Some people value communication more than action. Others work behind the scenes, designing icons. This is the case of William Sawaya, the creator of well-known products for Sawaya&Moroni, the company he founded in 1984 together with Paolo Moroni, with whom he had shared a studio since 1978, designing works of architecture and refined private and public interiors all over the world.
Born in Beirut to a Christian family, he took a degree in architecture, specializing in interior design. Over the years he has gained extensive experience in many fields, also operating as art director for Sawaya&Moroni, with a circle of remarkable international collaborators like Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel, David Adjaye, Ma Yansong, Snøhetta, Jakob+Macfarlane, Dominique Perrault, Michael Graves, Mario Bellini, Massimiliano Fuksas, Ettore Sottsass, Ron Arad, Borek Sipek… He emphasizes the difficulty of contemporary architecture.
“Today the fashion is to design the external architectural shell,” he says, “to have great impact, and then to make the interiors, independent of the structure, which leads to inevitable, substantial loss of spaces. To design interiors means creating areas that can be utilized, volumes, light, not arranging furniture in keeping with a style, or creating compositions that reflect the tastes of the client.
That is the job of a decorator. Doing a true interior design project is very hard. I think I know how to do it well. I take advantage of every centimeter of space in the right way. And the furnishings are connected with the characteristics of the space. There’s a difference: architecture has to last in time. A product, on the other hand, rarely becomes a classic, also because it is unfortunately more closely linked to trends.”
In the creation of interior architecture, how important is light, both natural and artificial?
It is very important. The contribution of natural light has to be studied and set in the design phase; while the role of artificial light has to be developed in keeping with the needs and habits of the people who will live inside the space.
Before designing any building, any room, I need to know all about the client, from A to Z: how they live, their habits, what they like and don’t like… I have very long sessions with the client, almost like psychoanalysis. For artificial light I also call in specialists from lighting companies. They are always up to date on new technologies, the qualities and tones of light. The choice of the fixtures is purely a matter of taste.
When you design a furnishing product do you imagine it in an abstract way, connected to a trend and to an idea of yours, or do you see it in relation to a given space?
I think of it as an autonomous product. In my architectural projects the furnishings are not necessarily designed by me; actually, my products are few and far between, more or less 3% of those utilized. A furnishing object has to exist on its own, whether or not it is beautiful, and it has to have its own autonomy of expression. Nevertheless, sometimes I do design a special piece that does not exist on the market for a specific context or situation, outside the norm. That was how we began the adventure of Sawaya&Moroni: special furnishings for prestigious interiors.
What if I asked you to define the style of your furnishings?
Not to be presumptuous, I think they are sensual and elegant.
What is sensuality in design, in your view? It is an attribute rarely mentioned for design, which is usually described as functional, ergonomic, conceptual, minimal…
Those are all important characteristics, to which I would add the tactile part, which brings sensuality. I rarely make something that people do not want to touch, to caress, almost as if it were a human body. This means softness, fluid lines. It means that the product stimulates desire.
What is your method and what are your cultural references to make products desirable?
There are many, though no one in particular. I read in four languages, everything that interests me and makes me curious. I think I have the gift of observing when I look, and of listening when I hear. It is a gift linked to my inborn oriental sensibility, contaminated by the experience of having lived in Italy for 41 years.
How much do your oriental roots count with respect to being accustomed to living in the western world?
Not very much, but there are some aspects of my personality that belong to the East. The respect I have for people is a very eastern quality, like the great value I assign to family traditions.
What do you think about design that follows trends?
It tells me nothing. I detest it, actually. Design is not fashion. Fashion thrives on seasonal changes, trends. The design of a product, on the other hand, has to last, not just for the color, the image, but for the quality of its service. Following trends means acritically seeking consensus to achieve facile commercial results, more likes on the social networks.
Design products that last in time can be seen as icons. Do you think you have designed pieces that can be so defined? If so, what is your secret to make them?
There is no secret, no formula. I don’t claim to be capable of designing an icon, but I very much want my pieces to last over time. The premises exist for the creation of a long-term success: technological, formal and typological innovation. You have to manage to design a valid archetype, and in this case it can become an icon. I think that at least two of my products can be seen as archetypal, both for the material utilized and for the form: the Maxima chair – a similar form made in polyurethane did not exist previously – and the Fei Fei.
Today design has to first of all be lifestyle and storytelling, as a way of sustaining historic companies. What do you think?
I’m against terminology. I’ll leave the lifestyle up to good decorators. I’m not interested. My objective is to design good interior architecture, capable of living independently, notwithstanding the furniture. As the owner of a company, I try to create products that will have an identity, independent of the context.
You have a triple role: architect, designer and entrepreneur. How do you manage to reconcile the last two roles?
I interact with Paolo Moroni, he is my devil’s advocate. But first I always try to challenge myself. From a creative standpoint this need has penalized me. An entrepreneur who is also a designer for his own company is not judged very highly by the market. I believe that self-production is a risk, because the dialectic with the producer is missing. Nevertheless, every day I do engage in discussion, with myself, with the designers who work for the company. Which constitutes indispensable training in problem solving, also my own problems. I find this multiplicity of roles stimulating, but I don’t think of myself as a wise man. To some extent this has also been a limitation. I could have designed for other companies, but I have never done so due to professional ethics, with the exception of a few brands that do not produce furniture. The fact that I design mostly for Sawaya&Moroni has earned me the label of a furniture designer, while I think I am a designer capable of approaching all kinds of product types.
What is your assessment of Italian design today, and its future?
In this moment two types of designers are in vogue, those I call the optimizers of other people’s ideas, who work to make the right things for the market, often in banal ways, and then those who are designer/decorators, very much in style at the moment, who are good at putting together furnishings and colors. I don’t see much innovation or much technology on the Italian design scene. Even in the ‘hot’ area of sustainable and renewable design, I am not seeing valid applications, just lovely slogans.
Why is it so hard to combine the good and the beautiful?
Severe policies should be enacted upstream to prevent waste and the indiscriminate use of non-renewable materials. For example, why do supermarkets continue to sell products packaged in plastic? If there were precise standards and precise indications on the sustainable materials available, I – like all designers – would be forced to comply with them. You have to start from the materials and invent new ones to create a beauty that is also ethical.