How much is its history worth to a brand? Heritage is certainly a strong communication drive for Italian furniture design companies. It is no coincidence that it is often told, together with the theme of innovation, through the values of craftsmanship, know-how, tailoring and that ‘ability to break’ and to anticipate times and trends, which various designers have repeatedly demonstrated in the history of Italian design.
But how much does heritage affect the percentage of export turnover? “It is a very complex value to calculate”, explains Matteo Luoni, associate partner of Bain & Company. “It can be said that Italy plays a decisive role in the world of high-end furniture design. Made the market 100, Italian brands make up 35/40%. How much this growing success is due to the historicity of the brands is difficult to establish”.
The variables concern the diffusion in the different geographies of Italian culture, and more generally of the history of design. And, to quote Gillo Dorfles, “the fluctuations of taste”, or those stylistic and perceptive transformations that can be identified in different eras, at the basis of many preconceptions and aesthetic choices. Thus an iconic product, which has always been in the company’s catalog, can experience strong fluctuations in its sales success.
“There is a mix”, continues Luoni, “between brand relevance, heritage and product quality (linked to production capacity and flexibility) and the intersections with the creativity of international design stars. This is the formula of Italian companies, leaders in the world especially in the upholstery and lighting sectors”.
The popularity of the designer is a factor that affects sales: “however, in some new markets such as China, the brand must be communicated in a more pervasive way through the most relevant touch points with the final consumer. It is not trivial, especially for small and medium-sized companies that position themselves through multi-brand retail and e-commerce. The latter today is equal to 5% in the high range, but has growth rates between 15-20% per year”.
Therefore, the multi-channel strategy of the company story counts more and more: through catalogs, documentary videos, social media and presence in well-targeted concept stores. And, in this strategy, the concept of heritage is a strong asset.
Cassina was among the first Italian companies to focus on re-editions of the history of international design.
The I Maestri collection begins with the production of the first four models designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand in 1964/65. And today it extends to the work of twelve important figures in the history of the twentieth century, with the aim of recovering those original values from which contemporary furniture design drew its development and which make up a contribution to today's research in design. Since its origins, the Cassina I Maestri collection has expressed a cultural and didactic mission alongside the commercial objective. Each new re-edition is accompanied by a narration of the model's history and its iconic, formal and symbolic values. The most receptive markets to these products are Europe - especially France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy - and, in non-European countries, Japan, a market that has always been sensitive to Made in Italy.
Zanotta is one of the brands in the history of Italian design that has more icons in the catalog. As many as 256 of its products have entered the permanent collections of over 50 museums around the world. “These furnishings”, explains Giuliano Mosconi, Zanotta president and CEO, “continue to be chosen to give value and personality to contemporary homes. The sales figures for these pieces are constantly growing and now exceed 25% of the total turnover. Sacco, Sciangai, Maggiolina, Quaderna and Mezzadro to name a few, as well as the Mollino collection and the pieces in the Edizioni catalog represent exceptional project meetings that have accompanied the life of our company. This is the moment in which all markets are rediscovering author projects. It happens in Europe, in America and also in China, which is now much more attentive to contemporaneity and expresses the desire to choose objects with which to have a more personal and intimate relationship”.
There are companies like Gufram that make the interpretation of their historical outcome a business strategy. “We start by respecting the same values with which our most famous objects were born fifty years ago”, says Charley Vezza, Gufram's global creative orchestrator. “Gufram's heritage translates into three factors: the nonconformity of the spirit; the pop style, colorful and irreverent, capable of transforming the home with a precise imprint; the tactile sensation, or soft products, characterized by the use of polyurethane with a unique paint in the world. We try to reinterpret the eternal contemporaries with ‘iconoclastic' operations, such as the Bocca sofa that everyone identifies with the red color, now made in 25 shades. Or we try to broaden our horizons through the vision of creatives from different worlds, as in the case of Studio Job, similar to us in the ability to create icons, to whose famous and archetypal cabinet we have combined a soft globe, typical of Gufram. The one with Studio Job, as well as with Toiletpaper and Snarkitecture, is an operation similar to co-branding. We are not interested in having the object ‘designed by’, but putting together strong design identities”.
Finally, there are recent realities such as Eligo, born in 2016, which create their business on the tradition of historical Italian craftsmanship and on a cultured idea of heritage, which wants to tell “the combination, in perfect synthesis, of aesthetics, ethics, passion , local culture and Italian tradition”, to quote Alberto Nespoli, co-founder of the Milanese company. The brand creates products that highlight local and niche crafts, such as the production of Chiavarine or Empoli Glass, together with specific chapters in the history of Italian design, such as Franco Albini's Tripolina, created for the display at Palazzo Bianco in Genoa in 1950. “Eligo rediscovers and collects the culture of timeless Italian beauty. To promote these particular stories, we make a targeted choice of concept stores with the sensitivity and skills to tell our product. Over the years we have established professional and trusting relationships with high quality stores in Japan, Asia, Australia and France. Or, as designers (Eligo Studio), we create sets, installations and interior design, in which we insert Eligo's collections, enhancing their stylistic affinities in the dialogue with the products of other brands”.
Cover photo: Fred Wilson, Mark, 2010. Ph. Francesco Allegretto. From ‘Venezia e lo Studio Glass Americano’ exhibition - Le Stanze del Vetro. Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, 6 September 2020 - 10 January 2021.