"Only if you love something do you learn to understand it." —Eva Zeisel
Milan has legitimate claim as Italy's center for modern design, but you might learn more about the texture and cultural depth of Italian design by visiting the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. We went here to visit the Ducati motorcycle and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factories. It turns out that great cheese and great bikes share quite a few qualities in common. And they are both examples of Italy's preeminence in design, craftsmanship, production, and good taste.
My designer friends who are motorcycle buffs get particularly revved up over Ducati’s. Writer Owen Edwards has referred to them as "A perfect melding of speed, art, and awe, the Futurist dream come true." Ed Friedrichs, Ex CEO of Gensler, sums them up this way: "Riding a Ducati is authentic, the real thing—raw, linear and strong." Architect Larisa Sands calls hers "a balance of grace and guts." They can be seen as often in museum design collections as they can on racetracks. But the tour of the Ducati museum and factory educated us to some lesser known facts about the machines, their heritage and some of the company's tenets-which could just as easily be applied to the design world: Keep women in the business, keep bureaucracies out of the business, employ great designers, and don't let robots take over where the human touch is needed.
Ducati was a large manufacturer of mini cameras, radios, and a wide range of other items in the '40s, employing 6000 people. Bombed and destroyed during WW2, they came back as an engine manufacturer for motorized bicycles. By pioneering a new frame and a 100cc engine, Ducati had set 46 speed records in ten years with the Siluro Rocket, which could reach 100 mph. The business was nationalized in 1960 and management forced the company to develop diesel engines for farm equipment and other common products. Employment dropped from 5000 to 1400 over the next 24 years while under the bureaucracy, and Ducati suffered a near fatal decline. The turnaround occurred in 1983 when the Castiglioni family bought the company and began the development of the modern sport bike, based on numerous new technological advancements. Thus, Ducati’s were reborn and designers like the revered Massimo Tamburini were employed.
Twenty years later and they continue to dazzle us on and off the track. Not only are they gorgeous, but they have apparently not had one mechanical breakdown in racing in the last five years. Even if you don't care for their throaty charisma, you have to be impressed with machines that hum at 13,000 rpm (that means a crankshaft that turns over 200 times a second). Walking the factory you see workers conversing and smiling and actually enjoying their work. You learn that women are the ones who assemble all of the engines. They are thought to be more precise and patient. And they complete all of the necessary final tweaking for each engine by hand. This is not assembly-line mentality. There is a personal pride and responsibility taken with each piece, with every bike signed off by its assembler.
Just down the road are the factories that produce Parmigiano-Reggiano, the classic Italian cheese that, like Ducati’s, is equally respected for its singular taste and performance. It is also unable to be reproduced anywhere else in the world. The culture of the Po Valley, like the culture of the cheese, is unique to this region. The Ducati and Parmigiano-Reggiano factories share a few traits in common: workers who are passionate about their product, a balance of high-tech and high-touch engineering, the influence of family tradition and an output of classic forms that have a quintessential correctness in proportion and aesthetic.
However, the manufacturing process between the two companies is quite different, as the cheese dairies run 24-7 (cows do not stop producing milk on the weekends). The process begins with the milk working its way through elegant high tech stainless steel structures after which it is separated into temperature-controlled vats. The separated cream gets a dose of some esoteric enzyme when the moment is right, but only one person has the nose for the exact timing. Human sensibility. Then the stuff goes through a forming process with handsome stainless steel molds and gets submerged into brine for 23 days, after which point it is taken out and tweaked a bit before going to the drying racks for 24 months. The resulting 22-kilo puffy rounds of cheese speak of generosity and creative process. And they make for an amazing visual all lined up in the storage room where they sit for two years.
Is it stretching things to compare motorcycles and cheese in terms of design ethic? Maybe. But the attention to details, the importance of timing, the patience in the production, the critical human judgment required in the process and the commitment to a product of unsurpassable quality ties them together strongly. It is no coincidence that from this region, the Emilia Romagna, also come Verdi, Toscanini, Faenza ceramics, Ferraris, Buggatis, Prosciutto di Parma, Aceto Balsamico and some of Europe's finest leather goods.