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In dialogue with Clino Trini Castelli and the no-form side of creativity

Stefano Pirovano

We sat down with Clino Trini Castelli, the friend of Arte Povera artists who invented the no-form design (years before the iPod).

After more than 40 years spent shaping by colours, trims and materials the visual identity of an extraordinary variety of companies – his client list goes from Fiat to Louis Vuitton, via Olivetti, Herman Miller, Hitachi, Bticino, Honda and Danone among the others – Clino Trini Castelli can be considered the father of an approach to design focused on the “emotional” side of the products. Starting from the position assumed at the end of the Seventies by artists such as Dan Flavin (he curated the setting of his first solo show in Italy at Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone, in Milan) and Robert Morris, Castelli has always been interested in the shaping of the user’s emotional response to the object. It follows that instead of forms and plastic values, he preferred to deal with elements like textures, surfaces, materials and, most of all, colours, as his biography, especially with regards to the period that goes from 1978 to the end of the Eighties will tell you. However, not only we have interviewed him for his professional experience, that could seem lateral, at a first glance, to our discourse. Besides being an expert in the realm of the meta-design and a very wit interpreter of any object’s visual value – including artworks –, Castelli was also a good friend of key artists involved in the Arte Povera movement such as Michelangelo Pistoletto – Clino’s portrait was indeed one of the very first mirrors he executed – and Alighiero Boetti, with whom he collaborated at a key piece of the early period of Art Povera such as the “Manifesto”, and “Dossier Postale”. All these elements, make him an ideal witness of how certain ideas regarding the identity of the artwork have evolved in the last decades, and how they should perceived today.

clino trini castelli
Alighiero Boetti, Clino, 1967. Industrial paint, wood, cork letters, cm 70x70x8. Photo A. Osio. Courtesy Galleria Christian Stein.

Do you think there are more similarities or differences between art and design?

Clino Trini Castelli: Closely, I do see more differences, but there certainly are some similarities too. Both of them are realities I’ve been lucky enough to get to close very early in age, at the middle of the sixties, and from the beginning I’ve asked myself which world I wanted to belong to. On the one hand, there was Turin, where the Arte Povera movement was still arising. On the other hand, in Milan, I had the opportunity to work with Ettore Sottsass and Olivetti. I deemed both options extremely interesting, however in the end, despite remaining very closed to artists, I opted to become a designer.

How did you choose?

Clino Trini Castelli: At that moment in time, I thought that art was going to deal more and more with the human behaviour, and its transcendental as well as conceptual parts, thus almost entirely abandoning the traditional plastic elements, which by then seemed to be used-up. Design, on the contrary, appeared to me as bound to consider the product in its immanence, in its intrinsic contents and formal values.

Clino Trini Castelli
Clino T. Castelli, Dan Flavin Exhibition Poster, Galleria Sperone, 1967

Is this how it has gone ultimately?

Clino Trini Castelli: I should say so. The primary structures of minimalism and of Anti-form directly ended up in design, as well as in architecture. Whereas art has long lived beyond the form, without really producing any plastic language, which would effectively be an innovative one.

Hence, could we argue that art has been dealing with the psychological reaction of its audience, while design has followed the physiological answer of its user?

Clino Trini Castelli: Yes, we could also put it in this way.

By extension, could we say that all the artworks appealing to the physiological response of the viewer are indeed the closest ones to design?

Clino Trini Castelli: Perhaps the term “physiological” is actually difficult to accept overall by a designer. I’ve never used it in this sense. I’d prefer to associate the physiological response to the ergonomic factors. However, at some point, the value of the plastic languages has been assimilated by design, and architecture, to a very large extent. This is a matter of fact.

Clino Trini Castelli
Clino T. Castelli, Vuoti ceramici, 1964. Majolica and Lacquered wood, cm 205x30x18. Photo M. Girola.

What’s your relationship with antiques?

Clino Trini Castelli: Above all, I find of interest when fine art is mixed with contemporary art, in so far as myth and allegory are involved, which on the contrary contemporary art tends to leave aside in favour of a more metaphorical language.

What is the first thing you notice when you enter a church, for instance?

Clino Trini Castelli: I would say the space, and how it is perceived. After all, in a church, the empty space counts more than the full one and the ability to organise the space is indeed expressed in the acoustics, light, indoor temperature, smell and all those variables which change according to the various architectural styles. This is why also materials are so fundamental in the purpose of a complete design expression. Then there is the narrative setup, decorations, ritual tools which often though we are not able to fully understand anymore.

From the point of view of a designer expert at using colours, who is that painter from the past whom you consider to be the most effective one when it comes to the use of colour?

Clino Trini Castelli: In technical terms, I believe that the modern revolution in the use of colours began with the shift from the overlapping to the juxtaposition of pigments. The colour perception didn’t occur anymore with the subtraction of light obtained by the use of the black and of the veiling, but exactly, with the juxtaposition of chromatic dots. I’m referring to the colour synthesis typical of that movements like impressionism, pointillism or the so called “divisionismo”. They are techniques based on human response as they are centred around a perceptive experience, rather than a narrative one or the pure attempt to represent the reality.

Does this also mean, for example, that Gauguin is more closed to the design visions than Caravaggio?

Clino Trini Castelli: Undoubtedly it does. As much as Giotto is more effective, concerning the point of view of the perspective languages, than Raphael.

Clino Trini Castelli
Clino T. Castelli, Tectonica grigia, 2012. Grey Lecce Sandstone, cm 80×60.

Amongst the artists you have started your career alongside with, at the beginning of the 1970s, who are those whose languages have lasted up to our days?

Clino Trini Castelli: Strange enough, the artists that nowadays I regard as the most up-to-date are the same that already fifty years ago seemed to be the most influential ones, and that I personally admired the most. Alighiero Boetti, for instance, was a very special character, and so was Michelangelo Pistoletto, albeit for different reasons. Back at that time, the latter was certainly more appreciated than the former. Then I would also add Robert Morris, but more than all Dan Flavin: in his art practice I’ve actually identified one of the aspects which has eventually determined my approach to design. Just as they wanted to make the artwork existing beyond the form, so I’ve tried not to design objects, but rather to work on systems of products, where the object, if existing at all, was in fact reduced to “noform” aspects such as colour, sound, smell, or temperature.

Which kind of products today does mirror this approach?

Clino Trini Castelli: For examples, laptops and mobile phones. In these cases, the object itself tends to disappear to leave enough space to values tied to the material, which as a consequence becomes extremely representative indeed and overwhelms the form.

Do you think that attaching more value to metaphysics than to physics is a characteristic of our present time, too?

Clino Trini Castelli: I absolutely do think so. After all, what I am most proud of today, is my having been able, throughout the years, to maintain my work, primarily linked to emotional contents, within the realm of the industrial design. Something different, for example, from the emotional languages typical of style and fashion, with possible psychological implication. I’ve never argued, for instance, that a certain colour does have a certain calming effect, or exciting one for that matter.

Clino Trini Castelli
Clino T. Castelli, VSP – Virtual Storage Platform, Hitachi, 2010. Cloud-computing platform.

And where does the emotional part end up?

Clino Trini Castelli: In the meta-design, that is to say in everything which is beyond the design of a specific object.

Could you elaborate?

Clino Trini Castelli: Dealing with systems of products, the meta-design has been conceived to setup the guide lines to design the single objects, or groups of objects, that will be part of a given system. Whoever is going to design a sofa for a company, for example, will have to take into consideration that some specific features, set by the meta-design plan, are required for that sofa. Generally these features refer to materials, thus to the “emotional” side of the object.

Do you collect art?

Clino Trini Castelli: No, I personally don’t. However, I must say I have come to know the art world through the act of collecting. When I was eighteen years old, I saw a work by Pistoletto, and I bought it. At that time, it was my way to claim I was joining a certain vision, or cause, and inasmuch as I could, I was supporting it.

January 20, 2021