By Maddalena Padovani with Laura Ragazzola

Ernesto Gismondi, president of Artemide Let’s start with an assumption: that without research, creativity and innovation a design company is not going anywhere, whatever the commercial strategy.

That said, we might ask: where is the creativity today? Things have obviously changed since the days of the great masters. Italian design was born in the sixties thanks to the work of architects involved in the reconstruction of Milan, who did not represent the Bauhaus school but continuity with Italian Rationalism. This school has not been exhausted, it still has outstanding figures, like Enzo Mari and Michele De Lucchi. However, the designers who work for Italian companies today, producing creativity, are not only Italian, but come from all over the world. The reasons are simple: given that the goal is to bring our products into the world, it is necessary to involve foreign designers who are able to interpret the needs of countries other than our own. This is not colonization, it is cultural exchange: if I want to operate in America, I have to get to know the United States through the experience and culture of American designers. This does not mean losing Italian design culture, it means adapting, with great care and ability, to follow the culture of the world. If all foreign designers still dream of coming to Italy, it is because in Italy are the cultural conditions and the ability to produce objects that are able to respond to the various needs of taste. When we talk about design, in fact, we are not talking about mass-market products, but items t hat cater to the sphere of taste: if those items have no appeal, they don’t get purchased. This is why you need to browse through many cultures, be prepared to exchange ideas, suggestions and knowledge, to channel them into objects that make people dream. In this area, Italian companies still have a unique record, which is why the Salone del Mobile does not fear any competition: the success of a fair depends on the market and the industry behind it. And Milan Design Week is also great because it has a ‘human’ dimension, like a big village, where you can meet and socialize with ease, where on every street, in every doorway, you can see something interesting.

Daniele Lago, president of Lago

For Lago, the latest Salone del Mobile was more positive than ever. In addition to eight new products, we presented a design concept that included various interior collections – from wooden flooring to ceramic tiles, wallpaper and wall finishes – made in partnerships with excellent brands of Made in Italy. For years we have had a systemic vision of the project, beyond the single product; on its basis, we have created projects like the Lago Apartment, which investigates new ways to distribute design, or Lagostudio, a new way to develop design, or Lagofabbrica, a more humane way to produce design. Another important project is Re-designer, a community of architects who will work on the theme of the interior of the future. We would like to find alliances to approach different areas, from housing to hospitality spaces and public spaces; we have realized that great chefs make you eat well with modest ingredients, not vice versa. I believe in design that builds meaning, even deep meaning. During the Salone, in the Lago Apartment we tried to create value every day, conducting different workshops. With makers and craftsmen, we investigated the issues of 3D printing in relation to different materials, to create articles that will go into the Lago collection. We then worked with several universities and ‘real’ client to design a new idea of a hotel on Lake Garda, providing for a greater involvement of users. I always remember something Carmelo Bene said, that we should stop doing artwork and become works of art ourselves. The Salone this year has gave me just that opportunity, making work into an interesting activity of contamination.

Andrea Lupi, CEO of Antoniolupi

The strategic word is quality. The strong identity and the timelessness of Italian design are indisputable. As long as you pursue quality, synonymous with effort and investment, and consolidate a good policy to protect Made in Italy, with the logic of operating as a system. Milan, as long as there are fashion and the Salone del Mobile, will remain an indispensable reference point. For us, a Tuscan company specializing in bathroom design, the Salone is a place where we can get good results. I won’t go into the merits of criticisms (hopefully constructive!) regarding the fair’s logistics, because I like to focus on ideas and content, which to me reflect excellence: the brands on display are those that make a difference in the industry, and they often share our background as family businesses. Antoniolupi started from scratch, designing its products in-house. When we fully entered into the production process, we established relationships of friendship and mutual growth with designers, inviting them to share in the process, making them part of the production chain. Which is in the DNA of Italian design, and difficult to achieve with a foreign designer. In many companies, the marketing manager is the one who looks for a foreign name designer, instead of an Italian, though the latter certain has no creativity deficit: they try to make choices that involve low risk levels, based more on communication than substance of the product. Running a company that bears your name is an advantage, but also a responsibility. This is widely appreciated abroad, where the business structure is different, and it also makes a difference if the representative, or the sales director, is a member of the owning family, rather than a spokesperson for stakeholder funds. It is a matter of openness and dialogue. Relations with foreign markets are essential for the future of Italian companies. Those that have long been operating abroad, like us, shouldering huge costs for fairs, showrooms and marketing personnel, are able to get the true measure of their production quality. Antoniolupi can now afford major investments, if it believes in a project, which is why I ask designers to work together with us on both the visual appearance of a product and its aspects of construction. I do not do market research and I don’t like to talk about trends: I move forward with ideas I like, I try to make my dream projects come true. But dreams have a cost, and should be studied well. Here lies the true ability.

Davide Malberti, CEO of Rimadesio

Milan is, and will remain, the most prestigious event in the industry. London, Kortrijk and other design events may be efficiently organized and conducted in urban areas of prestige, but in many cases they are lacking in content: products, brands, history. I do not think Italian companies in the sector have refrained from investing in a policy of expansion of international trade: the best brands, in fact, are present in major cities around the world with flagship showrooms, with layouts and display methods on the highest levels. Despite the costs to be addressed: if we had less taxes and more economic incentives, also from the institutions, especially with regard to exports, probably the balance sheets of Italian companies would look much better. But the leading role of our companies is not in danger. Indeed, compared to other nations we are ahead: I do not see other interesting entrepreneurial realities on the horizon. Undoubtedly, to conserve this leadership Italian design has to combine research and innovation with major investments on products and the sales network. For Rimadesio, international development is ensured by a network consisting of 25 single-brand showrooms and nearly 100 shop-in-shops, not to mention the 200 multi-brand shops, perfectly updated with the latest new products, in almost 60 countries around the world. The results from the Salone in 2013, still the most prestigious event in the industry, as far as we are concerned, were very positive: we concentrated on Cover, a revolutionary tailored program that renews the design concept of the niche or wall cabinet, transforming the doors into the only structural element necessary, on which to hang the equipment inside. We have worked with this method for years: we focus on one, at most two products or systems, and invest in the organization and in human and economic resources. And this is the key to our success.

Emiliana Martinelli, president of Martinelli Luce

Italian design has always aroused a lot of interest (and will continue to do so) for its ability to combine creativity, innovation and technological research: it’s always been the best, thanks to a school of renowned and talented professionals. There is no shortage of young talent, but maybe today there are fewer really new, revolutionary ideas than in the past. We do tend to rest on our laurels, on success of historic design, even in companies that are much bigger than mine. In short, we have fewer ideas but the amount of products around us is amazing: often they are reinterpretations of what was already there, but people can still say: ‘it’s design.’ There is a certain amount of abuse of the term. The high road would be to explore new production technologies, new materials and light sources: only this kind of experimentation can trigger new creative tension. In my experience, I have impression that Italian design schools today focus on theory, leaving little room for the study of the technologies of materials and production processes. The research is often only formal, devoid of any coupling to the real world of production. Students, however, must be able to see how an object is made, how it is manufactured: from this point of view, it is very important for young designers to do internships in companies. Of course, the difficult period we are going through does not help either companies or young designers. It takes a certain flexibility, and from this point of view my company – a family firm, of medium size, makes for easier management. But we never stand still: growth has to happen, even if it is well-controlled and managed. So we try to make ourselves known, organizing events, participating in the most important trade fairs, advertising to promote our brand, increasing the number of agents and sales staff. Always with the highest willingness to meet the diverse needs of design, even by changing and designing the product all over again.

Valerio Mazzei, president of Edra

The starting point for a successful business? Quality, which means knowing how to innovate. This is why I firmly believe in a 19th-century business model, where ‘fame’ is acquired because of the qualities that are produced. Of course, then you need the right investments in people, time and money, but the fact remains that it is always necessary to start from innovation – though it has to be real innovation. Sometimes it is said, mistakenly, that innovation means only ‘to be different at all costs’ or ‘to resemble others as closely as possible’. I’m hoping for a new Renaissance: Italy has a huge and priceless heritage, which in itself should already be a very important school of reference. At the Salone del Mobile 2013 Edra did not follow fashions or trends; actually, it never has. We bet on very high-quality products offering great but also simple, immediate comfort, universal and timeless. Never banal. The great thing is that we have achieved this with a single, large, flexible pillow, a triumph of softness, which actually conceals a complex yet imperceptible feat of structural engineering. That sums up the Standard sofa, the latest Edra product, where the padding becomes backrest, armrest, seat to explore geometric shapes that are always different, depending on needs and spaces. An innovative object, that enters our already extensive catalog, whose collections are all marked by cutting-edge typological, formal and material features.

Angelo Meroni, president of Lema

I think the real problem for Italian design today is how to defend and maintain its previously undisputed position of centrality. Italy has always been the center of the design world, because design culture lives in Milan, while the culture of production comes from Brianza, two realities that since the 1950s and 1960s have joined forces to give rise to an industrial history that is not found anywhere else in the world. The difficult economic situation, however, leads to strategic considerations: what we have achieved cannot last forever, and steps must be taken to go beyond those results. Companies need to be structured in a different way and open up to a world that changes faster and faster. This does not mean that their family size is necessarily a constraint, it becomes so only when it prevents the historical evolution of the company and the necessary process of opening to the world. In design brains and passion are what count, not finance. And the fact that the owners of a company are also personally involved in research and development is almost always an absolute value, because it is a guarantee of great passion. Passion is a characteristic ingredient of the Italian formula, and it is truly necessary; without it, our leadership would be a thing of the past. You need emotional involvement, transport, pleasure; in short, identification with what you do. We have to learn to love and enhance our territory, which is our true wealth. Since the end of the 1980s we have exported Italian style all over the world; the general perception is that the most beautiful things, the best furniture, come from our country. But that is no longer enough: we have to make Italian design into a true brand.

Francesca Meroni, director of communication, Meritalia

Meritalia has always been a company focused on exports, accounting for more than 80% of sales, thanks to the foresight and entrepreneurial skills of my father, who from the beginning set up his company as an international business, with a holding of companies in the Meritalia group specialized in contract. But we have never relied on large supplies of standard products. Far from it. For Meritalia the craftsmanship of the product is an added value, not a flaw: our work is a matter of ‘tailoring’, with total control, step by step, all along the production chain. Obviously industrialization offers different margins, both in terms of numbers of products and costs, but I think that, especially in the field of upholstery, craftsmanship can become a great opportunity. Because the future of Italian design will not be in danger if the companies will commit to offering products that can be indisputably synonymous with quality, taste and style, all factors that will always be acknowledged and recognized around the world. The Salone del Mobile is undeniably the most important showcase, but we entrepreneurs we must try to keep a high quality standard. This year Meritalia decided to focus on products of character, rather than quantity. Starting with a never-produced original by the Castiglioni brothers, the Cubo, an immediate hit that met with great critical acclaim. Another successful project was the Newcastle collection by Giulio Iacchetti, a young but very particularly product, characterized by a material never thought of before as a covering. The decision to reduce the number of new items let us cut down on the timing once the Salone was over, to immediately put the products on the international market.

Carlo Molteni, president and managing director of Molteni&C e Dada

The reasons for the leading role of Italian design are obvious: any Italian architect and designer, or a foreigner with a good project, comes to Italy to try to make it happen. In the field of furniture, there are no other industrial systems with the knowhow of Italian companies, and the same desire to take risks, to experiment and innovate. As for the family dimension that distinguishes the brands of Made in Italy, I think there is no alternative: it is the only one that allows you to achieve excellent results on tight margins, that do not fit the logic of big business. The difficult economic situation we are experiencing has led us to refine and enhance the craft component that distinguishes products of Italian design. In our view, the Molteni home must be able to interpret different situations, to be able to respond to different needs of customization. This is not possible if you work on an industrial scale. At the last Salone we set out precisely to demonstrate the flexibility of our products, focusing on the idea of an open, versatile home where the furnishings of Rodolfo Dordoni or Patricia Urquiola, or those of Ron Gilad, coexisted with reissues of pieces by Gio Ponti, giving rise to a thousand different interpretations. We have worked around the world for over 30 years, in France, England, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, thanks to a number of commercial companies that until 15 years ago were concerned only to promote the office furniture of Unifor, and now also deal in products by Molteni & C and Dada. Despite the presence of many Chinese companies that copy and are now also attacking the European market, I think the Italian design trademarks do not run big risks if they are able to assert brand identity. We have a difficult job: you need a strong back ground and lots of experience to understand in which direction to go now.

Pasquale Natuzzi, president and managing director of Gruppo Natuzzi

For over 50 years I have been at the helm of the company that bears my name, where some of my children also work. Nevertheless, the Natuzzi Group is a company with a high degree of management involvement, a step that still seems rather far away for many Italian companies, and not just in the furniture industry. The right mixture of these two components can help to create efficient companies. The Italian furniture industry, with the usual exceptions – and Natuzzi is one of them – is made up of small to medium businesses, often family-run, which in the boom years failed to develop strategies for growth. Now that the crisis of the Italian and European market is deepening every day, it is clear that the sector has never formed a system, and now many companies are paying the price for that. The Natuzzi Group has deployed strategies of internationalization since the early 1990s, and thanks to this process our company is now operating throughout the world. Our strength and success lie in a mixture of Italian manufacturing with all the components of care and attention to detail, creativity and glocal spirit recognized on a worldwide level. Local roots are and will continue to be a hallmark of the company, as well as its international vocation; two components I consider necessary for success, which not contradict each other. Indeed, being present on different markets allows a balance between those in contraction and those that are growing. We invested heavily in the Salone in 2013, where we had two booths, for Natuzzi Italia and Leather Editions. For Natuzzi Italia we presented a preview of the new 2014 collection, with the Time, Form and Duse sofas, that represent the cutting-edge design and superior craftsmanship of Italian production. For Leather Editions, we focused on expanding our range, presenting new products with compact lines, and a series of divans that also function as beds, to meet the needs of our customers.

Monica Pedrali, marketing director of Pedrali

Innovation and creativity are the fundamental factors to offer competitive products in terms of quality and price: this is what the global market is after, and it is also what we want to achieve. To reach these goals we have chosen to produce in Italy, despite conditions that are not always favorable (meaning taxation, bureaucracy and energy costs). But we believe in the value of Made in Italy: a mixture of creativity, innovation and manufacturing excellence that is unmatched in the world. Our collection is made entirely on the Italian territory, with high-quality, sustainable processes. Control of each step of the production cycle – from selection of high-quality raw materials to the use of technologically advanced machinery – allows us to make products that are durable and competitively priced. Undeniably, those who did not make efforts towards worldwide sales development are now having trouble keeping pace with the competition, even if they have interesting products in their catalogues. Pedrali has always had an international approach: our foreign sales has never fallen below 75% of the total, and today we have reached 80% with a distribution network covering 99 countries: an achievement made possible by a network of selected dealers who have worked with us for a long time. It is important for us to work closely with our partners, creating and corners and ‘shop-in-shops’ that communicate our brand values and our 50 years of history in an immediate way. This anniversary was celebrated this year during the Salone del Mobile, where we have been exhibitors for 25 years! My father Mario, who began his career in the 1960s as a craftsman, has been able to pass the baton to me and my brother Joseph, transmitting the energy and enthusiasm of the ‘Italian way of doing business’. Today we are a company with over 180 employees, but we conserve the culture and tradition of a family business. Pedrali has been able to adapt to all the challenges of international competition.

Fabiana Scavolini, marketing director of Scavolini

Design alone is not enough: to approach foreign markets, Italian companies need an efficient network of production and organization. The product must be planned and designed to appeal to a crosswise target, because the consumer is no longer just the local, Italian customer, but belongs to a wider geographical area that embraces all the countries of the world. Winning companies are certainly those that have been able to conquer worldwide markets with long-term strategies, based on the brand development through investment in innovation and technology. In 2010 Scavolini USA opened the largest kitchen store in Manhattan: a very important milestone for us, but also confirmation of the continuing strength of Made in Italy, with its international design leadership. Our forte has always been to offer a 100% Italian product, though in recent years, with a view to increasing internationalization, we have called in prestigious designers not just from Italy: Ora-Ito, Michael Young, King & Miranda, Giugiaro Design, just to name a few. We have also opened up to the fashion universe, thanks to an agreement signed with Diesel. The goal? To create new and original projects, which combine a strong aesthetics with functional quality and technological research. With Diesel Social Kitchen, during the FuoriSalone in Milan, 2013, we set up the Diesel Café Social Club in the Lambrate-Ventura zone. It was a great success, and our new kitchen that we presented last year at Eurocucina also met with great acclaim, as the result of research, innovation and productive teamwork.

Alberto Vignatelli, president of Club House Italia

To be appreciated on the market you need to ‘do things well’: this is our slogan. The business strategy of Club House Italy, in fact, has the main objective of creating products of excellence, not only for style, sophistication and design, but also and especially for the uniqueness and craftsmanship of the work. We combine highquality materials with advanced production techniques. Furthermore, from the beginning we have paid attention to foreign markets, leading to the success of our collections, as confirmed at the recent Salone del Mobile. For over ten years we have been very much in demand in Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia, but the US market is another important area of reference: in 2004 we already had a store in Miami, then we opened another in Los Angeles and in September we’ll be opening in New York. Our strength is to focus on warm atmospheres. Even in the years when minimalism reigned supreme, we conserved a taste for home decor, for a 360-degree style, for a truly unique, special sense of the home: our customers almost never buy a single sofa, they choose a ‘furnishings philosophy’, a way of life. This is what we offer. All this has been possible thanks to the family dimension of our company, which has been a driving force for us in international competition. Precisely the fact that we monitor production step by step, and are well acquainted, for many years, with every supplier, every single craftsman, every dealer, allows us to better develop not only the final product but also the process of distribution and the related services. An industrial dimension could distort the spirit of our products, which are and will remain cases of handcrafted Italian excellence.

Roberto Ziliani, CEO of Slamp

The city of Milan has always been able to count the Salone, but if we want to keep our position we have to stop just exploiting the situation, and start investing. The Milanese design festival (at the fair and the FuoriSalone) does not go unnoticed in the world, but a clear strategy for action is needed on the part of public institutions to make the experience and the resulting business truly international. After all, Italian companies have become international, working as a team and innovating if they want to continue to at least have a competitive advantage in terms of product. Speaking of design (and designers), here too there is a lack of strategic objectives: I am referring to training, to structural intervention… everyone is ready to go with what is in fashion. But to get good results, you have to work, invest, have a project. And that is as true for institutions as it is for businesses. At Slamp we are small, but we strive to be authoritative, following some basic rules: vision, investments, teamwork, innovation and the ambition to come to grips with the world, an utterly Italian aspiration that many firms have to rediscover. We are export-oriented by vocation. We produce in Italy, with creative direction that blends the academic skills of Nigel Coates (who is English, but more Italian than many of us) and an variegated, young group of Italian designers. This year there is also a ‘queen’ of design, Zaha Hadid, and we are proud of our work with her, which has been a wonderful relationship of exchange and professionalism.