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Italian Design: Keeping It in the Family

In an age when many family enterprises are seeing younger generations quit or sell-out, Italian businesses are keeping it in the family.

Keeping it in the Family

A report by the Associazione Italiana delle Aziende Familiari (AIdAF), an Italian family business network, revealed that Italy has around 784,000 family firms, equating to more than 85% of businesses in the country. AIdAF highlighted that while this percentage is in line with other European nations, including France (80%) and the UK (80%), Italy resorts less to hiring external managers: 66% of Italian family businesses are fully managed by family members, compared with 26% in France and 10% in the UK.

Alessi was founded in 1921 by Giovanni Alessi. The new Time Maze wall clock by Daniel Libeskind for Alessi, is part of the company's Spring/Summer 2016 Collection. Image via Alessi.
Alessi was founded in 1921 by Giovanni Alessi. The new Time Maze wall clock by Daniel Libeskind for Alessi, is part of the company’s Spring/Summer 2016 Collection. Image via Alessi.
B&B Italia was established in 1966 by Pier Ambrogio Busnelli. In this image, products include the Beverly '14 armchair by Antonio Citterio and Patricia Urquiola's Tufty-Too sofa. Image © 2016 B&B Italia SPA.
B&B Italia was established in 1966 by Pier Ambrogio Busnelli. In this image, products include the Beverly ’14 armchair by Antonio Citterio and Patricia Urquiola’s Tufty-Too sofa. Image © 2016 B&B Italia SPA.

Design Dynasties

In the world of design, it is a plausible assertion that Italy is the country with the greatest number of influential furniture design dynasties. Italian names such as Alessi, B&B Italia, Cassina, De Padova, Flexform, Flos, Kartell, Minotti, Molteni&C and Poliform, are world famous brand icons. Many target the higher end of the design market, their businesses thriving on a clever mix of heritage, the availability of sought-after design classics and a focus on novel design solutions. Italy is too the home of the renowned Salone del Mobile, where every April the country’s biggest family design firms flaunt their wares in design-savvy Milan.

 2016 Federlegno Arredo Eventi Spa
Molteni&C at Salone del Mobile, 2015. Image © 2016 Federlegno Arredo Eventi Spa.
Kartell at Salone del Mobile, 2015. Image © 2016 Federlegno Arredo Eventi Spa.
Kartell at Salone del Mobile, 2015. Image © 2016 Federlegno Arredo Eventi Spa.
Poliform at Salone del Mobile, 2016. Image © 2016 Federlegno Arredo Eventi Spa.
Poliform at Salone del Mobile, 2016. Image © 2016 Federlegno Arredo Eventi Spa.

A Golden Age

Italy enjoyed a golden age of design and manufacturing from the 1950s to the 1970s. Francesca Molteni, the eldest daughter of Molteni&C CEO Carlo Molteni, commented that “it was an easy time for Italy, there was no war and no financial crisis,” but she added “now the world is changing” (Moving with the times, Monocle, Issue 71, March 2014). Francesca Molteni is convinced that Molteni&C (established in 1943 by Angelo Molteni) must look beyond Europe, believing the company’s younger generation can better adapt to an Internet-led design world and communicate essential values such as sustainability. In reaching out to a global market, Molteni&C reissued a series of 1950s design pieces by Gio Ponti (1891-1979), the celebrated Italian designer and architect. It was in part Ponti’s name that helped Molteni&C to open up new markets in the USA and Asia. The trend for reissuing back catalogue designs is one adopted by many Italian companies. Whether this signals a dearth of new ideas or strengthens Italy’s design legacy and history is open to debate.

The D.154.2 armchair by Gio Ponti. Shaped like a cosy shell, it is a Molteni&C icon. Image © Molteni & C S.P.A.
The D.154.2 armchair by Gio Ponti. Shaped like a cosy shell, it is a Molteni&C icon. Image © Molteni & C S.P.A.
Chest of drawers D.655.1 D.655.2 by Gio Ponti. Designed in several versions between 1952 and 1955, this new version was produced using original drawings from the Gio Ponti Archives. Image © Molteni & C S.P.A.
Chest of drawers D.655.1 D.655.2 by Gio Ponti. Designed in several versions between 1952 and 1955, this new version was produced using original drawings from the Gio Ponti Archives. Image © Molteni & C S.P.A.
505 shelving by Nicola Galicia for Molteni&C. Image © Molteni & C S.P.A.
505 shelving by Nicola Galicia for Molteni&C. Image © Molteni & C S.P.A.

One Foot in the Past?

In a 2013 interview with online design magazine Dezeen, Patrizia Moroso, creative director of Italian furniture brand Moroso, suggested that “Milan unfortunately is sitting in the past and the past is gone… the most important people of the beautiful past of Milan are very old or dead” (Source: Dezeen). Despite Italy’s wonderful crafts heritage, Moroso was concerned that the country was in a crisis, not wishing to change or move forward. Marco Velardi, the co-founder of interiors magazine Apartamento and former creative director of Italian furniture brand De Padova, has argued that when it comes to selling furniture, Italian brands need to “retool”. He advocated that “many companies are stuck in a traditional mindset and promote this standardised ‘Made in Italy’ design. It’s a safety blanket.

De Padova's Milan flagship store. Image © De Padova 2016.
De Padova’s Milan flagship store. Image © De Padova 2016.

There needs to be more risk taking.” (The Fixers, Monocle, Issue 71, March 2014). Now owned by Italian brand Boffi, De Padova, set up in the 1950s by Fernando and Maddalena De Padova, is in a position to collaborate as part of an international joint distribution programme, sharing its design passion and Italian heritage with one of Italy’s revered luxury design companies.

De Padova's Milan flagship store. Image © De Padova 2016.
De Padova’s Milan flagship store. Image © De Padova 2016.

While Italy’s dynastic family design set might have one foot in the past, it is a past whose legacy has very much helped to shape the present day and will continue to inform the future. This year’s Salone del Mobile was considered a “smash hit”, with visitor numbers up 4% since the 2014 edition. Sixty-seven percent of attendees were international, a fact that is no doubt appreciated by Italy’s noble design houses. Moreover, it is evidence that gives weight to the quashing of Patrizia Moroso’s claim that Milan sits in the past. If anything, Italy’s penchant for the family business is a recipe for success. And as the old saying goes: we have much to learn from our elders.

Cassina was formed in 1927 by brothers Cesare and Umberto Cassina. In 1964, Cassina acquired the rights to produce designs by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand: the LC Collection. This image shows the LC2 armchair and sofa with the LC4 Chaise longue. Designed in 1928 by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. Image © Cassina.
Cassina was formed in 1927 by brothers Cesare and Umberto Cassina. In 1964, Cassina acquired the rights to produce designs by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand: the LC Collection. This image shows the LC2 armchair and sofa with the LC4 Chaise longue. Designed in 1928 by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. Image © Cassina.
The LC1. Designed in 1928 by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. Image © Cassina.
The LC1. Designed in 1928 by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. Image © Cassina.
Now in its third generation, Flexform was founded in 1959 by the Galimberti brothers. Flexform's Groundpiece sectional sofa and Jenny armchairs furnish a room in this private house in Roubaix, France. Image © Flexform.
Now in its third generation, Flexform was founded in 1959 by the Galimberti brothers. Flexform’s Groundpiece sectional sofa and Jenny armchairs furnish a room in this private house in Roubaix, France. Image © Flexform.

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