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Franco Clivio, Foto: Laurent Burst
Franco Clivio modelling a soap bubble manifold, © Laurent Burst

For him, finding, collecting, recognising and designing belong together. The best-known designs of Franco Clivio include the Gardena system, the pico from Lamy and spotlights and luminaires for Erco. On 7 July, the designer celebrated his 80th birthday.

By Thomas Wagner.

For Franco Clivio, design is not a distanced matter that has more to do with things than with people. Quite the opposite. Decisive for him were the close, trusting relationships that existed over many years or even decades with entrepreneurs and chief designers such as Werner Kress of Gardena, Klaus Jürgen Maack of Erco, Manfred Lamy of the writing utensil manufacturer of the same name, Jürgen Werner Braun of FSB, Herbert Schultes of Siemens and Eckhard Tischer of Rodenstock. In order for the cooperation to prove fruitful for both sides, personal attitudes were just as important as questions of design. In addition, Clivio approaches people openly, does not put himself above others and likes to work in a team. He says he worked for Gardena for more than 35 years, 17 for Lamy and 15 for Erco. Perhaps that is why, paradoxical as it may sound, he has never worked as an employed designer, but always freely and independently. He is very happy that he was able to work with people who were passionate about what they were doing, who could make their own decisions and who knew how to motivate their people. Today, he notes, it is mostly marketing that decides on the design, but they do not have their own attitude towards it. New designs are delegated to market research for review. The results are corresponding. You just have to be lucky in life, he says, quoting the proverb: “You can’t win the lottery if you haven’t played it.”

He has always remained an “Ulmer”

Franco Clivio has always remained an “Ulmer” in many ways. He has always emphasised that his time at the University for Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung) Ulm broadened his horizons in many ways. He absorbed everything that came his way like a giant sponge. He studied at the “Oberer Kuhberg” from 1963 to 1968. The co-founder Otl Aicher was an important teacher, he was close to Hans Gugelot until his unexpected death, and he remained on friendly terms with Gui Bonsiepe, with whom he was once an assistant, and with Tomás Maldonado, even after the end of the university. Maldonado visited him on his 60th birthday and wrote about his work. Today, Clivio is one of the most successful designers in the field of system design. His product design for the garden tool manufacturer Gardena made him famous. He did not invent the well-known couplings that can be so easily plugged together; they already existed for air hoses and gas cookers. But he made the couplings so user-friendly and worked out the system so consistently in all its parts that Gardena became a household name. He also reduced the amount of material used in injection moulding, which was what made inexpensive production possible in the first place, as much as possible. For many years, as already mentioned, he was closely associated not only with Gardena but also with Erco, FSB, Lamy, Siemens and Rodenstock. From 1972 onwards, he taught as a guest lecturer at various universities in Germany, Finland, Italy and the USA, from 1980 to 2002 at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Zurich and then at the Instituto Universitario di Architettura in Venice. 

In design, all questions are practical questions

Clivio has not leaned on or even rested on the familiar, but has sought an independent path for each design issue. For him, all questions in design are practical questions – and none seems too marginal to be ignored. When we spoke on the phone in the last few days and I asked him if he wasn’t something of a toolmaker, he quite liked that: that was true, after all, he had never made furniture, which, he adds with a laugh, is what the whole of northern Italy lives on.  

Collecting things to understand them

Franco Clivio, no question about it, is proud of his designs. Design is not about being modest, but open, team-oriented, precise and, that too, original. And yet he cultivates a secret love for anonymous design. Or perhaps it would be better to say: to this day, he can marvel at man’s enormous ingenuity like a child discovering for the first time how diverse and rich the world is after all. Clivio is always fascinated anew by how differently things are made that someone has designed. If you ask him when he started collecting, he answers as glibly as his way is: “Since I got pockets.” His collection is said to comprise around 1000 objects – from feathers, fans, saws, fountain pens and writing implements of all kinds to monocles, pince-nez and spectacles to ferrules and hand drills – which he has gathered in second-hand shops, junk shops and flea markets. 

Exhibition photography from »No Name Design«, Foto: Hans Hansen

Exercising perception

His collection may be extensive and rich: but Clivio does not collect to collect, not to own things. Collecting helps him discover. It forces him to look closely at how something is made and to think about what the design quality of a thing is. Whenever he discovers something, he trains his perception and judgement. He has often practised this with students at the Zurich School of Design, asking them to bring products for a franc or two and explain what their design quality is. Whereby, he notes with a laugh, the difficulty for him was to find a better object to look at. 

Clivio’s training programme makes something else clear: all the things that surround us do not become sources of inspiration by themselves, not automatically. What distinguishes them from others, what constitutes their quality, has to be found out consciously. It only reveals itself in the light of a lively interest. That the never-ending preoccupation with anonymous design is not a marginal matter is also proven by the fascination that Clivio’s collection has exerted on many an entrepreneur and designer over the years. Once it was known, he reports, what surprises were slumbering in drawers and boxes at his place, when he came to a meeting he was often asked: “Clivio, what have you brought us?” Together with the photographer Hans Hansen and the graphic designer Pierre Mendell, Clivio has also presented his collection in exhibitions and made it vivid in the wonderful book “Hidden Design” (»Verborgene Gestaltung«) together with the problem-solving punch lines that are not always easy to recognise. 

The little one for the pocket

And because Franco Clivio is who he is, there is also something in the things he has designed that is not immediately visible but is essential to the matter. No secret, but something that makes the respective object fundamentally different from others in use. The best example is the pocket biros “pico”, which Clivio designed for Lamy in 2001. The pico is also inspired by an unknown find, but it goes far beyond that. Dr Manfred Lamy, Franco tells us, said to him at the time: “Every designer wants to make a fountain pen”, but immediately added: “Clivio, do what you want. It just has to fit the image of the company – but please not a fountain pen.” So Clivio asked himself: how do I actually use writing instruments? They all have a clip like that, yes, to put it in the jacket or shirt. But what do women do? 

LAMY pico, designed for LAMY in 2001, © LAMY

Writing utensil, toy and hand-flatterer

To make a long story short: Clivio prefers to put his pens in his trouser pocket. There they get jammed just as much as when you put them in the side pocket of your sacco. When he realised this, he had the idea of reducing the pen to a minimum, without cap and clip. It should be a pen that you only need one hand to use. So with the pico, you just press it and can start writing immediately. Technically, the implementation was an enormous challenge for Lamy. The fact that the pen works perfectly was a necessary prerequisite for Clivio, but by no means everything. After all, the point of the pen is not in its form, but in its function and the aha effect that comes when you use it. In short, it is, in a clever way, a writing instrument, a toy and a hand caress at the same time.  

Manifolds or the love of geometry

The small and the large, the compact that can transform into something else – like an umbrella that only unfolds to its true size when it is needed. A pen like the pico follows the same principle. Even in the Gardena system there is the spirit of transformation. Clivio’s love of order, geometry and surprising but always practical changes goes back to his days as a student in Ulm, when Walter Zeischegg told him he had developed a method of making a cube flat, but would not tell him. Thus challenged, Clivio figured it out himself. The business of folding and unfolding has kept him busy in between – and intensified over the last two decades. “Manifolds is what he calls the structures made of fine tubes connected by joints, as they are used in medicine. On the surface, they form squares, rectangles and triangles, but they can be turned and unfolded into three dimensions in such a way that fascinating new spatial shapes emerge from the movement. Clivio has devised hundreds of them. 

»Manifolds« – these are objects with jointed rods. On the surface they show geometric shapes, they unfold into spatial sculptures through movement. (© Franco Clivio on www.manifolds.ch

And so it all comes together what constitutes design for him: the playful instinct that is paired with an orderly system; the intimate connection between function and usability; the never-ending process of finding, collecting and recognising, of folding and unfolding. A seemingly simple principle that, fuelled by ideas, provided with the appropriate joints and connections, leads to useful things such as those designed by this toolmaker. Today Franco Clivio celebrates his 80th birthday. We congratulate him, raise our glasses and call out to him: Here’s to a pico!

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