Don’t under any circumstances even mention the word ‘marketing’ to Walter de Silva!
There really is no crossover between his ideas about design and those of the sales strategists. “The car sector is absolutely dominated by marketing – strong messages that are hard to ignore. But genuinely iconic designs, such as Castiglioni’s Arco lamp, are the product of design brains not sales strategists,” he explains.
The 67-year-old Lecco-born designer began his career in Fiat in the 1970s before honing his skills with the likes of Rodolfo Bonetto, Franco Mantegazza and Renzo Piano.
So why on earth would marketing or trends hold any interest for him? This is a man who has turned method, discipline and ethics (in terms of respect for functionality and ergonomics) into tools that support his creative genius. Because talented he surely is. Even as a small boy, he was drawing, drawing, drawing everywhere, including in his school copybooks during lessons.
Cars were an obsession. So much so that when he was staying with two aunts in Milan, de Silva spent hours just staring out the window at cars passing by. After school, he studied automotive design at the Royal College of Art in London. However, his father, who was head of advertising in Fiat, found him a job as a trainee in the Fiat Style Centre, where rigor and discipline were the order of the day. That was when his career really began to take off.
De Silva’s first move was to Milan and the studio of Salvatore Bonetto before he switched to IDEA (the Institute of Design and Architecture) which Franco Mantegazza and Renzo Piano had just opened in Turin. Later still came Alfa Romeo and Seat before he found his niche in Audi Volkswagen, eventually becoming Director of Group Design.
De Silva’s cars include, in fact, the Audi A6, the Alfa 156, the VW Polo and the UP. He also produced incredible prototypes and show cars that had a huge impact on the car design world as a whole. “I have spent my life playing with cars,” he laughs. “But it is a game of balance founded on the principles of rigour, coherency and method.” De Silva applied exactly that same coherency and rigour to his brief but impactful forays into the world of industrial design which produced, amongst others, Poltrona Frau’s Luft chair, the Leica M9 Titanium and the Codice Icona CON-TATTO table. He also created a slew of products for Nicola Trussardi that span the spectrum from a booster seat to water bottles.
These days Walter de Silva devotes himself to designing ladies’ evening shoes. “My grandmother made women’s and children’s shoes. All anyone talked about in our house was shoes,” he explains. “I always thought that was what I would go into when I retired from the car world. So now we make our shoes in partnership with Sergio and Gianvito Rossi’s GGR but incorporating the same principles of ethics, design and discipline that I apply to all my work.”
De Silva’s shoes actually take into account the stress to the body of standing in 10 cm heels, even for just a few hours at a time.
“We only use very light Italian materials so the shoes never weigh more than 150 grams each,” De Silva says. “I have also tried to affix the heel in three points so that the leg forces are evenly distributed and the shoes are easier to wear.” Design that feels as charitable as it is ethical but, as is always the case with the Lecco-born designer, also has an aesthetic validity and allure that has nothing to do with passing trends.
De Silva has even turned his skills to the boat world in the past. “When Baglietto was bought by the Rodriquez Group in the 1980s, Giampiero Baglietto called and asked if I wanted to design a boat – the hull was already done.
It was a 10.7-metre that we added another two metres to, and I designed the superstructure and the interiors. We unveiled it at the Viareggio Show and I have to say it was a really enjoyable experience for me because I’m a lifelong sea lover,” he smiles.
De Silva adores designing forms in movement and his as-yet-unfulfilled ambitions include aircraft, skis and, of course, another boat – maybe one of the new generation kind morphed from the automotive world.