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Design legend Franco Clivio on how to design true modern classics

A design legend turns 81 today and practically every European knows his designs from LAMY Pico to Gardena Prunes and Coupling: We talked with design legend and iF juror Franco Clivio about inspiration and imitation and what he recommends to young designers.

iF Design Magazine - Interview with Franco Clivio

Franco Clivio studied at the Ulm College of Design from 1963 to 1967. While still a student, he began his design work for the garden tool manufacturer Gardena. Later he worked for the lighting manufacturer Erco and for the Lamy company. He taught at various universities, including the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst in Zurich.

Between 1989 and 2017 he was an eight times iF jury member!

The interview was already conducted in November 2016 at the former iF Design Exhibition in Hamburg. This is the first exclusive publication.

When did you first start thinking about design?

Franco: It must have started very early on. As a designer, it’s important to have a passion from an early age, even if it’s hidden at first. A curiosity, a sense of fascination about the way things work. I was always fixing bikes or fiddling with electrical switches. When I was sixteen, my teacher took the class to a museum. He said to us, you have to look at a picture for a full 15 minutes to really understand it. I remember I chose a picture with a bench in front of it, I didn’t want to stand still for that long! That was the moment when I think I learned how to really see.

You’ve created modern classics like the LAMY Pico and Gardena’s interchangeable system design. How would you approach a new task? What is your design process?

Franco: Every time I’ve designed anything the brief has been different. When I designed the Pico, Manfred Lamy came up to me and said, “Mr. Clivio, I want you to create a pen that fits into our product range!”. That was it – he left the rest up to me. Before I start drawing, there is a long passive phase where I work on the task subconsciously. I think about it continuously, while I’m out walking. I ask myself: this thing I’m making, what could it be like?

A moldern classic: Gardena's Pruner

The famous Gardena Pruner combines cever Design and high functionality: With the help of the precision-ground and non-stick coated blade with anvil cutting principle, you can make precise cuts.

Setting the standard in our households

With his study friend Dieter Raffler, Clivio designed the famous Gardena hose coupling system, that remains beloved until this day. That was 1968 and the system remains the standard in Europe until this day! Read more.

"If someone were to ask me how long it took to design the Pico, I would say 40 years. Inside this pen is all the knowledge I acquired over 40 years as a designer."

On designing LAMY's Pico

"With the Pico, I started thinking about how I use pens. I carry one with me in my pocket. If it’s too long, it gets stuck and is a hassle to get out. So I decided to make something small. First I do a rough sketch – always 1:1, the actual size of the object. As I sketch, the proportions begin to take shape. I work with transparent drafting paper, probably a bit like the younger generation uses layers on Photoshop. When I’ve sketched let’s say five versions, I can visualize the entire process."

Where do you find your inspiration?

Clivio: I’ve collected things since I’ve had pockets. I have over 1,000 objects altogether, most of them from flea markets or second hand stores. Some of them I show in my exhibition, no name design, which was held at the HfG Ulm Museum. I’m interested in the function: there are 15 knives I’ve collected, and each of them opens in a different way! If you think about the way a Swiss Army Knife opens, it’s not perfect: you can break a fingernail trying to open it. But there are no name solutions that are much better.

The Pico is actually a copy – a redesign if you will – of an object I found at a flea market. When I was thinking about the kind of pen I wanted to design for Lamy, I remembered I already had a model. I just had to find where I’d put it [laughs].

Franco Clivio
"I’ve collected things as long as I’ve had pockets."

Finding, collecting, recognizing and designing

The exhibition "No Name" past May in the HfG Ulm was dedicated to the design legend. Clivio has collected about 1000 mostly small objects from everyday use and now presents them in an exhibition.
What unites these things are their ingenious design and functionality, based on a particular idea and construction.
Of very few of them it is known who invented or designed them. They belong to the anonymous everyday design and are not part of the officially celebrated design culture.

Starnberger Gespräche - When design legends met at iF

The Lake Starnberg in Bavaria put its wonderful panorama in the best light for the iF "Starnberg Talks" when we hosted a group of very special people there in 2009 to discuss the question - 'How much design can the climate take?' (picture: Franco Clivio and Kurt Weidemann at the Starnberger Talks).

You studied at the legendary Ulm School of Design. What was it like?

Franco: A teacher of mine said, there’s a school for design in Ulm. I had a catalog sent and from the moment I flipped through it, I felt like a world opened up. It was full of designs done by Ulm students and faculty. Hand drills, automobiles, the Hamburg Subway cars (they were designed by Hans Gugelot), not just furniture which has never interested me. So I applied to Ulm. Even though I had absolutely no qualifications, they accepted me. It felt like a miracle.

What was so special about Ulm was the connection between the teachers and the students. Normally at university, you have a professor for a semester or two and they you go your separate ways. You don’t see each other again. But for over 50 years I’ve still been in contact with two of my teachers at Ulm, Tomas Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepe. Ulm gave me the life I’ve led.

Do you have any advice for young designers?

Franco: Don’t stand still, keep developing. Focus on your career and spend as much time as you can thinking about design, even in your free time. You can’t do design and train for the Olympics at the same time. Be curious! And stubborn if you can, don’t chase after every trend. They disappear so quickly and you’re always going to be too late.

When I taught at the university in the 1980’s I would take the students to a second-hand store and tell them to find an object for less than 2 CHF that was well designed, and one that wasn’t. They’d find things like one clothespin out of a single piece of wood, and one out of plastic (three pieces with a spring in the middle).

Franco Clivio turns 81 on 7 July 2023. Happy birthday, Franco!

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