Italian art fascinated me when I first discovered it at my art college in Kolkata. Coming as I did from my mud-house refugee colony then, I’d considered the solid-structured British architecture college building itself to be a place of pilgrimage. Today I can see how it was art alone that saved me from extreme poverty where an important breadwinner in our joint family, my schoolteacher mother, was quite vulnerable, regularly bleeding from her nose and mouth from malnourishment and overwork.
Somehow I was terrified by school exams; that’s probably why I still have no degree beyond matriculation. But the art college entrance exam was most exciting. We had to draw a human figure in front of the professor, an exercise that our refugee colony neighbour, Subhinoy, had made me practice since childhood. Subhinoy, with his outstanding artistic talent, was my role model. He couldn’t exploit art for livelihood generation, so he did some basic work in electric supply. The incomparable learning I got from him was so vital that I believe it is the blood of my art. It allowed me my first leapfrog into Kolkata Government College of Art & Craft.
Our college library exposed me to the amazing skills of Italian artists. Leonardo da Vinci’s quality of observation captured through sepia conté drawing of drapery and the natural folds of fabric coming alive with just pencil sketching made my mind turn upside down. He started my passionate love affair with incredible Mediterranean art and culture of the last 2,000 years. Italy taught me artistic sense and elegance in art and industrial design.
Vincent van Gogh’s artistic palette changing from the dark Dutch Potato Eaters to the bright Sunflowers on arrival in France was my inspirational pull to go to Paris in 1973. So in art, Italy is my mind, France is my heart and Subhinoy is my blood.
Departing on Air India for Paris, something incredible happened. The airhostess announced a transit in Rome, and do you know what mesmerised me more? The airport’s name was Leonardo da Vinci! I hadn’t known that. Actually, I didn’t even know the meaning of transit. She said we could stay in the aircraft or disembark. I was enthralled but hesitant; what if the plane flies away without me? Then I took the bold step of touching the airport floor. This immediately took me to another planet mentally, my first step on Europe, the country of Raphael, da Vinci, Michelangelo that I had studied with my pencils in art college. Now here I was, taking this unforgettable step into Rome airport with its elegant Italian marble flooring. All the money I had with me was $8, but I could not resist buying and posting a postcard to my mother about experiencing Europe. Italy continues to drive me to imbibe artistry and elegance in design.
In 1986, a famous Italian company hired my company to work for their pasta brand. Their marketing wing briefed me about the different varieties of pastas. We visited the factory to see how different-shaped pasta came out from the machine. Lunch was organised with the company’s owner, who spoke very good French. After lunch, he took me back to the factory to show the pasta dough. He showed me how, from the same pasta dough, using the art of design through dissimilar moulds, they could change the shape and perception. This invites consumers to prepare diverse types of recipes with differently shaped pasta. I found his pasta explanation ingenious. I understood that Italian art and culture starts right from the food they eat. The designs of penne, tripolini, fettuccine, rotini, farfalle, lasagne, tortelli li, gnocchi, spaghetti and more were explained for over two hours to me by this gentleman. He very often held a single pasta with two fingers and showed off its beauty in front of a table lamp. His elaboration on the culture of pasta was to help me express it in the branding. I met with him six more times to learn of the aesthetics to the eating enjoyment of pasta.
Having worked for many years with many Italian companies ranging from automobiles to food, FMCG to fashion, I’ve learned that Italian designers of different disciplines always look at any product’s aesthetics from its specific aesthetics angle. I was surprised why such a great design society would call a French company like mine. In response they said the key attraction was the effective way we translated customer centricity into European and global strategy and design. When we worked to make Carapelli Italian olive oil into a global brand, the company allowed us total artistic licence. We translated the olive oil’s origin in Tuscany with very sophisticated imagery and disruptively broke tradition by putting the product in a thin whiskey-bottle-type design so it didn’t look like oil. Only this brave, risk-taking Italian management could accept our new branding and structural packaging which subsequently made olive oil branding history and brought positive returns to the company.
If you walk down an Italian street, you’ll rarely find anyone badly dressed. Irrespective of income, Italians seem to psychologically carry an elegance that I’ve not seen in many countries. In the past 18 months, I’ve been associated with a terrific Italian whose body structure gives the living idea of Michelangelo’s David sculpture. With my close affinity to Italian culture, we hit it off instantly; our relationship has transcended to philosophical areas. He invited my wife and me to spend Easter with his in-laws on the beautiful island of Sardinia. At midnight mass in their parish church, the small village population, from children to geriatrics, was all there. The contrast of this old-style village church with stained-glass holy pictures and modern-dressed locals religiously singing classical hymns was amazing. On my left, my wife, on my right, my Italian David-featured friend is a pictorial canvas I will never forget. Let me continue to express my learning of Italian aesthetics through the window of this family next week.
Shombit Sengupta is a global consultant on unique customer centricity strategy to execution excellence for top management.
Reach him at www.shiningconsulting.com