Made in Italy

Italy has a long history in producing quality designs, from the great masters in the art world, to the fashion catwalks in Milan and as the export market of interior goods is well on its way to recovery, CID looks at how Italian designs are impacting the Middle East.

The dramatic sweeping lines of Mathias Halley Corian
The dramatic sweeping lines of Mathias Halley Corian

April is Italy's month. The city of Milan will be taken over by every facet of the interior design industry, from lighting consultants to furniture manufacturers, design academics and students, all collected together in one excited hub to promote, debate and launch the very best in contemporaneous design.

In honour of the 46th edition of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2007, CID previews the show's highlights and looks at the exciting collection of collateral events before focusing on the designs that are emerging out of Italy and heading for our Gulf shores and stores. What can regional interior designers expect to see from Italian manufacturers this year and how do these companies view the potential of the Middle East?

The Salone

The signs of reprisal in the furniture sector have meant an increase in exhibitor enthusiasm and optimism for the 2007 event. In addition to being the launchpad for numerous companies and innovations over its 45 year history, the Salone is also famed for the quality of sister events that run concurrently to the furniture fair.

Light is a predominant theme throughout a number of the affiliated exhibitions. The 24th edition of Euroluce, the biennial international lighting exhibition, provides a comprehensive look at all aspects of lighting, from illumination systems to light sources, to fixtures and industrial lighting for large-scale projects.

Alongside the Biennial, the collateral ‘Tales of Light' event, curated by the German lighting designer Herbert Cybulska, will be held at the Loggia dei Mercanti. The event takes the form of a Son et Lumière journey that retraces the various forms of light the historic building has already experienced in its lifetime and that it will encounter in the future - from naked flame to gas lighting, to electric lighting and hi-tech LED solutions. Light is also the main keynote theme at the Designing Designers forum, with the topic ‘Light as an architectural matter' aiming to engage the university convention.

The annual platform for young designers, the SaloneSatellite, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year with an exhibition, 'A Dream Come True: from Inception to Production,' which showcases hundreds of products that have been shown at previous editions of SaloneSatellite as prototypes that have since gone into production. Alongside the exhibition, 160 stands host 500 designers and graduating students from 38 different countries.

One of our favourite exhibits is the 'Room With A View - Italian Art and Interiors 1900-2000' held in collaboration with the City Council of Milan - Department of Culture. It opens on the 18th April and lasts until the 1st July, during which time the Palazzo Reale will become a hub dedicated to Italian art and design. It will showcase works from the Divisionist and Futurist painters, to the Neoavantgarde movement that dominated the 1970's; the Postmodern artists during the 80's, right up to the present day protagonists. Furniture and interiors designed by Bugatti, Gio Ponti, Piacentini and Giacomo Balla sit alongside the Protorationalist offices of Gualiano and Giuseppe Pagano, lamps by the Castiglioni brothers and Gino Sarfatti, among many others.


The Italian Style

The 'Made In Italy' label is globally synonymous with design innovation, quality and the sense of tradition. Being part of a long design heritage has pervaded the consciousnesses of all the Italian companies we canvassed.

Tanya Wakeham, manager at Selva ME says: "The Italian design concept is something that Italians grow up with. Design is all around them, they have a good eye for what people want and are able to use the strong skills of Italians. From Selva's point of view we pride ourselves that not only is our furniture designed in Italy but it is made in Italy by crafts people that have been given the knowledge passed from generation to generation."

Luxury furniture producer Promemoria is an example of a company having its roots firmly in the family's tradition - in this case, cabinet-making. Promemoria's artisan craftsmen represent four generations of the Sozzi family and its Italian style has been known worldwide for decades. Likewise, Matteograssi, has its roots in leather saddlery for horses, but in the last century moved into leather-covered chairs and sofas. Massimo Grassi explains that Italy is the homeland of design, with the most prestigious design school in the world based in Milan. He says: "In terms of quality and style Italy is still number one and the copies circulating in the world of the Italian design products demonstrates the validity of our school."

It is interesting that Grassi views the imitations as flattery, as per the oft-repeated maxim and it is actually understandable when we break down what Italian design stands for. Pooja Shah from Presotto ME defines it as an actual brand: "Over the years, 'Italian Design' has managed to create an image and brand for itself for various reason. First and foremost, Italian furniture has unparalleled designs and unique innovations for cleaner, more functional and hassle-free living. The design itself is implemented and catered towards creating a modern, clean, fresh, and 'clutterless' atmosphere within the space. The minimalist look that is usually synonymous with Italian design exudes a certain level of class which usually speaks for itself."

This design clarity is a quality also emphasised by Natalie Abou Jaoude, managing director, Abensal: "Italian products are known for their quality and functionality, but mostly for their design. Designs are based on simplicity and purity of lines. Colours are natural, with a preference for transparency and perennially popular materials are wood, glass and metal."

The sincerity of Italian design is captured by its commitment to maintain the country's heritage, as Luigi Cavalli, president of the Ipe Cavalli Group explains: "Italian art is recognised all over the world for its class and elegance and we have to remember that in Italy there are thousands of little companies specialised in craftsmanship who join today's technology with manual ability on an excellent level."

Barbara Gilardetti from Bertocci agrees: "Our heritage is made of several ingredients such as history, deep know-how on production techniques and aesthetics, along with having great intuitions, the creative power of finding new shapes, designs and technologies and an unlimited source of developing competitive products around the world." It is this dedication to honing traditional skills such as carpentry, blacksmithing, weaving, tanning and glass-blowing that sets Italian design apart.

Damiano Petrioli, president of the textile specialist Decortex Firenze says: "Tradition, culture of aesthetics and culture of beauty are some key points to separate Italian design from the others. Of course, quality is one of our core values."

Trends

Every Italian company we asked about current and future trends observed a harking back to a sense of the traditional, with contemporary elements combined in, whether it be in uniting old and new materials, styles, techniques or colours.

Wakeham from Selva says: "For example, the chaise longue is well known throughout the world as classical design, but adding a very bright modern fabric gives it a feel of uniqueness, which is still able to fit into classic or modern styles. Bold, solid bright colours are a must, the understanding of simpler lines in furniture is becoming strong in the Middle East as more European influences are introduced."

On the subject on colour trends, the Italian glass tile manufacturer, Villiglas, states: "White and black, still the key players in this market, are now flanked by a surprising blend of colours, which range from warm hues to pastels, to a thousand shades of grey, as well as metallic effects. Plenty of room is also given to youthful twists of colour: yellows, greens and bright oranges make for sassily bewitching combinations. There is a new spirit of imagination in the air that stirs the senses, and it is inspired by nature."

Shah from Presotto ME says: "We do find that an increasing number of people are fusing two themes together to create an eclectic, unique and complementary appeal; for example, fusing modern furnishing of simple and typical earth colours with classic Eastern-influenced accessories, paintings and sculptures."

Earth colours have been singled out by a number of Italian designers as the hue du jour. Roberta Vecci, Novacolor, explains that current trends in Italy for walls are mainly metal finishes with earth colours and polished plasters. But the trends that he anticipates will hit Middle Eastern shores this year are dark, strong colours, crocodile effects and leather associated with metal. Cavalli, from the Ipe Cavalli Group, even suggests that eel leather will take the place of crocodile skin soon due to the industry starting to view crocodile skin as, "an abused symbol of luxury."

Gayatri Dongre, product manager, Natuzzi says that it is because Italian style is known for precision and innovation that enables them to experiment more than other newer markets, much like in the fashion world: "The furniture trends follow fashion trends closely, namely: simple design; bold fabrics; metallics; a mixture of matte and gloss elements; outsized accessories and a touch of retro style."

Casamilano suggests that after a global propensity for dark colours and woods, light and medium colours and woods are going to become more significant in future collections. It has already been proposing grey oak for the last two years and natural Italian walnut has been introduced in its 2006 range.

On the subject of wood, Claudio Damiani, area manager, Scavolini views this material as one area where designers can definitely go green: "Recently, tropical woods are very much in fashion: teak, ebony, palissander, zebrano. Scavolini has decided though not to use original woods which are in danger of running out from our forests and instead uses reclaimed woods which resemble the originals. There's big attention at the moment for environmental care and choice of innovative but ecological materials."

It is not just furniture that is experiencing a reinvention of the traditional as Deepa Bhambhani from La Murrina explains: "While everything is 'global', people look for something different. At the moment there has been a great return of the traditional shape of the chandelier, but reinterpreted in a more contemporary way: strong colours and special details give the traditional chandelier a new personality. Italian design has reached the top and now it has to maintain this position by proposing to the world of furniture and lighting new solutions that combine technological innovation and beauty in shape."


The Italian Export Market

The European export market is reporting the beginnings of a renewed vigour after a slow start to the new century, and Italian manufacturers agree that the signs are there that the mood is slowly changing. Vecci, Novacolor says: "The Italian export market is pretty positive, after a few years of non-encouraging figures."

An analysis of economic trends by Centro Studi Cosmit/Federlegno Arredo suggests that the positive results that were experienced by the Italian furniture companies in 2006 are set to continue into 2007. Rosario Messina, president of Cosmit, the Salone organiser, says: "2006 was a year of growth and of transition after a particularly difficult 2005."

He blamed low-cost Asian competition for the period of uncertainty in the market. Jaoude, from Abensal agrees: "Italy and several other European countries are facing very tough competition from Eastern European products in addition to Chinese products. Nevertheless, the Italian export market tends to concentrate on export to the USA, Russia and the UAE, where the demand is higher and the volume is much more interesting than Europe."

Giulio Stella, president, Rubinetterie Stella who specialises in manufacturing sanitary plumbing fittings says: "The Italian export market looks like a contradiction. Official statistics point out the difficult situation and anxious loss of market share of the Italian industry in the world, threatened by many competitors coming from other countries. From the other side, when we, Italian entrepreneurs, go to foreign countries there is great and true interest in our country, in its culture and, consequently, in its products too. Everybody recognises good quality of project, construction, aesthetics and design."

"The lighting sector, the other great protagonist of the forthcoming edition of I Saloni has proved to be even more dynamic," stresses the president of Federlegno-Arredo, Roberto Snaidero. "Exports of lighting fittings have risen by 36.4%, exceptional only in terms of the strength of the rise, which is also confirmed by almost all the major markets."

Messina concludes that the future is bright for exports: "Entrepreneurial expectations as regards ordering trends point to a further improvement on the already excellent results of 2006, reaching record positivity during the second trimester of 2007, more favourable than ever before during the last four years."

The Middle East Market

The Middle East has a reputation for boasting an elusive mix of opportunities for international designers and manufacturers. It is still a relatively untouched market, and due to the lack of saturation by both regional and international companies the design industry is eager for more quality companies to enter the region. Furthermore, a relatively new market such as the GCC is more open to innovation, is willing to experiment and has the budget to do so than more established markets. This is why the Italian companies we canvassed expressed their interest in being part of this phenomenon of growth.

Cavalli, Ipe Cavalli Group says: "Dubai has now risen to a sort of incredible reference point in the Middle East as a worldwide attraction pole. Italian design, in all its higher expressions, finds in Dubai a more and more fertile ground." Simon Le Fort, export manager, Billiani agrees: "We constantly receive requests and enquiries from the burgeoning, booming growth markets that fringe the Persian Gulf. Dubai is a melting pot that has flavours and influences from each and every continent. Many projects have input from the eyes and brains of multi-national design teams."

Jaoude, Abensal, says that it is this diversity of the regional population that makes the area so exacting of taste: "What can be noticed is definitely a good progress in taste, specifically in Dubai. People have more knowledge about the latest trends and new technologies due to the fact that they travel a lot and visit international exhibitions."

Minotti points out that because 80% of Dubai's inhabitants are expatriots they have a hybrid of experiences and influences: "Doing business in the design world in Dubai means collecting experiences and needs that we have already met and experienced in New York, London, Milan and Moscow."

Claudio Damiani, area manager, Scavolini concludes that: "As one of the fastest developing areas in the world, the Middle East represents an enormous potential in terms of exports. Secondly, preferential business relationships have always existed between Italy and the Middle East, both for socio-cultural and political reasons. Luxury and large-scale spaces are two aspects that you have to consider while thinking of the Dubai market."

The timing seems to be right for Italy to export and for the UAE to import, the only other issue that needs resolving is posed by Bhambhani from La Murrina: "The Middle Eastern market is becoming more accustomed to accepting quality and innovation. However the most important point is not only the taste, but the education of the people in the research of quality and the refusal of copies." And if this happens and quality and originality are always demanded, then this will continue to be a very fruitful relationship.

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