Ugo La Pietra

Ugo La Pietra

The Italian designer Ugo La Pietra is featured in issue #30 of Apartamento magazine.


Milan: Many creatives of Italy’s bygone era are referred to as ‘Architetto’, irrespective of whether or not they’re really architects. Hence, when we met Ugo for the first time, that is what we called him too. He responded promptly, ‘No no! Non sono un’architetto!’ This is Ugo in his essence. It’s been his life’s pursuit to make sure he isn’t categorised as either an architect or artist but as a specialist, an expert: a maestro dedicated to the development of ideas that span multiple disciplines to bring together the idea of ‘creating’. His approach isn’t limited to the medium he first trained in (architecture) or those he branched into (design, filmmaking, music, cartoons, publishing); he’s also worked with the many greats minds of Italian radical design. In Global Tools, a series of workshops from 1973 to 1975, he collaborated with Archizoom, Superstudio, UFO, Pesce, Pettena, and Sottsass, among others, to promote the use of natural materials and traditional skills, again focusing on research and process rather than aesthetics or product. On his own terms he developed the Disequilibrating System in 1967, proposing a number of tools to revolutionise society, including Immersioni, objects which alter a person’s perception of reality through their physical surroundings to change their world view. Other ground-breaking projects include the Telematic House, presented at MoMA in 1972 as part of an exhibition on new domestic landscapes, a prophetic exploration of new modes for exchanging information between individuals in their homes and the city at large. He became an art director for Abitare il Tempo, the furniture show where, between 1986 and 1997, he staged annual ‘environments’, inviting artists to collaborate with artisans on multiple objects, integrating two formerly separate disciplines. Today, at 83, Ugo’s work has become more relevant than ever. Last year he produced Erbario, an entirely imagined botanical encyclopaedia poking fun at greenwashing trends. After several years of working closely with Ugo, we look forward to sharing his genius with a new generation of admirers.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra

Kaisha: Maestro, we got you a little something from India.

Ah! That’s so nice of you. Thank you.

Kaisha: You’re welcome. It’s something that might help lift the spirits.
Andrea: It’s not edible, OK?

Thank goodness. I barely eat now, and there was a time you always used to bring me sweets. It’s Ganesh!

Kaisha: This Ganesh represents prosperity.

I love it! I’ll put it in my collection. And these sticks? Are they incense?

Andrea: Yes, there’s a holder too. So, tell me, when did you move to this apartment and why?

Well, I’d always been attached to the Brera–Garibaldi neighbourhood because I had my place and my studio there for many years. I’d meet up with the other artists at places like the Jamaica. I was also teaching at the Brera Academy, and I was the art director of the Brera International Centre. In the ‘70s, the district was trying to maintain its identity. Garibaldi was a street closely linked to traditional Milanese folk, and in the space of a decade everything changed and it became a territory of consumption. I and many others staged various cultural initiatives, including the Communication Factory, which occupied the former San Carpoforo Church, and used it for a number of exhibitions around that time. So I had a strong relationship to the area. There’s also a place on Via Madonnina that I played at for more than 25 years.

Kaisha: I didn’t know that!

Of course! I played a lot. I played my whole life. At Scimmie, Capolinea, Santa Tecla—at all the places you could play jazz in Milan. Anyway, I lived in that neighbourhood for a long time, but then I received an eviction notice for both the studio and the apartment, and I found this place, which also has a nice studio space below. All this happened during the early ‘90s.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra

Andrea: What’s your relationship with this new neighbourhood like?

Over the years it’s changed a lot. Other artists from Brera also moved to this neighbourhood: Hidetoshi Nagasawa, Luciano Fabro, and Ignazio Moncada all used to live around here—many friends that unfortunately passed away. See these shelves here, this is a very special place. You can see lots of works by my friends, from Gio Ponti to Ettore Sottsass. Then there’s my own territory. These are all mementos about the history of my family. That’s my uncle, the medals from the Great War, all my relatives, and these are all things my mother left me, as all very religious mothers do. Padre Pio, for example. They all represent my mother’s presence. I care about these things the most, in a very personal way.

Andrea: All of this relates to the expression ‘Abitare è essere ovunque a casa propria’, which basically means, ‘Living is being at home everywhere’, right?

Yes, especially because I don’t have a real home. This one, I don’t consider it mine because I’m more attached to my original territory. I’m like most people my age: we always come back to our birthplace, back to all the animals, all the living things, after a life spent somewhere else, one way or another. I have my birthplace, Arpino, where my parents’ house has been destroyed by a sort of earthquake, a ravine. So the most beautiful home I have is an unhabitable one, and it means I can’t go back to my village. I live like someone who lives in another territory and nostalgically is tied to his imagination, to tiny mementos, to tiny things.

Kaisha: I understand, I have a similar feeling when I think about my home in India.

You’ll notice that underneath nearly all of my work is the same tiny house, the one that I don’t have, but want.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra

Kaisha: What was your childhood like?

My childhood and even my youth were always marked by the fact that I was very puny, very shy, and always did badly in school; I was always the last. In short, at 80 I discovered that I was a little dyslexic. So I went to school, but I didn’t learn anything, I didn’t understand anything. Then when I arrived at university to study architecture, I started learning to understand things by myself, using my own criteria, and I became good at it. I started to play the clarinet, learning on my own without knowing the music, and then I became a painter without ever having gone through an academy, having learnt to draw on my own. Well, look what we have here.

Andrea: Ah! This is the famous clarinet!

This is it! I’ve played since 1953 and I still play, but only for my friends. I can play something for you, if you want?

Andrea: It would be an honour. What type of wood is it made from?

Black ebony. It’s an antique clarinet that belonged to a Parisian clarinettist in the ‘20s, then a clarinettist from Milan, Bob Valenti, until I bought it. Let’s see, it must be more than 100 years old. It’s older than me. When I started playing, we were a group of guys who listened to jazz records and were therefore very far from the music scene of the ‘50s and the songs coming from Sanremo Music Festival. So we decided to make a so-called band, and each of us picked up an instrument.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra

Andrea: I can see the concept of synaesthesia in your everyday life, as well as your work. Can you tell us about this idea?

The theory of synaesthesia was my thesis discussion, and it’s very simple. I was and still am convinced that we need to overcome the intégration des arts. This is where, for instance, an architect from the ‘30s or ‘40s would’ve left space for bas-reliefs, mosaics, niches for sculptures, and so on. The relationship between architecture and art overlapped, but the two things were ultimately separate. Synaesthesia between arts, on the other hand, is a system which allows the sculptor to share research or results with the architect, with architecture, and vice versa. So the various disciplines interact and evolve with each other. Everyone knows that what is sharp to the touch is acute to the ear. This is a synaesthetic concept. That is, transferring information from one discipline to another while maintaining the identity of the disciplines. Today’s architects barely know anything about art, artists don’t know about architecture, design doesn’t integrate with the applied arts—they’re artisanal while the designer is industrial. All these worlds aren’t interacting with each other.

Andrea: Can you give us an example of how you applied synaesthesia in your work?

The exhibitions I curated at Abitare il Tempo in Verona. The fair was organised through the trade association Federlegno and was aimed at classical furniture companies that weren’t usually considered in the world of design; it gave me the opportunity to do a series of experimental exhibitions alongside other cultural exhibitions. Every year, I invited four or five artists and designers—young, old, more important, less important—to each create an environment around a particular theme, by coming up with 10 or 20 objects. Then a whole year would go by just putting them in touch with traditional companies in order to make the pieces. These companies were all different and all based here in Italy—one from Verona, one from Murano, and so on. It led to the intersection of two worlds, where designers got to work with companies that knew traditional and often more sophisticated techniques, such as mosaic, carving, or inlaying. At the same time, none of these companies had ever worked on anything like this before.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra

Andrea: What sort of environments are we talking about?

One of the environments I remember was part of a show called Rituali Domestici and it was by Cinzia Ruggeri. The story behind her environment was about a big elephant that got scared of little mice and suddenly burst into 1,000 pieces. She came to me and told me she wanted to make elephant ears that could move like a fan, the belly of an elephant that would be a big double bed, a trunk that could be a vacuum cleaner, and Murano glass mice that would light up. I think there was a lamp, a sofa, a chair, and other objects too.

After a year working on these things, I’d go to this pavilion at the fairground and stay there for two weeks, just constructing the sets. On the first day of the exhibition, hundreds of these objects would arrive—objects that I’d never seen before, that I’d only thought about and imagined from sketches. The meeting between these two realities was always full of risks and challenges, so the end result was always a surprise. So you see, all my work to bring handicrafts towards industry is an attempt to explain that all these disciplines should work together in a synaesthetic way.

Andrea: Do ut des, basically. I give so that you may give.

Exactly, and it’s very easy! But it doesn’t happen often at all. I’ve been in the art world my whole life, but all the people I’ve met stigmatised and condemned me, saying, ‘Architect! You don’t belong with us, what are you doing here?’ When I was a teacher at the academy, everyone was like this—professors who were painters, and my friends too.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Abitare con Arte, exhibition at the former San Carpoforo Church, Milan, 1991.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Cenobio Visualità, gallery designed using inclined planes, Milan, 1972.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Il Grande Sonno, exhibition at Abitare il Tempo, Verona, with a prototype of Quattro Passi di Danza table for Chelini, 1991.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
La Casa Neoeclettica, exhibition at Abitare il Tempo, 1992.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Ugo’s home on Via Guercino, Milan, with the Uno Sull’altro bookcase for Poggi, 1980.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Ugo’s home on Via Solferino, Milan, with prototypes of the Globo Tissurato lamp for Poggi, 1968.

Kaisha: I remember very clearly that when we first met years ago, I addressed you as ‘Architetto’, and you replied, ‘No, I’m not an architect’. So I asked you what I should call you and you replied

‘You can call me Maestro!’ I remember. You see, this is my personal nemesis. There’s always someone introducing me to someone else saying, ‘This is Ugo La Pietra, a famous architect from Milan’. To normal people, if I’m a famous architect, it means I make at least one building a month, so I’m a millionaire. And I’m also from Milan, the hip city, so I’m condemned. If someone introduces me to a grocer, from the very beginning they assume, ‘I’d have to spend millions for him to work on my home!’ If someone presents me to an artist, they think, ‘God knows how many works he’s going to order from me!’ On the other hand, if someone introduces me to a gallerist, the first thing that comes to mind will be, ‘You make drawings? Why don’t you have a show at my gallery?’ And in the end, I did. I made hundreds and hundreds of shows for gallerists who believed that a famous architect from Milan probably had tons of friends who were also famous architects from Milan and willing to buy his works. That was a disaster. A monstruous disaster.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra

Andrea: In order to fight these situations, from the very beginning you’ve proposed new models for creative distribution.

I’m an ‘artistoid’—for this reason and also for the fact that when I was still an architecture student, I was a painter too. I was part of a group of sign painters called the Gruppo del Cenobio, with Ettore Sordini, Agostino Ferrari, and others. So my stance was always very hard to keep, with both my colleagues and the people I was hanging out with. You see these Casa Palcoscenico cabinets? Artists don’t produce this kind of thing. The artist tries to make something to sell. The artisan makes an object with their own hands, puts it on display, and also hopes to sell it. Instead, I’m a researcher, an intellectual. Instead of just speaking or writing, I simply develop films, pictures, montages, objects. This is an ‘artistoid’: someone who acts like an artist but doesn’t spend his whole life trying to sell a product.

Kaisha: And without categorising yourself, all the way from Il Segno Randomico to La Grande Occasione.

Yes. With a product, you can always try to improve it, to communicate it, but an artist wouldn’t shift from ceramics to film. This is a casual attitude, and not of an artist. Because an artist always has to worry about having something to sell. I made everything in a certain way because that particular way looked like the best way to explain the idea I had in mind. Whenever I used to meet with artist friends when we were younger, they would always say, ‘Let’s bargain! This is our retirement!’ They were already thinking about their product gaining value over the years. It’s another way of thinking.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra

Andrea: Do you still believe in the theory of the Disequilibrating System?

The idea behind that was to find tools, different tools, with which someone could break the equilibrium of a society stifled by certain values. This still happens all the time. It’s like a revolution. If you start a revolution, you can’t revolutionise things for one year and that’s it. If you’re a revolutionary, you’re a revolutionary for life. After a revolution, society is still unable to evolve, transform, and update. There’s always a need for someone to stimulate the change. Revolution should be permanent. When someone says, ‘What about the radical architects?’ my instant reply is, ‘Look, I’m not a radical architect! Because radical architects have been historicised to the ‘70s, and I’ve always been radical! I’m still radical right now!’ If I make a book about greenery, it’s because I’m a radical. At the moment, everyone is talking about ‘green’, as if we’ve only just discovered that plants have feelings, cry, talk, and tell stories. The whole world is suddenly aware of plants, as if it’s a trend. Erbario is the fake scientific compendium I’ve just produced, made like a proper book written by a researcher, and it’s basically a tool to fuck about with people, who are only just realising these things.

Kaisha: I think you’ve just made a lot of points that our generation can start with.

This is the role of an intellectual. In Italy we used to have so many intellectuals, people like Ennio Flaiano, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Umberto Eco, who always had a critical, analytical point of view concerning society. There’s a big difference—especially in the past 30 or 40 years—between an artist who works for society and an artist who works in society. If an artist takes a work from a gallery and puts it in the town square, he reaches society, but he doesn’t work for society.


Kaisha: Is that what you tried to achieve with the Global Tools workshops in the ‘70s?

Global Tools was an experimental school aimed at encouraging individuals to develop their creativity freely using tools based on primordial concepts, such as manual skills and the return to traditional cultures and heritage, which were from the Italian countryside but which also addressed suburban areas. We tried to let people understand things that weren’t at all easy to read. Everyone did their own research and each person was oriented towards a category. There were those who worked on the body, those who worked on materials, and those, like me and two others, Franco Vaccari and Gianni Pettena, who instead worked on communication. Communication was a theme I’d already developed with the exhibition on the Telematic House at MoMA, in New York, at the beginning of the ‘70s, and our Global Tools research helped us understand it further. But Global Tools remained a theoretical operation, a practice that led to the definition of some basic theories over two years, and then everything stopped there.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Prototype of the Patù chair in Lecce stone, 1990.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Il Commutatore, from the Disequilibrating System, Milan, 1970.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Paletti e Catene, bed designed for the Abitare È Essere Ovunque a Casa Propria installation, Milan, 1979.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Globo Tissurato, lamp in plexiglass, 1967.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Audio Casco, immersive environment for the Triennale di Milano, 1968.

Kaisha: What was your relationship like with the other members of the radical movement?

My relationships were above all with the Viennese: Coop Himmelb(l)au, the Haus-Rucker-Co group. My training is much closer to their experience than that of the Florentine groups, like Superstudio or Archizoom. But there was a minimum common denominator that we did all share, coming from a generation that was trying to overcome the dimensions of the discipline of architecture. But everyone did it in their own way. I was closer to environmental and social problems, and above all, having been an artist and painter for many years, I had a different background. I was closer to the world of conceptual art than the world of pop art, which the Florentine radicals were influenced by. Then I directed a magazine called In and later Inpiù, where I published all these radicals, from London and Vienna and also Alessandro Carlini, who was in Germany. In short, all of Europe passed through the magazine.

Kaisha: Have you maintained a relationship with any of them?

I’ve always maintained relationships with them. After Global Tools, we did another school project in Venice, so there was a continuity of relationships both in terms of cultural and design intentions, but also from the perspective of profound friendship, especially with Adolfo Natalini.

Andrea: Do you think it’s possible for the new generation to be radical? To have a disruptive and constructive approach? To change things?

This is hard. Recently, during a show in Bolzano, a student came up to me and asked, ‘But what do we have to do?’ The answer isn’t very complicated actually, there’s only one answer: you need an ideology. But if the young people from 20 years ago started to lose this ideological component, there’s not much more to do. I use this example: during the ‘70s, we hung out with Sottsass. In front of his studio he had a big sign by Olivetti; he was a designer who was into the production world, but he was also influenced by us. We were against consumerism—a strong ideology. So when he had the task of overviewing the 1971 Triennale, he called on us to showcase some works but asked us to avoid bringing any objects. Objects were synonymous with consumerism of course. So I made my first film, La Grande Occasione. Back then, ideology existed; it made us pick a side and take a position towards society.

In today’s world, what student has a strong ideological position against consumerism? A consumerism that produces these influencers, who basically become millionaires by imposing tastes on younger generations? If these people become millionaires, it means that young generations don’t have even a grain of ideology left. With no ideology, you’re lost. I’m not imposing my ideology; I just want these students to have at least one. It doesn’t have to be right or wrong. When young people used to have the ‘let’s go to war’ ideology during the Great War, all my uncles, the guy next door, and his brother, as soon as they came of age, they went and sacrificed their lives. The ideological component was so strong.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra

Andrea: Do you have any advice that you would give to your students?

I always say, ‘You want to be a designer? Well, do one thing, go and experience what it means to be in a craftsman’s workshop, go and see how you can transform matter, go, because you’ve never experienced that’. I’d never seen it! I only started to experience those things when I was in my 40s. Architecture schools won’t take their students to a building site to see how people make brick walls. Design schools won’t take their students to make objects in cast bronze or lost wax. No one sees anything, and it’s not enough to have a technical knowledge of things to proceed in life, you know?

Before the ‘70s, in our field, it wasn’t necessary to have this ideological component. Everyone had already been born into a precise enclosure, known as style. If you were born into baroque, you stayed in baroque. If you wanted to do something different, you had to start doing rococo. I was born in the liberty period, and I could’ve stayed there and made small flowers or fight against it and jump—jump and go somewhere else.

With the advent of computers in the ‘80s, formal ideologies were annihilated. At that point, the individual found themself lost, because everything was available. If Kaisha were born in the ‘40s, she wouldn’t have been able to wear pants! Because at that time, women who wore pants were basically ‘whores’. To wear pants was revolutionary! Today we’re born without enclosures. Everything is OK, but not OK at the same time.

Andrea: This ideology became clear in your work, with the continuous use of Italian crafts over the years while also breaking boundaries with new materials, like plexiglass.

Yes, I made masterpieces on methacrylate slabs that only used to be made on canvases. It was kind of an innovation with media, but also with language. Like making experimental movies and telling a two-hour story in two minutes. There were rules, but rules could be broken. Artists have always done that—transgression, being born into an enclosure and stepping out of it, overcoming a language and creating a new one from scratch. You know, in recent years, some entities have come into being, and they have strong personalities, a very personal point of view, but we can’t describe this as a universal language. We can’t describe it as a style. We witnessed the last style in design with Memphis and Alchimia, and since then, nothing new has happened. There’s nothing new to be said.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Poltrona Postmoderna, for Busnelli, 1985.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Poltrona Agevole, for Busnelli, 1985.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Arcangelo Metropolitano, 2007 edition of the lamp designed in 1977.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
Casa Aperta, exhibition at CERSAIE, Bologna, 1988.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
The bedroom of La Casa Telematica, exhibition at Fiera di Milano, curated by Ugo, Gianfranco Bettetini, and Aldo Grasso, 1983.
Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
The dining room of La Casa Telematica, 1983.

Andrea: Conceptual versus spectacular, what do they mean to you?

These two components are very hard to find in the correct ratio. I think the Italian garden is a good example of where they merge well, and labyrinths are the perfect architectural object where the conceptual and the spectacular are very tangible. During the ‘70s, concept was very important. During the ‘80s, spectacularism reigned supreme. Objects from Michele De Lucchi or Sottsass, which were very colourful and happy, represented this new vision very well—a vision where society was moving away from the severe, rigorous, and introverted conceptuality to enter a new, spectacular world.

Andrea: Going back to the Disequilibrating System, could you tell us about Il Commutatore?

At the end of the ‘60s I did this series of objects, tools, and environments called Immersioni. The idea came about because architects at the time were proposing urban solutions by going up to a particular social group and asking questions like, ‘Guys, what would you like to have in your neighbourhood? What changes would you like to make in your piazza?’ Asking what people want as part of a project was meant to make them better, and unfortunately it was a grave error. Through a series of sociocultural, anthropological, and social studies, I came to realise that the people answering these questions were so conditioned by society’s structured consumerism that they all tended to want the same damn thing! Just as if, today, I went around asking people here in Italy what they wanted to see on television, their first response would probably be Maria De Filippi. Generally, people are deeply conditioned. That’s why I believe that before making a proposal to the masses or to the individual, it’s fundamental to remove these filters and show them the world through a new set of eyes, in a different way.

The Immersioni were the instruments I used to do this. Defining what is up, down, left, and right was no longer the question, because you were inside a ball or on an inclined plane that made you see things you’d never seen before. These instruments were created to prepare people. The role of the artist in that moment of history was not to improve society, but to break it and destroy the consumerism that society imposed—as a matter of fact, this situation still remains the same today. And this is how it should be. An artist must show and shed light on the things that aren’t beautiful to behold.

Apartamento Magazine - Ugo La Pietra
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