At the Helm
Exceptional women steer Italian design into the future
The setting: Milan, Italy on a perfect spring day.The warm Mediterranean sun casts light shadows as it filters through the leafy trees of the cour tyard of architect Carlotta de Bevilacqua’s studio. I’m wait- ing to speak with Ms. de Bevilacqua, the Milanese architect who, aside from running her own studio, serves as president of Danese and art director of Artemide, two of the most influential and important contemporary furniture companies in Italy and the world. As I wait, my gaze wanders from the courtyard outdoors to the reception room where I sit surrounded by some of Ms. de Bevilacqua’s own recent creations as well as prints by Enzo Mari and lights designed by Bruno Munari. Oh, Milan—once again, its artistic elegance shines!
As the architect arrives, she offers me a glass of red wine as we settle into our chairs. Ms. de Bevilacqua is one of a “new” generation of exceptional women who have taken the reigns of some of the top contemporary furniture companies in Italy—companies such as Moroso and De Padova that have set the standard in interior design for decades. Whether they are the founders of the companies themselves, the next generation (daughters or nieces of the family business), or entrepreneurs such as Ms. de Bevilacqua, they are taking Italian design into the future.
During our conversation, Ms. de Bevilacqua explains that what has come to be known as “Italian design” first developed in the years following World War II. Italy had suffered mass destruction during the war, but the loss also led to oppor- tunity for ambitious entrepreneurs with a willingness to take risks. Danese, the company that Ms. de Bevilacqua bought in 1999, was originally founded in 1957 by Bruno Danese and Jacqueline Vodoz. The Danese/Vodoz team collaborated with some of the most important designers of the time, promoting creativity and generating new and original objects that answered the needs of the people.
So what were these needs?
First and foremost, there was a need for reconstruction. Fortunately, at that time the countr y saw many talented young architects such as Ettore Sottsass,Vico Magistretti, and Achille Castiglioni coming out of the universities of Milan andVenice ready to work.These architects shared the same vision as producers such as Danese: to improve the lives of the people by designing and producing for them home environments where they could live and work comfortably. It was a very humanistic approach, one where concern for the well-being of consumers was of greatest importance; these values still hold true in Italy today.
An important component in the Italian value system for “living well” is an attentiveness and appreciation for what is beautiful, elegant and tasteful. It was her father’s passion for beauty and architecture that inspired Elisa Astori, now vice pres- ident of Driade, to enter into the family business. “I was very inspired by the passion my father had for architecture and for il bello [beauty], and so I decided to study architecture,” she reminisces. Elisa’s father, Enrico Astori, founded Driade in 1968 with his wife Adelaide Acerbi and his sister Antonia Astori. After obtaining her degree in architecture, Elisa worked in Madrid with Spanish architect Rafael Moneo before returning to Italy to take on her responsibilities with the family business.
As architects began to propose new living spaces in the years following the war, a need grew for objects to fill these spaces. Architects found their clients calling on them to design furniture and items suited for their new home environments. To this day, there is still not a precise distinction between architect and product or industrial designer in Italy—many do both.
Patrizia Moroso, creative director of Moroso, a company founded by her parents in 1952 that has become yet another key member of this strong and historic community of Italian furniture producers, explains that, at the time of Moroso’s founding, Italy and Europe in general were rich with highly skilled craftsmen. In fact, Moroso itself began as a company composed of artisans who specialized in producing furniture padding and coverings. These craftsmen, proud of the quality and refinement that defined their work, could easily realize the ideas of great architects.
And so it was that, during the 60s and 70s, craftsman, designer and producer worked hand-in-hand in a natural collaboration born from love, pas- sion and commitment to quality. Italy and her vision for better living was soon acknowledged and the canons it set forth were considered as industry standards the world over.
All of the women leaders I spoke with agreed that innovation has been one of the key factors that has enabled their companies to continue to hold the lead in an increasingly competitive global industry.
What exactly is innovation to them, then? For Monica Mazzei, vice president of Edra, it is “the continual research for new materials and the realization of products capable of expressing the DNA” of Edra that allows for new, exciting work to be produced.
Elisa Astori of Driade finds that tapping into the creativity of designers such as Philippe Starck is important. “Every encounter [with Starck] is a source of inspiration,” she says.“Every year he surprises us with his enormous capacity to continue to innovate.”
Federica Gatti, niece of De Padova founder Maddalena De Padova, today acts as distribution and communications man- ager for the company. She explains that it is the close relationship between designer and producer that is paramount. “Working with the same designer for a number of years simplifies our work,” she details. “For, in order [to create] a collection like ours—made up of coherent pieces, each one related to the other and held together by a unifying element—two fundamental aspects must be in place: the sensitivity of the designer and the ability of the company to translate this sensitivity.” It seems that this formula works well for De Padova, who collaborated for years with Vico Magistretti, one of Italy’s design giants. Many of the pieces that Magistretti designed and De Padova produced have entered into the annals of design history.
Italian furniture producers truly do respect and support the artistic sen- sibilities of the designers they choose to work with. By keeping production numbers low and their companies small and family-run, they have been able to create beautiful, handcrafted objects while cultivating the ideas and creative genius of the designer. This makes for a satisfying relationship for both creator and producer.“The work we have done with Binfarè, as with the Campana brothers, with whom we have developed an intense and special relationship over time, is very stimulating,” remarks Monica Mazzei.
An even closer friendship has developed between Patrizia Moroso and highly sought-after designer Patricia Urquiola. Ms. Moroso was first struck by the incredible talent of the Milan-based designer of Spanish origin and, upon meeting her, felt an immediate understanding and connection with her and her work. Both designer and producer have enjoyed working together as women in a field that is still today dominated by men. Ms. Moroso defines the collaboration as an exquisite strength that allows for the transformation and evolution of a seemingly improbable idea or object into something concrete that meets the market’s needs. It is apparent that the exceptional women at the heads of Italy’s new and historic contemporary design companies will continue to lead the global design industry into the future simply because their vision—just as that of their forefathers—remains fixed upon improving the lives of those living in the present by answering their needs.
Paola Lenti, who founded her company in 1994, perhaps says it best. “Innovation, study and application of color—the design and creation of products that function on a human scale—are born not only from a precise concept of living, but also from the capacity to identify unexpressed needs and to give strong and concrete respons- es,” she explains. Energy efficient lighting systems such as those produced by Danese and Ar temide and more personalized production processes such as those developed by Lenti define and answer these needs and are proof that Italian design remains an exercise in utility, fine quality and—let us not forget—beauty.
Image: Aster Papposus, designed by Fernando e Humberto Campana for Edra. Images courtesy Edra.