Elena Salmistraro


Inside the World of Design

Written by Davide Pizzi

Design is a complex discipline, which touches on many fields of everyday life and which today can boast many interpreters: designers. There is a lot of competition and it often happens that a designer specialises in one sector, in one niche. Some of them stand out for their extraordinary talent and manage to carve out a space for themselves of great professional and artistic value. Elena Salmistraro, a designer from Milan, is certainly among them: one only has to look at her work to realise that she is not just a designer but an artist. The figurative, creative and vital component is the common thread that binds all her creations, which span a multitude of different fields like few others.

Elena, where does your artistic journey begin?
I started with drawing as a child, then I went to art school, specialising in architecture and design. At first I wanted to be an artist, I didn’t really know what the role of a designer was, even though there was something in the air that led me towards this world. At university I chose the Polytechnic with a Fashion Design specialisation, I worked in fashion but I wasn’t convinced, both of the course of study and the career path, so I decided to change direction, to start again and focus on industrial design, product design.

Elena Salmistraro

Elena Salmistraro

What attracted you to industrial design?
When I started the first workshops, I was fascinated by the mass production of objects. Coming from art, however, I carried with me a love of authorship and the unique piece, and so I wondered if there was a way to bring the two together. So I discovered, Alchimia, Memphis, the whole radical period, I also had Italo Rota as a teacher and that’s how I started to form my thoughts and beliefs.. Slowly I was able to transmit my vision to the companies I work with, carefully selected from among those who only work in high quality. The first products were vases and ceramics, also because when I left the Polytechnic I still didn’t know which way to go, so I enrolled in the COVA school. During the day I worked and at night I went to learn the art of working with ceramics, on the columbine, on the lathe, then with the moulds. My real start was self-production because ceramics were easy to shape and cheap to find, as they don’t require special or expensive equipment.

Among your most iconic and recognisable products are the vases for Bosa ceramiche, the PRIMATES animal collection, and even more so your collaboration with Disney, for which you put your signature on two icons such as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. How do you arrive at such an important and delicate project?
I started with Disney on the occasion of Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday, through Bosa ceramiche. Disney asked him to interpret this anniversary with a collection, finding a suitable designer to enhance such a special character.

At first, the idea of working on Mickey Mouse was a bit frightening, because we are talking about an icon. So I tried to insert my own trait while respecting such an important and historical character.

I started off slowly, applying my own designs to the shorts, then with three-dimensional textures that I love, and gradually found the key to enrich Mickey Mouse without altering him.

Elena Salmistraro

Elena Salmistraro

And as if that wasn’t enough, you decorated the historic Steinway pianos with your interpretation of Mickey Mouse. How did this new project come to life?
Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are two very successful projects, so Luca Nichetto, who also collaborates with Steinway on the artistic choices, thought it might be interesting to involve me in this new adventure. Bringing together two historical brands with their well-defined identities, very different from each other, was not easy, and the risk of making a mistake was very high, but in the end the result is truly extraordinary and is enjoying considerable success, also in terms of sales.

Usually designers specialise in one or two product types. How do you manage to go from vases to handles to jewellery?

One thing I do is to never repeat myself because when you have a very personal trait it is easy to follow the path you have already taken, but the risk is to repeat the same ideas,

so I need to change in order not to become monotonous to myself. At the beginning, companies were intimidated by my overly strong and present traits, but then by working on details and above all by making the effort to always be authentic and original, I managed to win the trust of my clients.

Your stroke is unique and recognisable at first sight. How did you achieve this?
I arrived at my stroke slowly, but starting very early: I was already drawing as a child, I was very shy and drawing was my way of expressing myself, almost a therapy. My grandfather, a very sharp man, understood that drawing was my talent, so he often took me to painting exhibitions and told me ‘you must have your own way of drawing, you must stand out’. These words stuck in my head and I started drawing even more, finding and developing my own language that is so recognisable today.

Elena Salmistraro

Elena Salmistraro


It is difficult to adapt such a rich and distinctive mark to many types of product, yet some of the objects you have designed have very clean lines, such as the SPIRE washbasin, in which you can still see your hand. How do you modulate your stroke?
This familiarity with my trait has allowed me to be transversal, to range in very different worlds, from furniture to fashion, from jewellery to ceramics.

I start a project by drawing abstractly, and then slowly remove, doing a subtraction and cleaning exercise

cleaning as far as I need to, to dose my stroke to suit what I have to draw. In the example you mentioned, the sink, only three small waves remain of my drawings.

The design does not always serve the product, but in fact becomes the product. I am referring to the illustrated book of Aesop’s fables. Who proposed this new challenge to you, and why did you choose Aesop as the author?
The experience started with Sole 24 Ore, more precisely with the division called 24 Ore Cultura. I had already done a capsule collection of office accessories and bags with them, which had gone very well, so they called me back for a publishing project for children. An illustrated book: a completely new experience for me. In their idea, I was combined with the world of animals, given the drawings I usually do. It came to me spontaneously to think of Aesop’s fables, which have animals as protagonists. I did it in a light-hearted way, as if I were doing it for my children, and perhaps it is precisely this light-heartedness that is the secret to doing things well.

Elena Salmistraro

Elena Salmistraro

Let’s take a look at the future: what is missing on your pinboard? Is there an object you would like to design or a theme you would like to deal with?

The object I would like to devote myself to, although I have not yet had the opportunity, is a large permanent sculpture that can remain in a square to be admired.

It’s another world that has its own rules and procedures, where you have to find a way to get your foot in the door, again starting slowly so that people recognise and trust me and my work. Design is always a great passion, but this would really be something new, a new spark to create something beautiful. Challenges don’t scare me.

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