Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Phones are no longer only technical objects, but also design objects that can shape our style and identity: Matteo Menotto

Matteo Menotto, head of design for prints and accessories consultant, Bulgari, on collaborating with realme on their new phone, his design inspirations, and the impact of artificial intelligence on design professionals' lives

Published: Jun 9, 2023 09:25:19 AM IST
Updated: Jun 9, 2023 07:34:06 PM IST

Matteo Menotto, the designer of the recently launched realme 11 Pro series 5GMatteo Menotto, the designer of the recently launched realme 11 Pro series 5G

Born and raised in Milan, the world's fashion capital, Matteo Menotto's work is inspired by the city's fusion of historical and contemporary elements. An architecture and design graduate who attended post-graduation courses in Prints and Textile Design at Central Saint Martins in London, Menotto, currently head designer for prints and textile accessories at Bulgari, has earlier worked at Gucci and Mantero Seta. He has a keen eye for popular trends and artistic inheritance, which he uses to create new waves of vintage fashion. The design of the recently launched realme 11 Pro series 5G, which is a collaboration between realme Design Studio and Menotto, is inspired by the prints and colours that are quintessential to Milan's fashion industry. In an email interview with Forbes India, Menotto shares his journey, his perspective and story on creating a chic phone, and using artificial intelligence. Edited excerpts: 

Q. What made you decide on a career in design? 

I’ve always been fascinated by visual arts and how to combine craftsmanship with aesthetics. As a kid, I used to spend all my time drawing, fantasising about imaginary stories, people, places, and objects. It was the only way to keep me calm (at least my mum says so), hence wherever my family traveled we always had paper and pencils for me. Growing up I was formed as an architect and after the Master’s I took some courses in prints and textile design to broaden my decorative skills. I literally fell in love with the world of textiles and print design and decided to progress in that direction. Overall, I think that being a designer really represents myself and my character best. 

Q. From studying architecture and design to designing prints and textile design accessories for big fashion labels like Gucci and Bulgari, to designing the body of a smartphone, tell us about the transition and experience: As an opportunity and the challenges you faced along the way. 

The step from textiles for interior decoration to fashion was pretty natural since most of the brands had their creative offices in Milano and I was very fascinated to explore the field, so I decided to present them some of my works. Design is anyway a very wide field and it involves many different disciplines, beyond the world of prints and textiles. Though professionally I’ve devoted most of my career to prints in that, I thought it could be a great opportunity to approach the project of an object that was totally new to me. Sometimes changing the focus of your designs brings also the curiosity to investigate and understand more about aspects of the discipline that you didn’t know before. At the same time, as a designer, you can bring your point of view and your previous experience in a new direction. Hence when realme proposed to me to design the look of their new realme 11 Pro Series 5G, I was really enthusiastic! As an individual, in fact, I’m a typical optimist: I always try to see the bright side of things in every new project that I approach. Of course, it was also challenging since there were many aspects related to the constructive parts of the phone and its technical structure that had to be taken into consideration and could limit the design results. The realme team was very supportive in this sense, providing me with all the information and explaining also what could and could not work according to the technical aspects of this object. 

Q. What was the design brief given to you by the brand? Also, can you tell us about the scope of the project? 

The brand explained to me that they wanted to have a collaboration with a designer belonging to a field that was not necessarily related to the world of smartphones. They actually were looking for profiles that had backgrounds in different design disciplines, so as to bring inside the creative process of a phone design a new point of view. I enjoyed this approach a lot. The brief already explained the technological structure of the phone and gave me the freedom to design its aesthetic. For me, it was a special experience being part of this creative process. First, because it was my very first time designing a phone, but also because it was an opportunity to offer my creative vision on an object that is definitely part of everybody’s life in the contemporary world. 

Q. Please take us through the process of brainstorming, conceptualization, shortlisting and then arriving at the final design. What was the thought process? How did the concept note translate into the final design? 

I started from designing a print, which is probably what comes more naturally to me, and telling a sort of visual story by assembling images. We decided to create something with a very Milanese touch, possibly including direct references to the city and its icons, colours, and symbols. Personally, I loved the idea of combining the feeling of traveling and capturing images and stories of a city with the design of the phone itself. The initial print design in fact was inspired by Milan and how I see it and from this ensemble we defined the main colour of the phone cover, as well as the most distinctive traces of it and its proportions. I was fascinated by the idea of creating something that can suit perfectly the various moments and the different occasions when a phone is with us. 

Q. What was the underlying Milan inspiration?  

What I like the most about Milan is the eclectic spirit of this city, which embodies and mixes elements, architectures, and references belonging to different times and styles, creating a unique and special environment. For instance, we have the Dome, which is a monumental architecture that started in the Middle Ages and progressed over time. Milan also has a castle which is very characteristic and an arch to celebrate the passage from kingdom to republic but opposite to this historic side, there is a totally contemporary district with futuristic buildings. Curiously, the first of them was built over 50 years ago by designer Gio Ponti and was also considered a model for American skyscrapers. There is a sense of order and proportion through all the architecture of the city, though it is co-existence that highlights every single one of them. This print and its elements became the guideline of my aesthetic. 

The print created by the designer, an assembly of images depicting the reflection of light on the facades of Milanese architecture served as an inspiration for the ‘sunrise beige’ colour of the phoneThe print created by the designer, an assembly of images depicting the reflection of light on the facades of Milanese architecture served as an inspiration for the ‘sunrise beige’ colour of the phone

Q. Can you talk us through the choices made, in terms of the materials (the contrast in textures – leather and metal) the colours, the overall design? 

I wanted to create a very strong design, easy to handle and immediate to be remembered. At first glance, I liked it because it’s very fresh and appealing. I think nowadays phones are more and more part of our lives and they are present next to us in many different moments and situations. Hence I think phones are no longer only technical objects, but also design objects that can affect, shape, and represent our style and our identity. For this reason, I like it a lot when different materials are used to structure new mobiles’ appearance and surface.  

As materials, we selected to combine a soft and sophisticated leather surface with a technically structured fabric stripe. The metallic camera circle is shiny, luxurious, and contemporary. Again, it is the ensemble that creates the final effect. In terms of colour, the inspiration came from most typical Milanese architecture and the reflection of the light on their facades. In fact, we named this colour ‘sunrise beige’. 

I think the overall design offers the user a new possibility to express him/herself but also it completes and enlarges the value of the phone itself not only as a communication tool but as a real design piece! 

Q. According to you, what is the most important aspect of a design, be it a print/textile accessory or a smartphone? What makes a design successful? 

Good question… and definitely not an easy one. There are many aspects that may build the success of certain designs. In overall terms, I would say that for me a design is good when it has a clear identity and a story to tell which is recognisable. I always search for ‘the soul’ of a design, maybe this is what makes part of its success! Then, of course, exposure, visibility, and ease of understanding are key points as well… 

Q. What qualities do you look for when purchasing a smartphone? What smartphone do you own? 

Usually, for me, it’s important that a smartphone is intuitive in use, has a good camera, and has a cool design. 

In three words, I would describe it as dynamic, stylish, and contemporary. I’m not a tech geek, so sometimes my choices are guided by aesthetics or commodity. I am definitely looking forward to having the realme 11 Pro and using it at its best. The camera is really amazing! 

Also read: Realme 11 Pro Series 5G launch: Designer Matteo Menotto adds a dash of style and colour

Q. In a market saturated with smartphones, how did you ensure that your design would stand apart?  

I think that is exactly the reason the market is saturated, the final consumer is more and more aware of the value of the pieces and also searching for something distinctive. Under this light, I really think my design for the realme 11 Pro Series 5G is unique. 

Q. An Italian designer designing for a Chinese smartphone brand to be launched in India and the world. What is your view on globalisation? What, according to you, is universal design? How does one achieve universal appeal? 

Our world is becoming more and more global in the exchange of goods. At the same time, I believe that what makes the difference now is the awareness of everyone’s roots, and the ability to bring this heritage from a local to global scale. I don’t know if there may exist a rule for globally successful designs, but I’m sure there is an interest to learn more about objects that have a story to tell.  

Q. Talking of tech and fashion house collaborations, what is your favourite collaboration, and why? 

We live in the era of collaborations. Many fashion houses nowadays are doing a collection that crosses their categories together with brands that belong to other targets and markets to gain new customers. Obviously, it’s for marketing reasons but sometimes I think there’s the risk to exploit the value and the aura of a brand and to lower it. Personally, I like the ‘Balenciaga x Bang & Olufsen’ collaboration, I think the final results are really appropriate for the aesthetic of both brands. Also ‘Teenage Engineering x Off White’ was nice. 

Q. As a designer, where do you get your inspiration from?  

Personally, I love the visual arts and take a lot of inspiration from what I see. I try to be guided by feelings so sometimes I like to mix masterpieces belonging to different types and styles. Also traveling is a great creative source. Inspiration can literally be anywhere as long as you’re curious and open in your mind. 

Q. You have been a visiting lecturer at IED Milano, ESMOD, Domus Academy, NABA, and Politecnico di Milano. Which role do you prefer–a designer or a teacher? 

In the past, I had some experiences as a visiting lecturer for design schools both in Italy and abroad. It’s always nice to work with students since ideas are fresh and free. At the same time, I’ve always done it as a side activity and kept it limited in time… honestly, I never considered doing it full time since I love designing too much! 

Q. What qualities according to you must a design student/ a designer possess to make a meaningful impact in society? 

I think a designer is first of all an individual, so the first quality is of course being aware of himself and his own taste and fields of interest. This is probably the main aspect that can guide you, especially at the beginning of your career. Then, of course, I think it’s important to be curious to explore, to be able to search for inspiration in what surrounds you and to be keen on studying innovative solutions. I really like unconventional thinkers, it’s the type of people that bring unexpected ideas. 

Q. What would be your message to students of design and those pursuing a career in design? 

To students: Never stop believing in your potential; to young professionals: Follow your own visions.  

Q. In a world of generative AI, what do you think is the impact of artificial intelligence on design professionals’ and designers' lives? Is AI likely to replace designers? 

Well currently AI is one of THE topics. 

As far as I’ve understood, at the moment it can be a support for creatives, and also a tool to explore unexpected solutions. In the immediate future, I think there’s definitely no risk that it replaces real beings. The human mind has the great creative power of independent thinking and—not to be underestimated—the great territory of the unconscious as a creative source. On the other hand, if I look forward in time (like 30 or 50 years beyond) sometimes it scares me because there could be the risk to create dystopia scenarios where intelligence artificially generated is so supportive to humans that we cannot live without it and in this sense they risk to overcome us. 

Q. With so much ‘inspiration’ accessible so easily—at the click of a button—how does a designer achieve and maintain originality? And how does a designer protect one’s design from plagiarism? 

I think the key is first to ‘know yourself’ and have a clear sense of aesthetics. Then it is extremely important to nourish it and cultivate a vision that is not specific to single designs but to the overall body of work. According to me, this could be a way to settle one’s own identity as a designer and hence to be recognised. That’s probably a possible key to protect from plagiarism.