in a prominent place on the wall is a map of the very first SaloneSatellite, which she conceived, longed for and launched in 1998.

What’s the trick – how does one recognise an enfant prodige?

I’ve got a lengthy background of experience; I’ve been involved with this world since I was 20 years old. But I always tell young people that they must be curious, take everything in, read, move around and study. I’ve seen so many of them – some don’t even speak to you, but then you look at their projects and a whole new world opens up.

How many juries have you been part of?

I’ve lost track, but a huge number of them. Some of the most recent include the iF Product Design Award, the London Design Biennale International Advisory Committee & Jury, the Henraux Prize, the Samsung Young Design Award, the Wanted Design Launch Pad, the World Design Capital, Philip Johnson Architecture & Design Committee at MoMA and the Hublot Prize.

The illustrator Mohammed Iman Fayaz has just been awarded the 2021 Hublot Prize at the Serpentine Gallery in London. How important are recognitions for people who want to get into design?

It’s a very bold prize, because it has the power to encourage young designers as they make their way in the world. Launched in 2015 by Jean-Claude Biver and Pierre Keller to celebrate the best-seller Big Bang, it now helps design promise. It’s important because it isn’t always easy embarking on this career – a 100,000-franc prize is a good incentive. I was also in excellent company on the jury: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Alice Rawsthorn and Formafantasma, who had won it themselves, as it happens, in 2018.

Picasso attributed his genius to working eight hours’ a day, yours is even longer. What does your day look like?

I wake up very early in the morning, read the paper before dawn, look at the newsletters, reply to emails, including those from my youngsters who are asking for advice and suggestions. Then I get up and go out onto the terrace and take care of the plants and leaves. Then breakfast Venezuela-style, rich and savoury, then I cast an eye over the news again. Shower, get dressed and off to the office. Then meetings, appointments and working lunches. As a good South American, I take siesta time seriously and then I go back to the office and start work again. If I’m not out in the evening, I adore cooking and organising suppers with friends. But even a glass of milk and honey is a remedy for a good night’s sleep.

You started out at C&B Italia with Cassina and Busnelli and went on to be awarded an Honorary Degree by Milan Polytechnic University. Then there are the Compasso d’Oro and the Ambrogino. How does one become Marva Griffin?

Every so often I ask my son: “Do I really deserve it?” It’s all built on passion, a passion for being around young people particularly. Their energy makes one feel alive, but my story began long, long ago.

Once upon a time...

I started working with Piero Busnelli and Cesare Cassina many years ago, no university could have given me what I’ve got from the profession. Busnelli and I sat just a few metres apart. I was his mouthpiece; I was in his office because he wanted me to hear everything. He spoke to me in Italian or in the Brianza dialect, then I had to translate it into Italian, English, French or Spanish. People like Afra and Tobia Scarpa, Mario Bellini, Marco Zanuso, Richard Sapper, Paolo Piva and Antonio Citterio were around.

Now who is there?

I won’t mention any names, but there are really so many talented people.

From Enzo Mari to Gaetano Pesce, often the masters were great believers in “we were better off when we were worse off.” What’s your take on that?

It’s true, as if there was a sort of nostalgia. We have to look to the future, there are so many young people from all over the world. Design is a passion that needs to be nurtured in order to keep on growing, you have to tend to it, like a gardener and his/her plants.

You’ve been steering a nursery of young designers for years. Are you behind the success of SaloneSatellite, which will be notching up 23 editions in 2022?

It’s not Marva Griffin who’s the success, but the Italian industry that comes and picks out youngsters from all over the world. It’s the hopes of those who, in turn, come to Milan to show their creativity off to Italian producers.

Do you think there’s a touch of narcissism among young people?

Youngsters want to showcase their work, although I now pick up on their desire for a bit of notoriety. Sometimes I’ve got people wrong but meeting them and getting to know them changes my opinion. In the past, I’ve judged in haste and then had to backtrack. I like the idea of getting to know people better and changing my opinion, so I tread cautiously.

Have you ever got it wrong when summing someone up, failed to recognise their talent?

I don’t think so. My position is that it’s not just me who has to judge. I am here to learn. Always.

Women and leadership, an exception in a somewhat patriarchal world. In Italy, only 1.3 million out of 6 million businesses are run by women. What qualities does one need to stay at the top of the tree?

Not being aggressive but having great decision-making power. It’s also important to be empathetic. I have always been in a minority: foreign, South American, female! What really matters is being prepared and not giving people false hope. If you have a job to do, be aware of what you do and what you say. Keep a precise, clear goal in mind. It can only go one of two ways – either they say yes, or they say no. Nobody can hold you back.

11 November 2021