Name to Know – Paola Navone

Published: 21 Jul 2020
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From glassware and bowls to sofas and hotels, Paola Navone’s design portfolio is vast and varied, all of it reflecting her sought-after global aesthetic

Paola Navone may be based in Milan but she is very much a global designer with a reach that goes far beyond Italy and even Europe. As well as working for many big Italian brands such as Gervasoni, where she is artistic director, Molteni, Bisazza and Alessi, and overseeing the debut collection of Giorgio Armani’s debut Armani Casa range, she has created homeware for American powerhouse brands Anthropologie and Crate and Barrel as well as cool Dutch brand Serax, plus designing hotels and resorts in Asia. Most recently Paola Navone created a ‘new visual identity’ for seven McDonalds restaurants in France, giving them clashing prints and pops of colour to create an ‘imperfect, almost artisanal look’.

This international reach, however, is not new – it is how Paola Navone has worked for all the 47 years of her design life, collecting ideas and influences from all over the world, and garnering a reputation for an eclectic and cosmopolitan style. She describes as thus: ‘I’m very curious – I go around everywhere and capture things. Small, large, shape and colour – they all go into a basket I have in the back of my head. When I need to produce something, the act of designing is very fast because things just come out of the basket’.

Paola Navone’s studio’s remit is similarly wide and varied. ‘Italy is typically more furniture but I like to do the little things, from tableware to glasswork, to textiles as well as furniture,’ she says. ‘It is interesting to do everything.’

This open attitude as well as a desire to do things differently has driven Paola throughout her career. She graduated in architecture from the Polytechnic University of Turin in 1973 but was eager to find another path. ‘I was always looking to escape,’ she says.

Pinecone Suspension Lamp for Fontana Arte

She found it in the burgeoning avant-garde movement which showed her ‘there was an alternative to the job of building normal architecture,’ she says. ‘There were firms like Archigram in London and Superstudio in Florence, and Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti in America. I began to run around to see these architects, to see what the possibilities were beside the traditional education I was getting’.

She put all that she saw and learned into a thesis – and then, having met someone in a bar who was going to Africa, Paola Navone set off for Cameroon where she designed houses for a year. ‘While I was there my thesis went around everywhere,’ she says. ‘The day I came back I got a telephone call from [Alessandro] Mendini and went to Milano and I am still there.’

As well as Mendini, she worked alongside Ettore Sottsass Jr. and Andrea Branzi in the radical Studio Alchimia, a precursor to the famous Memphis movement.

‘It was crazy, what we did,’ she says. ‘Working like mad to produce the utterly useless,’ she says. ‘But it was a catalyst. It produced a lot of energy and gradually, much later, our inventive thinking has been absorbed by the industry.’

The Gray 33 Dining Table and Gray 24 Armchair for Gervasoni

Striking out on her own, she worked with big names such as Capellini and Alessi. Her breakthrough moment came when, in the early 1980s, she won a competition by European laminate producer Abet Laminati. ‘They asked several people to design laminates, and I found this so intriguing that instead of sending one design, I sent 50!’ she says. ‘I worked with them for 30 years.’ Her work for them also won her the Osaka International Design Award in 1983.

The other major influence in Paola Navone’s design aesthetic has been South East Asia where she worked for over a decade as a consultant for UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) and the World Bank. ‘In Italy it is more industry while there, the environment is about craft,’ she says. ‘I worked under very different conditions and in a different cultural environment.’

La Sirena is one of two restaurants at Point Yamu by Como, Phuket, Thailand
McDonald’s near Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris

In Asia she has designed a number of hotels around the world for Christina Ong, the famed fashion retailer and hotelier behind COMO Hotels and Resorts, as well as those for Design Hotels, all of them introducing the unexpected from concrete combined with pops of colours in Phuket’s Point Yamu hotel and in Erosantorini, Greece, painted carpets on a concrete deck next to an infinity pool that cascades over three levels.

Paola Navone’s furniture, on the other hand, tends to be softer, with over-sized pieces in gentle lines a feature. ‘I don’t like to invade the space of people so much that it hurts,’ she once said. ‘Maybe you wake up with a headache in the morning because you drank too much the night before, and when you have to face a chair that’s aggressive, it’s wrong. There’s a difference between product design and interior design. When I do an interior, I sometimes like to do stronger projects because I’m designing a stage for people. But I don’t like aggressive products’.