Atelier Mendini in Milan breathes warmth into architecture and design. Design guru brothers Alessandro and Francesco Mendini have given a spirit to inanimate objects and produced luxurious designs for Cartier, Hermes, Etro, Alessi, Swatch and Philips.
Although a leading architecture and design consulting firm, it is known for not hiring many people. The company has about 30 people working in the office, with just 12 in permanent position. And Korean designer Cha Young-hee is one of the lucky dozen.
Cha joined Atelier Mendini in 2000. She started her design career at Hanssem, a major Korean furniture company, in 1994 before going to Instituto Europeo Design in Italy in 1997. She graduated three years later, and boldly went to the Atelier and met Alessandro Mendini. She told him that she really wanted to work there. Mendini told her, "You have to work unpaid for two to three months to get a chance to be hired here. Even after that, the chances of getting a permanent job here are slim. If you still want to work, then go on."
For Cha, who had only studied design, there were so many things she needed to learn. She had to study laws related to architecture. "I worked two or three times harder than other people until late at night, and I tried to come up with four new ideas for every one that the others had," she recalls. "When I look back, I think I tried harder because working unpaid at a relatively advanced age hurt my pride." Three months later, she was the only person among the interns who landed a permanent job, and is the only Korean to work there.
Cha sums up her time in Italy as "a mosaic of joy and exhaustion." "The biggest thing I learned here is the ability to enjoy work itself. Alessandro Mendini is almost 80, but he goes to more exhibitions and lectures than us younger people, and he constantly sketches new designs. I learned the importance of keeping your eyes and ears open at all times. Good design lightens up lives. Perhaps what sets a luxury brand apart from others is the fact that it makes people smile and feel happy," she says.