From Ventura Lambrate to Centrale: Margriet Vollenberg on Creating a Platform for Designers    

Ventura Centrale. Photo by Claudio Grassi
Margriet Vollenberg. Photo by Matteo Cogliati
Maarten Baas by Lensvelt at Ventura Centrale 2017. Photo: Claudio Grassi
Ventura Lambrate 2017. Photo: Claudio Grassi
IKEA at Ventura Lambrate 2017. Photo by Walter Gorini
IKEA at Ventura Lambrate 2017. Photo by Walter Gorini
A typical scene at Ventura Lambrate during Milan Design Week. Photo: Claudio Grassi
Lee Broom at Ventura Centrale 2017. Photo: Claudio Grassi
Lambert Kamps at Ventura Lambrate 2017. Photo: Claudio Grassi
Ventura Centrale. Photo by Claudio Grassi
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The 2021 Sovereign Asian Art Prize

 

“I knew at the academy that I was a designer, but not the best designer… I am much better at organising and matchmaking, seeing possibilities and trying to connect people to make things happen.”

 

Ventura Centrale. Photo by Claudio Grassi

 

That is the self-recognition that drove Margriet Vollenberg to found Organisation in Design, a production and PR company that organises design fairs which provide thousands of designers with international exposure. After 17 years of being at the centre of the design world, she has made a name for herself and Ventura Lambrate by showcasing and guiding young and emerging talent, and this year debuts Ventura Centrale at Milan Design Week.

We sat down with the game-changer during Milan Design Week to discuss the origin of her unconventional career, her advice for young designers and her own take on how the design week has become a global phenomenon.

TEXT: Elise Yau
IMAGES: Courtesy of Organisation in Design

 

Margriet Vollenberg. Photo by Matteo Cogliati

 

You have just launched Ventura Centrale, an ambitious project that is very different from Lambrate. Why did you see the need to launch Lambrate?

Yes, it is different and that was the idea, to be different. This is the eighth edition of Ventura Lambrate. I began working on the concept about ten years ago when it was very important to create a platform for the new generation of designers, small studios, brands, start-up brands etc. to give them an opportunity in Milan. It is difficult to work here. It all started 17 years ago for me when Marcel Wanders called and said, “Margriet, you are living in Milan, can you help me present a new brand, a new label?” That was Moooi, where it all started for me.

I am a graduate designer who studied at the Design Academy in Eindhoven under Li Edelkoort, the head professor. After my graduation, I immediately went to Milan, as I really liked the city and its vibe. When you talk about design, you have to be in Milan, so I worked here as a jewellery designer in a company for big Italian brands, like Emilio Pucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci etc. I already knew that I was a designer, but not the best designer. There are a lot of other designers better than me. I am much better at organising and matchmaking, seeing possibilities and trying to connect people to make things happen. I am a creator, but I create events rather than products. So I was really happy when Marcel Wanders called me because that was exactly what I wanted to do. So I helped Moooi with their stands and presentation with a really small presentation of about 35-40 square metres.

I knew what the press could do, how they could help you to build something, and I was really fond of organising. In my second and third year with the company, I worked for 40 different companies in Milan during the Salone del Mobile. There wasn’t really a place to go for a lot of younger designers, like Maarten Baas, and smaller brands who were just starting. So they asked me, “Where do we go? Tortona is very expensive and we cannot pay that amount.” The Fiera fair was not an option for them because it was completely full. So, I decided to create a platform for young designers where they could exhibit.

 

“I have to create something for young designers, I have to create a platform for them, somewhere they can go and exhibit.”

 

Maarten Baas by Lensvelt at Ventura Centrale 2017. Photo: Claudio Grassi

 

Cost is the major problem, isn’t it?

Yes, cost is a big problem and also knowing how to do it. Imagine coming from another country to Italy. It is all quite chaotic and a big step as you have to work with the bureaucracy etc. I wanted to make it easier for them because I saw how the Salone del Mobile could really help them to grow, so I needed to have places to do this and drove around the city looking. Lambrate is a very interesting industrial area. All that industry had gone, so there was a lot of big empty buildings and I thought it would be interesting to start there.

An architect I knew was renovating those buildings, but the project had been blocked after the financial crisis. They were not completely finished, but there was electricity, space, an infrastructure, wider streets and it was connected to the metro. This is important as metro is the best way to travel during the Salone del Mobile. So, in 2010 we had our first edition. It was very small with 24 exhibitors. Then in 2014, we had over 100 exhibitors. In the first year, we had 30,000 visitors and now we get much more than 100,000 a year.

 

What does Ventura Centrale add to the existing system?

With Ventura Lambrate, I felt that there was a request from the exhibitors for a platform, so I created one. Three years ago, I could see that my exhibitors in Lambrate were ready to create bigger projects and wanted to make installations that would show the world and tell their story. So I wanted to find new spaces where they could make that happen. We came to Centrale and I thought, ‘Yes, this is the space.’ Designers didn’t ask me to find the new space, but I felt it was needed. People want to express themselves differently to how they were expressing themselves 5-10 years ago.

Lambrate, for me, is really about innovation and the next generation of design, which can be young, the academies or material research. It is about concepts. In Ventura Centrale, we give space to people who want to tell a story. Each space is 300 square metres, so you need the budget to do something with that, so they are generally bigger companies who also have the guts to do that.

 

Ventura Lambrate 2017. Photo: Claudio Grassi

 

How did you locate the abandoned warehouse of the historical Centrale Station and make it happen?

That is a very interesting story. Two or three years ago I thought, “Okay, we have to look for new possibilities.” So I sat down with my Italian colleague and circled around interesting 50 places in Milan and drove around the city with the idea that we wanted to have museum-like presentations, almost like a theatre.

Stazione Centrale has always been a very interesting space and truly important station in Italy. It is 102 years old and Mussolini restored it before the war. It is 1-kilometre long, bombastic and huge. It was quite difficult to speak with the owners, FS, as they were a governmental institution with other things on their minds. I was lucky because all the stations in Italy had been sold to a private company, which made the conversation much easier. The major and municipal communities of Milan spoke with the owners and said, “Look, it could be interesting to re-evaluate the station and do something with it.” When Ventura Lambrate started, it gave new life to this ex-industrial area and it was re-evaluated. It was strange because they were searching for us and we were searching for them. So, it was great to present them with our plan and they were enthusiastic.

 

It is interesting that your work is tied in with Milan’s urban renewal process. Is that an opportunity or a challenge?

Milan has changed a lot in the last 12 years, and in a good way. Milan used to be very much on its own, but now it is an international, metropolitan city. They had the World Expo and really reinvented themselves. A lot of things we now work with are a result of the city’s culture. Milan is very important for the fashion world and design world.

 

“People want to express themselves differently to how they were expressing themselves 5-10 years ago.”

 

IKEA at Ventura Lambrate 2017. Photo by Walter Gorini
IKEA at Ventura Lambrate 2017. Photo by Walter Gorini

 

Alice Rawsthorn once wrote that Salone del Mobile had become a celebration of marketing over design that presented design as a “superficial stylistic tool”. Do you agree?

I don’t think it is just a product showcase. For me, Milan is the start of the design year. It is my new year where you discover more than just products. In Italy, it is about showing who you are, your identity. There is an Italian saying, “La Bella Figura”; It matters how you look, how you feel and what you eat. That is something you see during Design Week. It looks good, the weather is nice, people look nice. It is the whole picture that counts. You are here as a brand and want to show who you are and give an identity to yourself. That is also why all the press come here.

 

Do you think young designers lack the resources to get the attention of the Salone crowd?

Well, that’s not completely true. I learned while creating Lambrate that you don’t need money to show yourself, your stands don’t have to cost €100,000. If you are clever and do it well, people will understand that you cannot pay so much. It is not about the money, it is about what you are giving back to the public and you see that in Lambrate. In the first few years, I was anxious about what the public would think. They are very used to having big stands, carpets and nice girls at the press desk and shuttle services. We don’t have that and nobody cares. Everybody likes it because they are there for the content – what you’re telling them and how you are telling them – not the glamour that surrounds it.

 

A typical scene at Ventura Lambrate during Milan Design Week. Photo: Claudio Grassi

 

Have the challenges facing young designers changed over the past eight years?

Yes, there are fewer resources now. It is difficult to have designers from Asia, South America and even Europe because it’s an investment to rent the space, create the prototype and pay the hotel and transportation costs. When designers gets their own studio, they become a company and have to make investments. First of all, it is on a small scale and if you do that well, it gets a bit bigger each time. My first investment was €5000. I borrowed it and then paid it back. That is how things go.

Some designers live too much in the moment and think, “Now that I have money in my pocket, I can do something.” I would say to them, “Okay, but if you do it now, the money is gone. What will you do then?” You have to think about the long term and have a business plan.

There are many designers now and it is good that a lot of them work together. They are starting to group together and become collectives because of the costs and logistics. They are presenting and collaborating together, sometimes under a new name and between different countries too.

 

Do you often receive applications from Hong Kong?

Not often. We have a lot of Japanese and quite a few Indonesians and Koreans, but not so many Chinese. China is a big market, so I don’t know how interesting it is for Chinese designers to be known in Europe. However, when Chinese designers study in another academy, such as London or Eindhoven, they are much more focused on Europe. It is also about how they position themselves and what they can do with the contacts they make at the fair.

 

Lee Broom at Ventura Centrale 2017. Photo: Claudio Grassi

 

You have met so many designers over the past eight years. What is your dearest memory of working with a designer?

There are many, which is nice. When I look back, you see the designers grow and you grow with them. That makes me very proud. For example, Lee Broom was with us during the second year, when he was just starting, and it is now his tenth anniversary. We also have designers with products at Moooi or Hay. I have many exhibitors who now work in fashion or are doing projects with Hermes or Missoni after being scouted by them. I had a Dutch exhibitor, Vij5, who makes NewspaperWood, that was discovered there and scouted by Peugeot, who used the material for the interior of their cars.

My PR team now guides a lot of company tours. Companies come to us and say, “We are interested in new materials, colours or innovation,” and we present the designers to them. Quite often something comes out of that. So in a way, we are a matchmaking platform.

 

What are the criteria for designers to participate?

People ask me that because I am the Art Director of Ventura Lambrate and Ventura Centrale, but there are no rules. You have to show your potential, so it is important that the designer is ready to present themselves. I have a designer’s eye, but I also have a commercial background, and of course, your gut feeling is involved as well.

 

How much does it cost to participate in Lambrate?

They pay the rent and some pay a start fee of €1500 if they are young designers with one product to show. Then, we create an exhibition for them. Most of them want a booth for themselves, a square metre, and they pay for that. We also do Ventura New York in May, but if I compare the price per square metre, New York is really expensive. Milan is cheaper.

 

Lambert Kamps at Ventura Lambrate 2017. Photo: Claudio Grassi

 

What are the most frequently asked questions by young designers?

They ask have many questions, but most of them are the same and are along these lines, “Why do we have to do that?” I think it is an error in our schooling system that we focus on them being good designers, but forget that being a designer means also being able to run a company. We forget to teach them how to do this.

Then there are questions about whether graduate designers should start their own company immediately or start working with a company instead. Some designers think that because they have graduated from the Design Academy, they can start to be a designer. Of course you can, because you are very good at that, but you also have to talk to clients, search for projects, talk about contracts and deal with contingencies. I am often asked questions like, “Do you think we have to do this? Is this good for us?” because they are insecure about what decisions to make.

I am thinking about creating an online system. It would be an online academy where we could all share our experiences as designers and submit online to connect with others. Imagine Ventura Lambrate as an online edition. Not as a portfolio, but as somewhere you can share experiences and ask questions. For example, what happens when my product is copied or how does it work when you want to work with IKEA? I want to open up the market to share both knowledge and ideas. That is a side project that I am now working on.

It used to be quite a closed community, but we have to understand that there are two markets involved: the commercial market and the design or cultural market. These markets work together, but it is often very difficult because they speak two different languages.

 

I estimate there are 70 design weeks around the world. What’s your take on this growing phenomenon?

It is too much and makes no sense. They have started to unite the design weeks a little bit, and I was involved when they started doing that. For me, it is not about making it more global. It is okay when a city creates a design week for its own public, but we cannot think of them all as international design weeks.

I don’t find the term “design week” interesting. This is now called Milan Design Week, but it is only branding. It was called Salone del Mobile before that. To be honest, I liked that because it gave you an idea of what it was originally about. When it started in the 60s, they wanted to create a salon for furniture. Of course, it is not only about the furniture anymore, but at least you understand where it came from. Now it is called Design Week and we are like all the others.

 

What is your best advice for young designers?

I have two pieces of advice. Think about the next ten steps and set yourself a goal. Then, go in a straight line towards it and don’t get distracted. It is like making a business plan, but a “goal” is a sexier name.

The other important thing is to work in a company for a few years before you open your own studio because then you can see for yourself what it means to have a company and how it works. This gives you a lot of experience and will make you stronger. Designers can develop much more when working for a company because their creative minds can be much freer, as they do not have to think about paying the rent or the many other things you need to take care of when you are a company.

Working for a company for five years gave me a lot of experience and knowledge, and meant that I could be very creative. Sometimes designers think that, “I’m a great designer and should have my own studio.” It doesn’t matter. You are young and have your whole life ahead of you. You can do that when you’re 35 or 40. Maybe you’ll find you are not a self-employed type of designer and so work really well within a company, where you can develop and become very good. Maybe you can even change the company with your ideas.

 

What is your goal at this moment?

I would like to work with companies that can make investments, who have the same dream as me and want to show the next generation. It is important that we can research and designers can be free and stay as artists. I’d like to give them back a little bit more freedom to make artistic things again.

 

Ventura Centrale. Photo by Claudio Grassi

 

 

 


Elise YAU (Editor of CoBo)

Elise YAU is an editor and journalist specialises in design, lifestyle and luxury topics. She has written extensively for Ming Pao Weekly, City Magazine and HK01, and she is the author of book projects regarding design, architecture and Hong Kong culture. Currently based in Hong Kong, Elise is immersing the art world after joining CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.

eliseyau@cobosocial.com

 

 

 
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