“We who are the homeland of design have not managed to develop a design for everyone like Ikea did,” says architect Mario Cucinella. “It is true that Italy is synonymous with high quality manufacturing - an excellence that we must hold on to - but the creative quality of our country should also offer democratic solutions, simple objects, designed for everyday life: a corkscrew, a cutting board, a book holder”.
Today, is it still possible to buy quality, beautiful and well-made furniture, or have the leading companies of Made in Italy positioned themselves at the high end of the market for high-spending customers, especially foreigners?
“The big names in furniture look at the foreign market in terms of pricing and position themselves in a very high price range,” explains Andrea Salvioni, purchasing manager of the Salvioni showrooms DesignSolutions, among the main retailers in Italy.
“The price lists of major brands have on average grown by 30 percent in the last nine years. If in 2014 you could buy a top of the range sofa for 8 thousand euros, today, with the same budget, you can buy an entry level model from other companies, still of quality, but not from the top brands".
To better understand the phenomenon, it is necessary to frame it in the turbulent economic context in which companies have been navigating by sight for some time.
Prices have increased because inflation has risen (+21.09 percent in the last decade, Istat data), due to the energy crisis, the increase in the costs of raw materials, but also "due to the difficulty of find specialized personneland for the closure of many small subcontractor companies", underlines Beatrice Frattali, at the helm of the Roman showrooms Frattali Perfect Living, who continues: "Accessible companies with quality and durable products exist, they are less renowned brands but always representative of Made in Italy.
Design brands have actually moved to a high-spending range, but in some cases they have at least one excellent quality entry level model or product in their catalog with fairly affordable costs."
Is design becoming a luxury good?
“The point is that mid-range customers are disappearing due to all the wrong Italian policies”, underlines Massimiliano Messina, president of Flou, one of the (few) historic companies made in Italy that manages to remain anchored to the Italian market (with 70 percent of sales within national borders).
“Our customers are decreasing year after year due to the demographic crisis, and the mid-range has been suffering for some time. Since we cannot position ourselves at the bottom, we are forced to turn to customers with good spending power."
But is it still possible to imagine a democratic design for all, which enters the homes of all Italians to bring beauty, comfort and functionality? Can quality furniture be produced at low costs?
We ask the protagonists of the sector, i.e. designers, companies and retailers.
"One thing is certain", concludes the retailer Salvioni: "There is a big gap in the market between the medium-high range brands and the low range ones. It is a void that could be filled, but a holistic industrial plan would be needed."
Mario Cucinella, architect and designer
“We have a very high-level design manufacturing tradition, this has led companies to position themselves in a high-end market. But in a historical moment of great social inequalities, we should start thinking about beautiful, well-made, useful objects that are within everyone's reach. Today the supply chains have shortened, young designers like craftsmen of the future can self-produce with small printers, making adaptive design, that is, printing not in a repetitive way, it is an opportunity that we didn't have before, it can be printed with many materials, from clay made from recycled plastics and cellulose.
But youngs need to be helped, perhaps by the trade associations themselves. It's a shame to think that Italian design can only become the exclusive one of luxury.
There are many small companies that make products using recycled materials, for young customers who are more attentive to environmental issues. Top of the range companies, alongside high-profile collections, could offer more democratic lines, simple, quality furniture that meets the needs of the general public.
We could create a sort of consortium of companies that creates beautiful and accessible products to be sold in a large Made in Italy shop, and since we have the best designers in the world, it wouldn't be a problem. We in Italy live immersed in beauty, but in general in the world there is a regression towards beautiful things and an impoverishment of the quality of things, we must find a way, all together, to bring beauty back into everyday life".
Alessandro Stabile and Martinelli Venezia (Vittorio Venezia and Carolina Martinelli), designers of Oto Chair
"To answer this question, i.e. whether it is still possible to buy quality, well-made furniture that doesn't cost a fortune, we must first align ourselves on what quality and well-made furniture means. It's a definition which brings together many components: the quality of the material, the skill in the workmanship, respect not only for the environment but also for workers' rights and care towards the people who ultimately use the furniture.
We add three other parameters, perhaps less measurable, but undoubtedly necessary: the beauty, the intelligence and the unique of a project, to we essential values to determine if a product is of quality. To produce quality at low costs it is necessary to have it as an objective from the beginning of the project and that all the actors involved (company, designers, technical developers, subcontractors, distributors) are in constant dialogue to guide the project in this direction.
Oto chair is a choral project, born from the idea of us designers, matured without being distorted by the entrepreneur Alex Pegoraro strong> and developed with an intense dialogue with engineers, mold makers, printers, packaging producers and logistics experts.
Oto Chair is a assembly chair made of injection-molded recycled plastic, all pieces are molded at the same time.
It is shipped in flat packaging made of recycled and recyclable cellulose pulp, sized to optimize transport on pallets so much so that it is possible to transport five times more chairs than the standard. For each chair purchased, thanks to the partnership with Ogyre, half a kilo of marine waste is recovered.
The democratic price (99 euros, shipping included) is due to the choice of production technology which allows, in the face of investments, excellent production seriality.
Some characteristics that determine its environmental sustainability also allow for lower costs: the mold is one third larger than a traditional, entire molded chair, furthermore we have optimized the thicknesses of all the parts, in fact the chair weighs only three kilograms, and transport also costs much less as the packaging takes up little space".
Michele and Giovanni Gervasoni, CEO and third generation of the family company founded in 1882
“What happened some time ago in fashion is happening today in the world of furniture, i.e. the market is dividing in two: on the one hand the brands that focus on luxury offering furnishings with increasingly higher costs, on the other hand, companies that position themselves on a more accessible range.
The luxury market has grown globally, consequently furniture companies have begun to address a new and increasingly broad high-end audience, offering high-quality models in terms of materials, workmanship, design and meticulous attention to details and with ever greater personalization, and this inevitably leads to an increase in prices.
Gervasoni's challenge over the last ten years has been to try to make Italian craftsmanship as industrial as possible, elevating its qualities and reducing its costs, so as to be able to being one of the few exceptions in the high market with competitive prices. To maintain high quality and reasonable costs we think by collections and not by individual products: the wide variety offered by the company does not depend only on the infinite possibilities of customizing the individual product, but on the presence of numerous and vast collections, all combinable with each other to create infinite domestic universes.
Furthermore, we look for new materials with excellent technical and aesthetic qualities but low costs, and we compare suppliers and subcontractors to find the best value for money".
Massimiliano Messina, president of Flou
“It is still possible to buy products at a price within the reach of the mid-range, but it is true that our new proposals all fall into the high range. The evolution of our customers leads us to push for innovation and research, and this often means using niche or not very widespread and therefore more expensive materials.
However, fortunately in Italy there are several famous and historic products that maintain the same price positioning. The Nathalie bed, designed in 1978 by Vico Magistretti - the product with which Flou was born - is still our best-selling bed ever, its price has increased physiologically following inflation and today it is sold for around 3 thousand euros, which is certainly not a first price, but it is still an accessible figure.
In our forty-five year history, we have constantly sought to work better and optimize production processes. Fortunately, sales volumes help us to have competitive prices, driven by the push of our historic products.
Nathalie is entirely made by us in Italy, 95 percent of our suppliers are located within 10-15 kilometers of the company, which means reducing transport costs".
Massimo Cian, product director of Calligaris&Connubia
“For Connubia, a brand of the Orbital Design Collective group, it is important to maintain a balance between quality and price, providing aesthetically pleasing and durable products at more affordable prices than high-end manufacturers.
Connubia is aimed above all at Millennials, who are not influenced by the classic canons of exclusive design and buy furniture in a well-defined price range and for a specific housing need. Many companies produce limited edition pieces almost by hand, an exclusivity that contributes to positioning the products as luxury goods and increasing the perception of value and status.
It must be said that not all designer products are necessarily expensive, and there are brands like Connubia that try to balance quality and accessibility. Producing well-made, quality and affordable furniture is a challenge, but there are several approaches that can be adopted to achieve this goal: the simplification of the design, with clean lines and essential functionality to eliminate superfluous elements and processes strong>; the use of cheaper but durable, innovative and sustainable materials, to reduce environmental impact and at the same time lower production costs; optimize and automate production processes to reduce waste and processing times".
Andrea Salvioni, purchasing manager of the Salvioni Design Solutions showrooms
“After the 2008 crisis, our clientele has become predominantly international. High-end furniture retailers have an audience that is 70 percent foreign and 30 percent Italian. Our customers are medium-high range, such as professionals and entrepreneurs. The big names in the furniture sector look to the foreign market in terms of pricing and position themselves in a very high price range. The price lists of major brands have on average grown by 30 percent in the last nine years.
The Charles sofa by B&B Italia (composition with chaise longue, cushions excluded) in 2014 cost 7,217 euros (VAT included), today we sell it for 10,776 euros (+33 percent). The Maralunga sofa by Cassina, another bestseller, in the two-seater leather version in 2014 was priced at 8,060 euros, in 2023 it reaches 11,864 euros (+32 percent). The Groundpiece sofa by Flexform, by far one of the best-selling sofas by the Meda company, in the corner composition with cushions included in 2015 was 14,091 euros, today 20,337 euros (+31 percent).
Why did companies increase prices? On the one hand, the cause is inflation: according to Istat data, inflation from 2014 to today has recorded a +21.09 percent; on the other hand, energy and raw material costs skyrocketed last year.
Furthermore, the ever-increasing interest of the international public in Made in Italy has led companies to align local prices with international ones; essentially there is no longer much difference between the Italian price lists and those for the foreign market.
It must also be said that, unlike fashion, the furniture sector does not make products much more expensive, making furniture in Italy, with Italian workers and with quality materials, costs money. The top of the range suppliers, those who are the great protagonists of Italian furniture, are now off limits for the Italian middle class.
In order not to lose this medium-high clientele, we have expanded our offer with quality brands, at lower prices. If nine years ago it took 8 thousand euros to buy a top of the range sofa, today you need 15 thousand, but with 8 thousand you can buy an entry level solution from a quality brand not included among the big names in furniture.
One thing is certain: a large void has been created in the market between medium-high range brands and low range ones (like Ikea for example). It is a void that could be filled, but a holistic industrial plan would be needed, and I don't know if it is possible to imagine it in Italy, with the production costs that exist in our country."
Beatrice Frattali, architect, owner and general manager of the showrooms Frattali Perfect Living a>
“Made in Italy encompasses a vast range of products and companies. Accessible companies with quality and durable products exist, they are less renowned brands but always representative of Made in Italy. Design brands have actually moved to a high spending range, but in some cases they have at least one excellent quality entry level model or product in their catalog with quite accessible costs.
Our customers belong to a high-spending segment that loves design and durable quality products. In the years after Covid, price lists increased by 10 to 20 percent.
Some companies have managed to contain the increases, others have not. Some brands, a few, have recently been recalibrating the price of some products or trying to cancel the increases applied.
A sofa five years ago was approximately 30-35 percent cheaper than today. The increases depend on the cost of raw materials, the increase in the cost of energy, the difficulty of finding specialized personnel and the closure of many small subcontractor companies".