Alberto Cavalli: „Your Eyes Can Betray, But Your Hands Never Betray“

Christoph and Nicola Rath (MEISTERSTRASSE) with Alberto Cavalli.

On the occasion of a newly established, close cooperation between MEISTERSTRASSE and Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship – among others at the Doppia Firma exhibition 2019 – we had the opportunity to meet the foundation’s director, Alberto Cavalli, in Milan and discuss his personal definition of and fascination with craftsmanship in the digital age as well as curiosity, affection and passion.

Interview: Nicola and Christoph Rath

Mr. Cavalli, what is your personal definition of craftsmanship?
I’ve always believed that words are the bricks with which we build our thoughts. So, the more solid the bricks, the more solid our thoughts. This is why, when I started working in this field 11 years ago, I reminded myself that you have to investigate to understand what fine craftmanship is and what we intend. The more you travel throughout Europe the better you understand how different the perception of craft is. Sometimes craft is still connected to folk, sometimes to contemporary creations, sometimes to tradition. Thus, I said to myself: “How can we find a way to make sure we all understand each other and we can really share the values that unite us?”
This is why we worked on a definition of 11 criteria that always have to be present when talking about excellence in craftsmanship.
For me, craftsmanship is a culturally conscious creative process that leads to a creative transformation of materialsIt means that a real master artisan has to be conscious of what he is doing. He is competent and creative since he does not just repeat the same steps day after day; he always wants to innovate and is never fed up with experimenting because he has self-confidence.
What is also crucial for craftsmanship is that it is a process. There is a starting point and a finish line – there is the process and there is the product. We cannot separate the two and consider the product without the process or the process without the product. This is not negotiable for me – the two always have to be considered together.

Sometimes it is difficult to draw the line between the terms and concepts of “craftsmanship”, “arts and crafts” or “arts”. How do you delimit these notions?1990
For me, a very good indication comes from the artisan himself. His own definition already gives us the sense of what he or she is doing.
Usually, the other more or less dividing line is that art reflects the vision of the artist’s world: “This is what I believe, this is what I feel I should say.” No matter whether people like or dislike it, the artist has to make an impact and has to express a silent voice of contemporary times. Artisans have to do something different – they have to create something functional.

So the products resulting from the processes differ?
Exactly. An artist can make a jacket with three sleeves because he says, for example: “We have two arms, but we also have an invisible one that stretches up.” Whatever. But a tailor would never make a jacket with three sleeves unless he has a three-armed client.

But distinguishing the terms it is not always that easy – if you consider the Homo Faber exhibition, there were areas showing more art-related products while others were clearly craft-oriented.
It is not easy to identify, but at Homo Faber there still was a common thread connecting all the products – and that really was the process of crafting.
Similar to our Doppia firma project we present during the Salone del Mobile Milano – we put the same value to the creation of the design as to the part of crafting. Both parts are closely connected to each other and allow the customer to look at their newly invented product being surprised by the unexpected.

In German we using the term “Handwerk”, “handicraft”, for “craft”, which hints at the role of the hand during the production process. Is using the hand really necessary in the artisanal process of creating?
For certain products, the role of the hand can’t be substituted. Machines will be able to do everything fabulously, but there will be always something human hands can do better than any machine. Because we feel empathy, we understand each other in a different way. That is why we consider the artisans not as executors, but as interpreters. It’s like playing music. If you are an executor, you press the keys and that’s it. But if you are an interpreter, the score is the same, but what you hear is something radically different.
It’s the same with the artisan. When he works on a project, he’s not just an executor. A machine would do exactly what the project requires and might deliver something splendid, yes. But the artisan would act differently. He would try to get inside the client’s head and understand precisely what he wants before doing it. The famous Italian cabinet maker Pierluigi Ghianda once said that what is missing in industrial production is a hand that says: ”No, it’s not good.”
If you see a beautiful table, you can look at it and say: “Wow, that’s beautiful”. Then you touch it softly, stroke it and suddenly you understand: It’s not perfect, something is missing. Perhaps it’s even too perfect. Your eyes can betray, but your hands never betray. So, there will always be things the human hands can deliver in a different way. We have to educate the clients to understand this.
But that doesn’t mean that an artisan is not allowed to use machines. Technology can help artisans save time by taking over repetitive jobs – that is ok and that has always been done. It gives the artisan more time to create, to innovate and to invent. But the ratio between the man and the machine should be balanced.

What is it that fascinates customers about craftsmanship and the HANDMADE – and who will or should be the customer of crafts products in the 21stcentury?
The fascination certainly lies in the sense of discovery. Our mobile phones give us access to basically everything. But what I saw at Homo Faber was really the surprise of people watching the artisans at work or discovering products – something they had never seen before and had never thought about. So even nowadays, the sense of discovery is something that still surprises people. Surprise is a beautiful emotion leading to curiosity which itself leads to love, which leads to passion. You can’t love what you don’t know, but if you want to know something, you have to feel curiosity and attention. I think the fascination very much lies in the sense of a secret being discovered.
The world is big, the world is full of different things. Do we need another jacket, do we need another table? No, we don’t need anything. But we need to dream. And I think that the clients of the future will be people who realize that there is a different way of producing, of purchasing, of keeping and loving objects and things. You can buy disposable things that you forget about soon. But you should always find something you love, something that becomes closer and closer to your heart the more time passes. Because it gets filled with emotions. This is why we really have to educate the clients – to create awareness that emotions are important, quality is important and uniqueness is important.

Should handicraft products be luxury products reserved for a very small group of very wealthy customers or is there also a market for handcrafted, affordable everyday products?
Can there be luxury without excellence?
The answer is No.
Of course, luxury products have to encompass a certain amount of craftsmanship and artisanal objects are very often beautiful luxury objects.
Can there be excellence without luxury?
The answer is Yes.
If you go to Pasticceria Marchesi in via Monte Napoleone in Milano, you can have a coffee for 1,50€. Is that luxury? No. But it’s excellent. It’s served beautifully in a lovely place and it’s special. It’s emotion.
So, of course you have to be willing to pay more for something done according to the rules by a craftsman who chooses the best raw materials. You can’t expect to pay the same price for an object that has its own story as for other objects. You must be ready to accept that value has its price and be willing to pay for it. Value for money – that’s the whole point.

Centuries of shape

Being director of both the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship and the Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d’Arte, Alberto Cavalli is one of the most profound connoisseurs of the top-level manufacturing industry in Italy as well as internationally. As such, in late 2018, he curated the exhibition HOMO FABER: Crafting a more human future in Venice.