From the car to the water heater


The link existing between the automotive and the household appliance world is known and evident. Therefore it is not surprising if the Turin study Up Design takes care, maintaining the same bent for innovation, projects of both sectors.

Silvia Fissore

We are in Turin, in the Mirafiori district: in a word, in the beating heart of the Italian automotive. Here, along with the great “tailors” of the four wheels, a new reality is gaining positions, Up Design, which is midway between the design centre and the laboratory of ideas and creativity, with a range of action that goes from automotive to furniture, from household appliances to architecture. The person who founded it, in October 2010, is a talented Sicilian, Umberto Palermo, born in 1973, already style manager of one of the most important Turin car styling centres, Idea Institute.
When he decides to leave his job at Idea, Palermo can rely on 18 years of collaborations with the most important brands of the Made in Italy: from Fiat to Bialetti, from Ariston Thermo to Indesit Company, to mention some of them. Besides, in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the young designer stood out for two automotive concepts, Era and Sofia, which on the occasion of the Geneva Motor Show attract the attention of sector players and press. Today, one year and a half later, Up Design is already an entrepreneurial reality with 15 employees and two offices, in Turin and Milan, without considering the next opening in Shanghai. Young and dynamic company, Up Design has immediately demonstrated to be permeable to the modern economic fabric thanks to the versatile skills of the its team.

Era car, presented at Geneva Motor Show.

Let’s step back to see who is Umberto Palermo and what has been his educational course.

I like calling myself a self-taught, or rather, an “errand boy”, as they said in the past. As a matter of fact, I have not followed a traditional course of architecture studies but I have learnt the design job directly on the field, with the guide of two great masters of the Italian industrial design: Bonetto Study in Milan and Ermanno Cressoni (design director of Alfa Romeo; editor’s note) in Turin. The informal approach of Bonetto Study, where each hierarchy was annulled in favour of the team work, gave me the possibility of working immediately on some important projects of the automotive sector. Milan, then, represented an important starting point while Turin was the forge where to shape my creativity and to complete my education in the design world thanks to the guide of personalities such as Cressoni and to the confidence of Pietro Lardini, president of Idea.

Nous water heater for Ariston Thermo.

Nous water heater for Ariston Thermo.

What is the position of Up Design in the survey of the Italian industrial design?
It aims at being an answer to the sector crisis, representing a new excellence design centre through which to diffuse the culture of the Italian style.

Who is the designer of the third millennium?
A professional who does not fossilize in one intervention ambit only but who on the contrary can enrich the projects at which he works with a knowledge gained dealing with varied themes.

What has changed in comparison with the past?
Once the designer acted mainly as a soloist. Today these archistar figures are diminishing to leave room to the team work, to the intertwinement of experiences and to the plurality of minds, obviously coordinated by a reference person who can be the purchaser himself of the project.

Umberto Palermo and the Vittoria car.

What is the successful product?

The product that springs from the observation of the human being and of the context where he lives. The designer, in fact, must be able to perceive human requirements, dreams and wishes, to process them and to translate them into projects able to improve our life.

How is a product conceived?
Three are the main steps: the concept design, the design (in pencil, in 3D) and engineering. In this process a strong added value is represented by the plot of specializations and their contamination. But the foundations of all are represented by engineering: for this reason the direct dialogue between technical and creative figures must always be alive, also thanks to the aid of software for 3D simulations that allow evaluating all the possibilities and the variants of the design in real time. It sometimes happens that the company/buyer has already the product in mind and in that case the designer is only requested to give a shape to it. In other cases, on the contrary, the buyer asks the designer to create something new, which can intercept the market demand. Here the observation skills, which are at the base of the concept design, become essential. We must adapt ourselves to the market, to guess end-users’ tastes and to try to anticipate them facing up to daily needs.

What are the designer’s instruments?

We still work with the pencil, but only for preliminary ideas. The main instrument is in fact constituted by 3D software that facilitate the object understanding by the buyer and his team of technicians. Moreover, in addition to computer skills, it is essential the knowledge of materials and of their characteristics “.

What does the market expect from design today?

Functionality, technical and aesthetical innovation. The consumer wants to please the eye keeping anyway the economic component under strict control. The designer is requested to be able to renew products, giving them a new look, without forgetting the accessibility concept.

How do you face the design theme in highly different industrial sectors?
I believe in the versatility of design, in drawing shapes and contents from the experience gained in different contexts. This widens and favours the application parameters. A design that draws its force from the contaminations in radically different sectors and exploits them by conceiving versatile products.

Today you work for numerous brands of the white good sector: Scholtés, Hotpoint-Ariston, Ariston Thermo. What was the most difficult challenge?

When Ariston Thermo asked us to work at the restyling of its water heaters. First of all, we decided to propose an innovative message in terms of product positioning and classification. We coined, to this end, the term “waterfurniture”, trying to give this object a connotation ennobling its position inside the house and the bathroom. Our goal was that the consumer no more imagined the water heater as a white cylinder but as a real element harmonically integrated into the environment, thanks to the use of materials and details with strong aesthetic impact. This approach was very successful among consumers and the company decided to entrust us with the global aesthetic of all its range.

Velis water heater for Ariston Thermo.

How much of your automotive experience is recalled in the design of a household appliance?

There are common concepts shared by both sectors. Concerning the external shell, for instance, let’s just consider how much the dashboard of a car is similar to the control panel of a washing machine or of a dishwasher: both must be designed according to ergonomics criteria, with intuitive and user friendly interfaces. The research itself of materials travels on parallel tracks: in both cases the choice of colours, of textures and of the various mixes is carried out through attentive market analyses. It is worth reminding, then, in the design ambit, themes like eco-compatibility and recycling, which first of all landed in the automotive sector and afterwards were implemented by the industry of white goods.

When can a designer affirm that he is satisfied with his work?
When he creates a product whose shape and contents will be afterwards copied. The greatest ambition in our job is to succeed in creating the “icon” product by excellence.

The role of household appliances today?
Let’s say that they are real appendages of our body, or better, of our daily life. Today, in the so-called consumer society, it is almost impossible to give up a refrigerator or a washing machine. The refrigerator, then, has assumed an almost totemic significance inside the kitchen, both due to its anthropomorphic shape and because, keeping food fresh, is a sort of alive and changeable macro-organism.

The role of domotics?

Domotics knew a media boom when the market was not ready to understand its real usefulness, yet. But most of all it was proposed to consumers from a wrong point of view: like a sort of butler to be used to programme the oven cooking of the chicken or the ignition of the conditioned air. I think that today it can really show its value only if conceived like a smart system able to optimize energy consumptions and to speed up the exchange of data and information. Otherwise it risks of becoming pure and sterile virtuosity or, even worse, “stuff for rich people “.

What do you think of the entertainment entry into the household appliance world?
In my opinion, it is not convincing. The consumer does not search for internet or TV in an oven or in a refrigerator but something that helps him to solve practical needs.

How will the household appliance be in 2050?
Certainly, our grandsons will still have washing machines, refrigerators and coffee machines: in other words, there will be nothing new. But new will be the contents in terms of sustainability and efficiency and different will be their position in the house. I imagine increasingly integrated appliances and in full harmony with domestic spaces and life.

What new are you working at?
We have just ended the new line of Ariston Thermo water heaters, presented on the occasion of Expocomfort 2012, and launched a new show car, Vittoria, presented at the Qatar Motorshow 2012. We are going to launch a new line of luxury watches with Swiss mechanics and a range of craft made trolleys with hand-wrought aluminium structure, to be lined with a wide choice of leathers coming from an ancient Tuscany tannery. Finally, we can announce the launch in June of an innovative interpretation of carbon fibre bike: a project fully conceived and thought by UP Design, which will produce Up Design-branded frames.