by Maddalena Padovani with Laura Ragazzola

The study begins with the issues raised by Claudio Luti, as president of the organizing committee of the Salone del Mobile di Milano,, in response to the attack against Milan Design Week advanced by the English blog in April.

In the debate, Luti’s critical position regarding Italian business in this sector, nevertheless, also emerged, accusing it of not having gotten enough mileage out of the great work of innovation that has made Italy the world leader in this area. We asked Luti to clarify his thinking, and we talked with the people at the helm of the main Italian design companies to hear their views.

Claudio Luti, president of Kartel

Diventare sempre più grandi e internazionali Starting in October 2012, Claudio Luti is also the president of Cosmit, the company that organizes the Salone del Mobile of Milan. Italy enjoys unquestioned leadership in design, connected with a quality and talent everyone envies. This is demonstrated by the fact that all foreign designers want to come to our country to realize their projects, because we are receptive businessmen willing to take risks on innovation. Analyzing the grandeur and splendor of the path forged in the previous decades by Italian companies, transforming from craft shops to industries and gaining a strong position in the world, but I cannot help but observe how many of them have committed little effort to conquering foreign markets. They settle for the results obtained in Italy, without aiming to become larger, more important, more international, adding to critical mass. I think Italy has had this opportunity but has not exploited it enough. With the process of globalization and the crisis of the European market, this limitation has become much more evident, so today everyone is scrambling to export and to internationalize brands. I think that previously, companies could focus much more on the ways and strategies with which to conquer the countries that have very different characteristics from each other, investing in people and energy. In this regard I can speak from my direct experience with Kartell: the company once devoted an agent for each region of Italy, then perhaps counting on one person for the whole American territory. I immediately thought that it was necessary to reverse this; we were greatly helped to balance this put when we started to open flagship stores all over the world, initiating partnerships, investing money and taking risks. Few brands, however, have taken the path of internationalization. To worsen the situation, in Italy there are also structural and political problems that can only be solved with the support of the institutions. It is often said that Italians do not know how to form a system. From my point of view, it means finding a system of institutions that help me and give me advice when I want to export to Brazil or Beijing, saying, for example, telling me how to get certification or registration of models, giving me suggestions on possible partners or explanations of tax laws, helping with the problem of counterfeiting and the protection of Italian creativity. Today, more than ever, it is important to look around, to invest energy in distribution, to study the various sales channels: outdoor, the hotel trade, promotion… The word contract itself embodies a number of different concepts. Then there is online, which in the future will open up many more scenarios. In my view, all these elements should be managed in an integrated way, or at least this is my point of view and our direction. Whether it’s a family business or not, what makes the difference is the size of a company, which must be of some importance to be able to deal with a changing world where things get bigger, faster and more complex. It takes management and strategies. Still with the aim of sharing experiences, I have always thought of Kartell as an international brand, and tried to base my strategy on a number of elements essential for me, such as innovation, retail, a hint of glamor. Today the Kartell catalogue is composed of many products that have a strong personality, which have thus become icons that are easy to sell online. In all these years I have invested in a precise idea: that of the brand’s presence in the world through many branded stores. And then I made sure that these stores would offer more and more products, so as to attract an increasingly large and diverse audience. The latest innovation, in this sense, has been the introduction of the bath collection, which opens up new and more extensive possibilities in the contract sector. In conclusion, I can say that we have built a strong base on which to work for Kartell, but now we are going into the most delicate phase, for us as for all the other companies: to make an Italian system, to be suitably ‘equipped’ to meet the challenges of foreign markets and the critical aspects.

Alberto Alessi, president of Alessi

What I saw and understood the last Salone del Mobile reminded me of the distinction Alberto Moravia made between poets and novelists. Moravia distinguished between the poet, who writes primarily for himself, in an intimate dimension, expressing what is in his heart without thinking about who will read it, almost a monologue that does not need a real audience to exist, and the novelist, who instead always keeps in mind, when writing, that he is creating a story aimed at a public, requiring its consensus as an integral part of success (sometimes regardless of its literary value, but that’s another story). So: among the new things seen at the Salone, on the one hand there were many projects in which the ‘novelist’ was stressed to the point of representing (revealing the fear of losing audience) a rewrite of tried and true themes, with an evident loss of innovative warmth. On the other side, that of the young people, which is more intriguing for me, I noticed the strengthening of a real ‘poetic’ approach, with projects of high artistic quality, yes, but still too much like monologues, unable to attract an audience outside of a small circle of insiders. Mind you, I am one of those people who is thankful that publishers exist who can manage to release poetry books in editions of 500 copies (otherwise what is to become of our civilization?). Yet I cannot help but emphasize that the industry, even niche companies like the factories of Italian design, needs works that achieve a broader consensus.

Roberto Archetti, brand director of Poltrona Frau

Quality materials and craftsmanship: these are the hallmarks of the Poltrona Frau collections. Everything is done by hand: you could never industrially achieve a model like the Vanity Fair, with its 275 buttons sewn one by one onto its leather cover. Detailing becomes fundamental, the distinctive element that makes the real difference, especially on the market. It is ‘the intelligence of the hands,’ as our slogan says: the intelligence of the craftsman who knows how to make the product unique, taking inimitable leather, adapting to its characteristics, even to its whims. Something like a cabinetmaker, who when he comes across a knot in the wood, has the ability to transform a material defect into a quality. A machine could never do that. Of course, the important thing is to be able to communicate this difference, the quality of the manual labor: Made in Italy has to rely on this plus. How to emphasize it? It is here that industrial organization comes into play, revealing the other side of Poltrona Frau: not just a company that makes a culture of craftsmanship, but also an efficient structure able to manage and direct communication, streamline distribution, satisfy needs and desires of the customer. With an international reach. Poltrona Frau, in fact, as early as 2009, with the crisis on the domestic market, has been able to look beyond the borders, progressing from 35% to 65% in terms of foreign distribution. Thanks to the opening of new stores and targeted communication, the Poltrona Frau has spread throughout the world, even adapting in terms of taste and style. From this point of view, the Salone del Mobile becomes an important showcase, an opportunity for comparison and discussion, to communicate our identity, our long history (last year was our 100th anniversary). We also returned to fair in Rho, precisely to show how much we believe in this organization, reaching a record attendance.

Paolo Bestetti, CEO of Baxter

You can read a lot of things about the Salone del Mobile in Milan, its qualities, its characteristics, but also its defects, and rightly so. Criticism can serve as a stimulus to try to improve what is not working, and it is in this direction that the whole system that runs the fair should be moving. All the visitors who come to Milan every year for this great event represent a great opportunity. It is important to be able to give credibility without operations of speculation: all the structures are expected to grow, to always give a new impetus. As for the FuoriSalone, however, I can say that it remains a very strong attraction for the city, so one must give due weight to all those events which over the years have begun to enrich and form a larger setting for the fair itself. The Salone del Mobile is definitely, for all of us, the most important event of the year. It is a regular appointment that makes us conduct research, to find innovative solutions, and it offers the possibility of encountering a very attentive international audience. That’s why Italy, Milan and the Italian design companies are and should remain the main reference point in the culture of design, also on an international level. The economic situation certainly plays a very important role, and has had a negative impact for some years now. It is very important to ensure that this does not hamper the innovative spirit of design; in fact, I hope it will stimulate the creation of different, never banal solutions. In addition to being a creative activity, design must integrate with the logic of distribution, functioning and communication, factors that make it possible, over time, to achieve a unique position in the world of contemporary design worldwide.

Enrico Bracesco, CEO of Teuco Guzzini

Although much has already been done in recent years, Italian design companies still have much to do to compete in international markets. Today more than ever it is necessary to ‘form a system’ and institutional intervention to support Made in Italy is of the utmost importance, in terms of labor costs and investment in infrastructure, for example. Today the project idea alone is not enough, we need a worldwide 360° strategy: the product must be supported by investment in marketing and communication, as well as suitable distribution. Teuco is now an international brand: our projects are 100% made in Italy, but they are not Italo-centric; they are created with a transnational, to respond to the different functional and aesthetic needs of each country, in a spirit of true empathy. I think, for example, the latest collections by Matthew Nunziati and Carlo Colombo are perfect for both residential applications and international contracts. The strength of the ‘Italian system’ has always been based on the model of the family business; but on the other hand, it is equally important for companies to be able to rely on the strategic value of management with a vision, also with international experience. I think furniture companies can aspire to achieve a true industrial dimension. Of course it depends on size, but precisely in this perspective they can wager on uniqueness linked to the ability to perfectly mix industrial applications and craftsmanship. The leading role of Made in Italy is still solid. Obviously, continuous commitment and investment are needed to maintain the high level of appeal on international markets, but the world still looks to Italy as an example of style and creativity, in fashion as in design. Today not only companies, but also many Italian architects and designers are gaining success abroad, exporting a model of Italian winners.

Giorgio Busnelli, president of B&B Italia

Giorgio Busnelli (standing) with his brother Emanuele, CEO of B&B Italia Product is the life’s blood of B&B Italia, but alone it is not enough. We need a 360° marketing strategy that then ensures proper distribution and promotion. The formula that has worked for us involves an industrial vocation, international vision, great focus on research and innovation. Today we pay more attention to issues of ecology and environmental sustainability, both from the point of view of supply of raw materials and in the manufacturing of products. Since our founding in 1966 we have built our success on an international level on these solid foundations, also thanks to collaboration with famous and not so famous designers. Today’s markets tend to justifiably reward brands that can express strong intrinsic values. The dimension of the family business represents an added value which it is supported by an efficient managerial organization. The challenges are becoming greater, on more different levels, so in a globalized world specific skills and expertise are needed, that are unlikely to be found in a single family. And this is the mix of the organizational model of B&B Italia. Beyond the record turnout at the Salone, Milan and Italy represent a cultural model that ranges from fashion to food, embracing design: a combination that would be hard to find elsewhere. It can happen that precisely during Milan Design Week, foreign brands arrive to make important statements. We continue, however, to strive for the unique style we call Made in Italy, with a company that can transform a simple idea into a product of great quality and image. We need to preserve this heritage and continue to invest in research and innovation, protecting the uniqueness of Italian products and vigorously addressing the issue of counterfeiting and the protection of copyrights.

Alessandro Calligaris, president of Calligaris

In a changing world I think design will have an increasing appeal value: the problem is that companies have become ‘democratic’ and more accessible for everyone, not only in price but also in sales structure. It is about creating a distribution system that keeps pace with the times, to have a real impact on the market, or actually on the markets. I have always ‘preached’ in my business that you have to be able to interact with different realities, to learn how to ‘communicate’ the product, sell it and provide a real service to the consumer. Let’s say that my company has been able to invest and, above all, to size itself in relation to the different markets (500 outlets in 90 countries, ed.), managing this important growth step in an effective way: we can rely on international partners, but without having to give up our identity and our history. We have just celebrated 90 years of activity, at the Salone del Mobile. An important birthday, a history that has made us strong, relying on experience to present our new vision of the future: to make Calligaris a global brand, able to draw on the latest trends in retail to innovate, design and relaunch the marketing strategies of our points of sale. We want to work on retail, on our partners with a completely international orientation. For this, we came to the Salone with a layout of 1000 square meters, completely renewed, where we presented the ‘Calligaris Lounge,’ a sort of virtual showroom where customers can see, through the use of the web, what their homes will be like in the future. What we want to export is our style, our way of living and conceiving of the domestic dimension. Because today there is an increasingly strong trend towards making lifestyles, tastes and philosophies of behavior our own, adapting habits regarding food, fashion, design… Italy has a lot to teach in this area. And this is what we must learn ‘to sell.’

Giorgio Cattelan, president and managing director of Cattelan Italia

Giorgio Cattelan with his sons Lorenzo (left) and Paolo (right). Milan and Italy are still important points of reference in the world of design, but they have to know how to renew things with intelligence, preserving a sense of belonging to our cultural identity that has no equal in the world. Surely the Italian companies, medium and small, will still have a prominent role in the international design world. But there is the need to evolve, regarding both visibility abroad and ability to develop research and distribution. Cattelan began to invest in foreign markets as early as 1970. When the Italian market was still booming, we decided to cross the borders. This choice, against the current, allowed us to immediately create an international mindset in the selection of products and markets. Research, creativity and innovation by themselves are no longer enough. We need to know the reality of the international market, investing in distribution and quality ideas. Today we export 80% in about 120 countries, with a ‘packet’ of 2000 clients. When we think of a new product, we try to make it work in most of the countries in which we operate. In Italy the furniture market will never reach a real industrial dimension: the big names that now exceed 100 million in revenue can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The many family businesses, such as ours, could transform their size limitations into an advantage: that of greater flexibility. Small companies are definitely leaner, and can therefore more easily and quickly diversify their products on the market.

Gabriele Centazzo, president of Valcucine

It is not enough just to know how to make a product. Making a project is like having a child, it needs to be raised and nourished to grow. Often in the world of furniture, large investment in product does not match the same attention to marketing. I think Italy is made up of many small businesses and that globalization requires investment small businesses cannot sustain. Despite this, I believe it is possible to enjoy the benefits of the flexibility of a small business, while achieving a suitable size, aiming not so much at the growth of each company, but creating synergy among groups of small businesses. This is the policy of Valcucine. In 2013 we realized a dream, the presentation of an eco-friendly item for everyone: Meccanica by Demode engineered by Valcucine. Meccanica is a furniture system with a lightweight frame and innovative design, whose individual structural elements are fastened together by mechanical joints. There is no use of glues and therefore no trace of formaldehyde; the project been designed to be 80% reusable and 100% recyclable. Valcucine is now the first and only company in the kitchen sector that based on furniture systems in glass and aluminum or iron, of Demode engineered by Valcucine, makes a commitment to users (and publicly) to take back its products and to ensure disposal at the end of their useful life, in a “warranty of lifetime accountability.” We have also started a new experiential path through the presentation of those elements that have always strongly characterized the DNA of Valcucine: the craftsmanship of workmanship by mosaic makers, wood carvers and inlay makers; the information that accompanies corporate transparency, research and analysis of quality materials with product technicians who share the tests, techniques and secrets that make the products of Valcucine absolutely solid and reliable over the years.

Marco Dolcino, CEO of Unopiù

Today, companies must have a clear business strategy, a well-organized policy of commercial expansion. Product alone cannot suffice: research on aesthetic and formal content cannot determine the success of a brand. Or rather, this was the key to winning until the mid-1980s. Then the international markets were almost non-existent: the relationship Italy-abroad was 2 to 1, if not 3 to 1 in favor of Italy, of course. Unopiù, since its founding in 1978, has established itself as an atypical company. It focused more on the end user, by correspondence (today’s e-commerce), supported by a catalogue with great variety from the start, and by directly managed singlebrand stores and substantial advertising campaigns. The mix of these elements has allowed the company to develop a strong, widely recognized brand, especially in its four key markets: Italy, France, Spain and Germany. But the economic crisis has meant a challenge to this original strategy: starting in 2005, three of the four countries of its core business showed signs of a serious decline in consumption (only Germany has avoided this). So what can be done? The strategy is to expand the business model, embracing the idea of franchising: no longer offering a single product, but an entire lifestyle. In short, the company becomes a distributor of ideas rather things. Today Unopiù has 31 flagship stores in Europe and 6 based on franchise agreements, scattered all over the world. We wanted to initiate a new, timely, flexible format, which also marks an important chapter in the development of the company, increasingly oriented towards modern, varied and international distribution.

Piero Gandini, president of Flos

Piero Gandini, president of Flos I think an approach of internationalism has always been part of Italian design. For better or worse, all of our businesses have at least 40% of their business in export. Some did better, starting perhaps with a small warehouse in Miami and then progressively investing in facilities, while others lagged behind, simply relying on some foreign dealers. Clearly, those who failed to invest in the past on the brand and the commercial structure are now facing a situation of greater difficulty. But my idea is that you can always invent something; the important thing is to focus on your own vision and to develop your own product culture, regardless of company size. When we opened our first branch abroad, Flos was a very small company. Even in those days people said that the opportunities were not as attractive as those of the 1950s and 1960s, that things were much harder, yet that was the period in which Italian design laid the groundwork for its international success. The single biggest danger that I fear for our future is that businesses may no longer be capable of continuing the kind of innovation they developed in the past. I am not talking about technology – I don’t think there is such an urgent need for technological innovation – but about content, which has always been the forte of Italian design culture. I think the real problem today is precisely this: if I look around, I no longer see so many more products that rise above the ordinary, that embrace a poetics, offering a new vision. Before you think about patents or marketing, a design business has to believe in the idea behind a new product, the contents that make it different from the others, more special. By tradition, the Italian design industry has been oriented towards product, not marketing. This is why it has always been in the cultural vanguard in this sector. Companies have grown, the market has become more competitive, and the cultural route has become increasingly difficult. Today, marketing has become part of the management logic of the companies, but it should not affect the focus on product innovation, which is obtained only with the appetite for risk and the speed of decision-making individuals who personally believe in their projects. There are athletes and there are poets. This does not mean that a poet cannot be muscular. But if he stops doing poetry because has spent all his time working out, then he can no longer do his job well.

Roberto Gavazzi, CEO of Boffi

Milan is still the capital of international design, still the leader, but we need to be careful not to lose our competitive edge. For us, the outcome of the Salone was positive: many foreign contacts expressed interest in investing in our products. A confirmation of our strategy, which has led us to achieve 80% of sales abroad. It is in the Italian market that the situation is critical, especially in the area of the kitchen. In my opinion there are two factors holding things back: the black market and copying. Together they cause unfair competition that impacts Italian companies, and I believe these problems have not been sufficiently addressed by recent governments of our country. The sector associations should also do more: there can be no growth if everyone does not play by the rules. I am not referring only the well-known problem of competition from China. I am talking about the Italian ‘copy’, which creates great difficulties, especially in the area of kitchens. The result? You lose originality, and design Made in Italy drops in value. I would add that we are also ‘hungry’ for resources: governments should assist those companies that operate in more competitive areas that bring Italy success, such as fashion and design. For example, with a public policy to support exports: if the resources are scarce, it is better to concentrate on a few strategic goals (one could be support of the Salone del Mobile). I am not in favor of the incentive system as it stands: it would be more effective, especially in the long run, to promote structural interventions that affect schools, universities, education. The challenge is huge: it takes tenacity, clarity and an extraordinary vision of the future. But we can count on our precious DNA of creativity and a fantastic wealth of history and experience. And the rebirth of the planet-Italy is definitely a common goal for all those companies who want to bring the excellence of Made in Italy into the world.