A San Francisco-based lecture series, Design Assembly, kicked off with a talk from one of the dons of contemporary furniture, Giulio Cappellini. He spoke to a full crowd of local design fans at furniture gallery Arkitektura In Situ about his decades-long career helming the family business, often digressing into stories about student-days nights at the bar with Piero Lissoni or his apprenticeship with Gio Ponti. Dwell sat down with the man to ask about a signature Cappellini style, what the European furniture market looks like, and which designer might be next to join his enviable stable of talent.
Giulio, how's business?
Things are good! Europe is not so good, but South America and the Far East are doing very well. We're opening a shop in Manilla soon. If you'd told me five years ago that there would be a Cappellini store in the Philippines I'd have never believed you. We're opening a new one in New Delhi at the end of the year, too. And we're starting in Colombia and Peru. Business is good in Brazil. Eighty percent of the sales we do at the store in Miami is with people from Brazil who are younger and love design. We used to do a lot of business within a one-hour flight of Milan. Now we go ten hours, but it's not too bad.
When you encounter a new piece of furniture or a new design, how do you determine if it's any good?
I like to touch. For contemporary design products it's difficult to invent new shapes (most of the beautiful shapes have been created), but we can innovate with materials and technology. So for me, the first approach is very important because the product has to communicate something. And it has to be a product that is not a trend but something that can be good for the future. When you buy something it's critical that you can use it for years. That's why we try to make serious products. When you buy a sofa that costs $10,000 it has to be good today and it has to be good in ten years.
How can the consumer know what's going to hold up for ten years, though? How can he know if he'll even like this thing in ten years?
All products become old. But a good one becomes old in the proper way. Sometimes nice leather or wood can be better five years after you buy it. And of course construction, what's on the back of the product, that's all very important.
Across the decades it seems to me that Cappellini has resisted establishing a house style. Is that a conscious choice?
The spirit of Cappellini is freedom. I like to work with different designers from different countries, and I work on a global scale. You know, sometimes being eclectic is harder than forming a signature style. For me, I love the mixture—maybe it's the minimal style of a Tom Dixon, or the sophistication of the Bouroullec brothers, or the neo-baroque of Marcel Wanders. But you have to respond to the contemporary style of the consumer. The consumer likes variety. There's no monoculture.
You'd said before that business isn't as strong in Europe or in Italy. Do you see new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti's new austerity policies helping to turn things around?
No. The first problem is that we have a bad economic situation and the second problem is an epic psychological one. People in Italy are afraid. The atmosphere is very heavy in Milan—that's where I live, in the center of the city. People don't want to invest, they don't want to change their sofas, or they just leave. Of course, Italian creativity is famous all over the world and we need it very much, but the future panorama is not good. I hope something new will happen. Maybe you don't feel it if you come to Milan during fashion week or for Salone, but for the rest of the year you see empty shops, you can always find a cab, there's lots of space in restaurants. Who is buying a Ferrari in Milan today? Nobody. They all buy Fiats.
It's really so bad?
I don't think Europe will be back like it was in the past. In the future, and even now, lots of companies use Italian creativity but they're not producing in Italy.
Do you produce exclusive in Italy?
Yes. We are in Milan, which has a long tradition of an artisanal way of working, so within 10 or 15 miles we can solve any problem we have when making our furniture. A good artisan can still help industry.
What can we expect from Cappellini in the next short while?
Our most important new designer is Nendo. He's winning all the international awards you can win. And now we're doing a new project with Dror, a seating system that will be more for contract than for residential, I think. Also a new concept, a kind of total apartment, with the Bouroullec brothers. I hope to debut that in 2013.