La Dolce Vita

Design factories and workshops across Italy welcome CID to discover the latest products emanating from its top design houses.


Federlegno-Arredo, the Italian federation of wood, cork, furniture and furnishing manufacturers, took CID on a week long tour of the top design factories in Italy last month to show us why Italian designed products are still topping the international style stakes.

Classic, understated designs that had lifted Italian products to a lofty level of global respect within the design industry in the last century are still very much evident in the latest launches from Italy's heavyweights. Today, bold colours and fusions of natural and synthetic materials are ensuring products are both timeless and timely.

In only a week, CID visited more than ten factories across the north of the country from Venice, almost to the boarders of Austria and the small towns in and around Milan. Touring the factories, design studios and workshops it becomes clear that the attention to detail in producing quality furniture remains top priority, from the initial design stages to the manufacturing process and the final stages of packaging.

Many maintain a strong design ethic and a close working relationship with both international and Italian designers as well as artisans with skills passed down through several generations. Massimo Grassi, executive vice president, Matteograssi, confirms a 30 year business relationship with the tannery used to provide the leather for most of the company's products. Matteograssi, which originally concentrated on horses' saddles from 1880, now manufactures a number of leather products from custom designed contract seating, examples in Dubai International Airport, to smaller home accessories for the retail market. Matteograssi's latest launches include the mesh effect tub chair, Arete, designed by Franco Poli. Poli said: "The 'technical-aesthetical' concept applied to the couch hide of the Arete project is patented and offers the opportunity of turning the two dimensional feature of the leather surface into three-dimensional shapes without the need of any seams... It is by virtue of this quality that the collection was called Arete (from the Greek Virtue)."

While many of the design houses work with a number of different designers, Album, based on the outskirts of Milan takes a different approach. Since the company first started producing lighting, the company's collections have only been designed by one designer, Pepe Tanzi. Giuliano Cavana, managing director, Album said: "Tanzi understands our lighting philosophy of only employing lighting where it is needed." His latest designs for Album are the Orbile and Radiale, which are extra-low voltage (12 volts) safety systems aimed at architects and designers due to their flexibility of application for commercial projects.

Rather than showing us where the product is made, lighting company Flos, takes a different approach and takes us to Studio Museo Achille Castiglioni, where a close working relationship was developed with the late industrial designer and architect. The designer's old studio and home remains a shrine to the designer and is one year into a three year grant which will see the entire studio catalogued.

Design magazines dating back to the beginning of the century line the wall and two prototypes of the now famous public telephone seats are placed alongside a tall cupboard filled with the designer's ‘inspiration,' a mixture of usual and every day objects. Monica Castiglioni, the designer's daughter said: "Castiglioni loved to experiment with everyday objects and materials. Function was an important aspect of his design." She demonstrated how the famed curved lamp with marble base can be moved across the floor by sticking a broomstick inside the base.

In stark contrast to the designer's cluttered studio is the new Jasper Morrison-designed Flos showroom with its new state-of-the-art lighting system. Flos has courted notoriety throughout its 45 year history, with Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni's Gatto Piccolo bulbous lamps in 1960, their Arco lamps in 1962, Jasper Morrison's Glo Ball in 1998 and the controversial Gun collection by Philippe Starck in 2005. It now boasts a portfolio of world-renowned designers including Marcel Wanders, Antonio Citterio and Sebastian Wrong.

Touring the factories and seeing pieces of leather, planks of wood and metals transformed into elegant pieces of furniture, lighting or accessories is taken to a new level on the site visit to La Murrina on the Venetian island of Murano. Hot molten glass was expertly transformed into beautiful glass sculptures, destined for the export market.

In its native Italy, La Murrina is best known for selling its Murano blown glass lighting and accessories in the retail sector, but in Russia, the US, UAE and the Far East, La Murrina's contract market is fast becoming the company's most lucrative sector. Its new product range is designed to create statement lighting designs in large-scale commercial public spaces, ideal for the ambitious projects planned for this region. The collection includes Sike by Karim Rashid; Mariposa by Marco Piva; Gaia from Massimo Iosa Ghina and Oyster by Sandro Santontonio.

Traditional techniques and materials favoured by artisans of Italy's yesteryear are still highly prevalent in much of the country's product output, although the offerings of today have a contemporary twist. The Pavilion Classic collection designed by Antonio Citterio for door specialist TRE-Più has sleek models, from full wing plywood panels in matte lacquered finishes to transparent smoked glass panels with titanium finishes. All inspired by the ‘typical rationalism' of the twentieth century.

Murano Due has launched Deluxe designed by Archirivolto inspired by the ancient tradition of grinding glass with a contemporary satin finish. Inspired by lunar craters, Swiss-Italian designer Marc Sadler's Stanley lamp for Murano Due is created with uneven curved cavaties in white blown glass. Ether by Patrick Join is a cascade of blown glass droplets making a perfect contemporary chandelier for commercial spaces.

In addition, I TRE's specialisation in innovative uses of glass has ensured it has long been at the forefront of glass design in lighting. Its two latest ranges are: Kioto, designed by Andrew Crovato in transparent cast glass and grey lacquered aluminium, and Fit, which is a suspension-wall lamp designed by Marc Sadler and is transparent blown glass, partially satin-finished held in a stocking. I TRE was launched in 1975 and is now one of the five major lighting brands, together with Aureliano Toso Illuminazione, Alt Lucialternative, Murano Due and Gallery Vetri d'Arte that make up the Firme di Vetro Spa Group, which has annual sales of over 33 million Euros, 50% of which are in exports.

As Italy's healthy export statistics are testament to, the international market, particularly the Middle East is an area of growth each of the companies we visited is keen to explore. Euromobile is already represented by Presotto Middle East and Firme di Vetro is locally supplied by Alpha Crystal, Abensal and Belight amongst others.

Sebastian Freegogno, export manager, Firme De Vetro said: "Our presence in the Middle East market is good and we are constantly growing. Firme De Vetro considers the Middle East to be an important area of distribution. Dubai and Qatar are particularly remarkable for their important growth."

Similarly, Selva, now ships its handcrafted furniture from its base in the German speaking area of Bolzano near Austria to the company's first independent showroom in Dubai. Selva Middle East is a joint venture between Selva AG, the Al Naboodah Group and a local design studio. Philip Selva explained: "These days Dubai is a benchmark by which all things are measured. There is a pervasive desire to outdo oneself, and of course, all others... [Dubai has] a huge market for timelessly precious furniture creations that are 'Made in Italy' both in the hotel trade and the private sector."

Of the companies we visited only one does not have a Middle East distributor. Cavana, Album said: "We hope to find a Middle East distributor after our participation in INDEX because for us the Middle East is a very important sector."

Federlegno-Arredo represents more than 3,000 companies and has ten different sectors, including Cosmit Spa, the organisers of the Salone de Mobile, the main reason why once a year, the city of Milan is packed with the very best of international design. During the trip, the association exclusively reveals information about its latest venture, the MADE Expo. The Milano Architectura Design Edilizia will be the city's first ever international expo dedicated to the architecture and building sectors and will be held from 5-9th February 2008. The show has already attracted the attention of more than 1,100 companies and is expected to be an international show with a difference. Alessandro Santambrogio of MADE said: "The MADE Expo will be the Big 5 for Milan. The show will feature international forums, seminars and of course the best of Italian representation."

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