5. a small group for an individual

Milano, Cimitero Monumentale, Carlo Maciachini 1866. In the image: monument for Isabella Airoldi: “La Morente”, 1889.

In the previous classes we have seen the single person dealing with various situations. Now we start to examine the designer intended as a small group of people. The small group can be a family, a clan, a small company (using an Italian definition, we are now entering the “pmi” universe: “piccola media impresa”, in english: “small/medium enterprise”).

Achille Castiglioni, Flos Taraxacum 88 suspension light, 1988. Flos is a typical Italian “pmi”.

The transition from “I” to” we” generates an extraordinary difference in terms of methods of production. As mentioned before, people who are used to work in the “I” model (especially in the “I for mysely” sub-family) are rarely able to switch to other models. The “I for I” frame is quite rigid and it is difficult to move out from there.

In the past it was rather easy to move out from the “I” universe, proceeding on toward “we” systems. Although the option is still open today, we have to say that a little by little those paths have been substantially closed.

If we imagine a line were we have at one end the “myself for myself” and the “many for all” at the other, the empirical observation suggests that it is nowaday extremely difficult to move from one direction to another.

As a young designer, if you start to work for a corporate company, you will enter a very specific system of production. The work becomes a fragmentated galaxy of various tasks generating highly skilled specialists (having those special skills gained at the expenses of the general overview). In the opposite situation, if you start to work by yourself (or with a small group of friends) right after college , you will acquire a set of practices making extremely difficult to enter the corporate world later on in your life.

Obviously the differences are not only elements related to the amount of specialization: quite a lot of the final results depend on the circumstances and the tools of work.

If you work in a big company you are generally accustomed to a number of special services (to have a department of information technology fixing up all kind of problems, paid holidays, bonus, sumer picnic…) as well as certain tasks such as timesheets and internal bureocracy. At the same time, those who work in small environments (or by themselves) do develops other work habits.

Of course the influence of the circumstances under which you perform your work powerfully extends into all your life. Just think of how the independent designer “never goes on holiday” (being at the same time “always on holiday”) and compare him with a designer employed at Philips or Sony who can go on vacation only upon a preset schedule.

Philips Design, “Kitten Scanner”. (esigned as part of Philips ambient experience, the kitten scanner introduces the CAT scan experience for children).

Having to be more specific, in this class we will examine a very special case (small group for the individual) where you have a selected group of people working for an individual. As mentioned in the introduction classes, a very good example of such a case is the Zen garden of the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto.

To be precise, we should say: the “garden of stones” (karesansui) being part of the overall Zen temple: a complex construction built in the late ‘400. From the designer’s point of view we are facing an interesting project where a small group of people did work intensively for a sophisticated garden meant to be used and enjoyed by a single person.

Zen garden of the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto

Japanese cemetery with the typical system with wooden sticks carrying the name of the deceased person

A funeral (or, if you prefer, we could say a grave) is a similar system. From this point of view, we could find several examples: we can go from the incredible coffins (a curious mix of expressionism and pop art) in use in some African countries, all the way to the the traditional Chinese funeral.

An image of a traditional Chinese funeral

In this case, once there is a death in the family, the relatives of the dead person have to organize a complex ceremony meant to communicate to the spirits of the afterlife that the dead actually did cut all the bridges with the world of the living people. To that end, everything revolves around a funeral pyre where the remaining family has to burn all the material possessions of the dead. Obviously, the practical spirit of the Chinese culture finds a practical solution to this design task (having to burn all the material possessions of the dead), generating amazing paper and cardboard reproductions of all those possesions to be burned instead of the actual things (generating an incredible market of car replicas, gold bullions, banknotes, clothes, watches, phones and everything else: everything strictly made in paper and cardboard).

Samuel Kane Kwei, Coffin “Mercedes”, Ghana, 1993

Obviously, this class should be completed with a quick reference to the most incredible example of “small for the single”: the world of Egyptian mummies. The subject is vast, and if you are interested in this topic we suggest you to enter the “History of the World“, an extremely interesting co-production made by the the British Museum and the BBC.

The homepage of the website explains: “This site uses objects to tell a history of the world. You’ll find 100 objects from the British Museum and hundreds more from museums and people across the UK. What will you add to the collection?

Egyptian mummies from the British Museum

All in all, the theme of “small group for the individual” may be fully representated through the idea of “cemetery” (we can see a cemetery as a huge aggregation of physical artifacts where the various groups are to celebrate the dead individual). Either way we are talking about the Mao Zedong mausoleum in the Tian-An-Men square or pointint out to a remote cemetery in the Alps or in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, the mechanism is very similar.

Mao Zedong Mausoleum (Chairman Mao Memorial Hall), Bejing, Hua Guofeng, 1977)

Family graves in Vietnamese countryside

Cemetery in Santorini, Greece

Obviously we can find the same system in service design or in the world of production of immaterial goods. Think about the Asian industry of the so-called “cram school“. In a world where to have access to the top-most universities is the first ingredient for social success, we have thousands and thousands of schools where children (starting from kindergarden) shall complement the regular school hours with a thick additions of educational activities. The hours and hours of extra work are meant to increase the chances of success for the difficult entrance exams (exams starting in some extreme cases already at the age of 2: when you have to go through the selection to enter the excellent kindergarden).

Illustration referred to a Japanese cram school

We suspect that all these businesses (generally linked to the family) do carry an infinite potential and should not be easily discharged in the contemporary world. If we were to use the funeral mechanism into other facets of everyday life, what could happen?

Napoleon famously stated: “Give me enough medals and I’ll win any war.” If Napoleon was not emperor of the French but the CEO of Microsoft, what would come out today? (if we think of Sergey Brin and Larry Page – the founders of Google – we can have an idea of Napoleon would have been today. Steve Jobs is another possible example).

Paper sleepers to be burned during a Chinese funeral

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Achille Castiglioni


British Museum



Steve Jobs


Philips Design

Ryōan-ji rock garden


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