Alessandro Calligaris, president of the company that bears his surname, retraces the phases, choices and strategies that have led to the creation of a major international brand

Almost 100 years of history and an enviable set of numbers, for the world of Italian design: almost 120 million euros in sales, over 600 employees, five production plants (four in Italy and one in Croatia), and two operative locations (High Point, North Carolina, and Kobe, Japan); four sales affiliates (Paris, Moscow, Düsseldorf and London), 560 points of sale, 800 models in the catalogue, forming a total of 7,000 product proposals, monthly output of 90,000 units, distributed in 90 countries, with exports accounting for 68% of total sales.

Remarkable statistics, joined by another factor that should not be overlooked: behind the numbers, there is a person who still represents the name of the family company (now at its third generation) and still has full control over its destiny.

That person is Alessandro Calligaris, president of the brand that bears his surname, founded in 1923 at Manzano to produce chairs and now known as one of the most industrialized and internationalized Italian furniture companies. We met with him in Shanghai, at the first Chinese edition of Salone del Mobile.Milano, to talk about the present and future challenges for a company that never rests on its laurels.

Unlike many other companies in the Friuli chair district, Calligaris has managed to get beyond the change of boundaries in production that happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What choices and strategies have made the difference?
What truly made the difference was the strategy of growth based on the brand, on retail operations and internationalization, which began in 2008 with the opening of the first flagship store in Milan, which allowed us to grow and to achieve better performance even during these years of economic crisis, of reduced consumption and buying power.
This has also been the result of a series of major investments in communication and events, in Italy and abroad, aimed at consolidating the brand on a worldwide level. The company intends to continue with this project of brand enhancement through internationalization and retail, with the launch of selective distribution of the brand itself in many countries.
The growth plan of the Contract Division has also begun to achieve tangible results, making the company become quicker and more flexible in terms of the production and assembly processes of all the product lines.

What are the projects, products and designers that have had an impact on the industrial evolution of Calligaris?
Calligaris has always worked with more or less famous designers, also giving young talents the opportunity to see their prototypes become reality. The most interesting project, that even today, after five years, is bringing excellent results, is the Orbital table, an extensible table designed by Pininfarina in collaboration with the Calligaris technical team, now available in both glass and ceramic versions.
This table is one of my favorite items because it perfectly sums up the Calligaris philosophy, based on constant design research, not only in terms of beauty, but also to make things affordable, functional and ingenious.

Today Calligaris produces “everything in the home that stands on four legs.” How is the production structured?
The production of Calligaris is subdivided based on materials: wood, metal and plastic. Where wood is concerned, we have a vertical structure: our production starts from the tree trunk, the raw material. For metal and plastic we collaborate with many external partners, with whom we have worked for many years. Though we do have our own plant to make all the metal mechanisms for the extension of the tables. And our partners who make the plastic parts use our own molds.

Calligaris is now one of the most international Italian design companies. What have been the important phases of this worldwide growth? What are the challenges for the near future?
The starting point I would choose for the story is the introduction of the first straw winding machine at the end of the 1960s, which allowed us speed up production time for a chair from 2 hours to 1 minute and 40 seconds.
After the big success brought by this innovation, in the late 1970s we began to focus on exports, and already in 1998 we set up a headquarters in the United States. The last step of this process, in my view, was the opening of the Japanese affiliate, about 10 years ago.

How is the distribution organized, allowing Calligaris to be a presence in 90 countries? Tell us about the latest and the upcoming openings.
The sales organization of Calligaris is based on partners and dealers located in over 90 countries, with over 560 points of sale all over the world. Today we have four flagship stores: Milan, London, Paris and Berlin (directly managed by Calligaris), and stores all over the world, including those opened over the last year in important cities like Bangkok and Los Angeles, but also in Lyon, and the new point of sale inside the new design district Scalo Milano.
Moreover, with our partners we have already programmed the opening of dozens of shop-in-shops, around the world. For the future we are planning other very important openings, including Pune, India, and Tunis.

What are the most important markets for Calligaris today? What are the strategic cities and the most representative points of sale?
Besides Italy, which is Calligaris’s main market, the most receptive and interested countries for the consumption of Italian design are the USA, France and England, which are also our main export countries. Our products can easily adapt to the tastes of all foreign markets, also because every new project is always done to satisfy the needs of consumers all over the world.

In such an international dimension, what does Italy represent for Calligaris today? How much does the Milan design system count?
Italy, in spite of the fact that it is not in a flourishing economic phase, still represents about 30% of our sales, so it remains the leading country in this area, even ahead of the United States and the UK. Where Milan is concerned, I think the Salone del Mobile is the true reference point of worldwide design; I was very pleased to see that at the latest edition there was an important rebound in terms of visitors and business. Our brand, in particular, reported a remarkable increase of visitors, also thanks to the expansion of the product offerings.

Where and how do you conduct your research activities?
Calligaris products come from the ideas and concepts of our R&D division, which forms a whole with our styling team. The process involves in-house staff and external consultants who collaborate on the research and design, and all the activities involved in the creation of a new product.
Our professionals interact with the designers, setting objectives and planning the actions needed to create successful products. Of course they have to have excellent knowledge of the market and be able to interpret the latest trends, and above all future trends. Every year we examine hundreds of projects that come from our briefs or from spontaneous proposals, but only about ten actually go into production.
So the products we present on the market are the result of a long process of study and prototyping that has the objective of creating contemporary furnishing solutions that solve everyday problems and meet the aesthetic expectations of those who choose them.
The starting point for the production of these items is consideration of the new needs and new habits of users (limited spaces, nomadism, restructuring of domestic settings). Calligaris responds to these needs by offering a range of products created to be functional, innovative, with simple design that brings out the natural qualities of the materials.
The selection of materials is a fundamental aspect of the study of functional quality, and this is why every year we make innovations, like the insertion of ceramics in the tops of our tables, obtained by bonding a ceramic sheet (porcelain stoneware) with tempered float glass (a process that already began at the start of the 2000s). The result is a surface with excellent aesthetic characteristics, fully capable of standing up to everyday wear and use.

Tell us about the CODE project of Calligaris, aimed at young designers.
CODE, as in Complements Design, began in 2014 due to the brand’s need to expand its range of offerings to include furnishing complements, including different categories of accessories. The CODE collection makes little extravagant things possible, through collaboration with young national design talents.
Calligaris has decided to make this collection a proving ground for professional growth of young Italian designers, offering them a real opportunity to get into the international market with products that reflect the latest trends in consumption and creativity.
CODE includes expressive, fresh, surprising and colorful objects, like the Pom Pom lamp by Matteo Cibic, the Damasco mirrors by Cristian Dal Bianco and the Flow coat rack by Busetti Garuti Redaelli.

Speaking of projects and events, what are the latest new initiatives of Calligaris?
At the furniture fair in Cologne we will present new models of chairs and expansions of existing lines, such as our Basil chair that will become more elegant in the new cowhide version.

Text by Maddalena Padovani