My Furniture Designer-Dealer Is the Unsung Hero of My Renovation

My Furniture Designer-Dealer Is the Unsung Hero of My Renovation

When I wanted a wardrobe that could do double duty as a bed frame and more, I went custom—with some assistance from an expert.

Let me tell you about the walk-in wardrobe I just ordered. It is solid wood, with walls stacked with plenty of drawers, and shelves and hangers that roll down so the highest ones are still accessible without a stool. There’s about as much storage as my husband and I could ever need.

But that’s not it. The other side will have a built-in king sized bed frame sitting against it, which means one wall of the wardrobe is also a ceiling-high headboard with foldout reading lights. Flanking the bed are shelves, and the ones closest to our bedsides will roll out to become nightstands whenever we need them. I’m still pondering whether to tack a small writing desk on to the configuration.

The wardrobe is by far the biggest splurge of my renovation, and it’s also an item I didn’t know that I needed, until my cabinetry dealer-designer, Ezio Mattiace, first showed it to me on his design software. He told me he’d already checked, and one of the Italian companies he deals for, Santalucia Mobili, was equipped to make it for me. Its cost was about the same as some small cars, but it was too perfect to pass up.

Ezio, who runs the firm Arte Modus, which acts as an American liaison for manufacturers in Italy, was trained as a civil engineer but became interested in the interior of buildings when he was the project manager for the Italian embassy in DC. He represents several Italian cabinetry makers, each of whom develops systems for rooms of the home such as kitchens, bathrooms and closets. These companies have sets of parts that Ezio combines and configures to make into unique solutions for each client.

Until I met Ezio through the architect on my renovation project, I did not consider myself to be the kind of person who would hire someone like him or purchase a foreign-made wardrobe. But, as I learned, there are many factors that make pieces like this one more accessible in Italy than they are here. And the cabinetry has become as crucial to my project as the architecture itself.

A one-stop shop

The reason Americans are interested in someone like Ezio’s services is that in Europe, there are a slew of industrial furniture companies that provide high end cabinetry that can be adapted to different spaces. Some of them even have products designed by major designers and architects. In the U.S., if you want a piece to suit your specific purposes, you typically need to have someone design and make it for you completely custom.

This difference goes back to the Bauhaus movement, which was all about bringing together beautiful aesthetics and function with mass production. Starting around the 1950s, Italy became a hotbed for cabinetry, and it has flourished there ever since. Skilled craftspeople have been able to build on the rich history of design from the past and hone their skills over generations, adapting to new industrial techniques.

 And there’s a large market for what they make. The average person outfitting their home in Italy needs to think more carefully about cabinetry than someone in the U.S. might. Homes are smaller in Europe, generally, so every inch counts and has to be highly functional as well as beautiful. Also, the items are priced so more people can afford them. "If you have a 4,000-square foot house, you can waste as much space as you want," Ezio says. "You can hide some things. Not everything is exposed."

Meanwhile, in the United States, the industrialization of furniture products hasn’t resulted in the same outcomes. Much of our production has moved to countries where overhead is lower. Cheap furniture is available, but there’s a range in terms of quality. While there are excellent American woodworkers and even some newer modular cabinetry companies, they’re generally more expensive.

How does it work?

The closest thing I can describe to working with a dealer-designer like Ezio is having a consultation with an Ikea interior design planner, but that person has knowledge of more companies’ products, with more design software skills and, of course, access to higher end design and materials.

The plan for the closet all started when my architect showed Ezio a 3D rendering of our bedroom, with the plans to put the closet behind our bed, and asked him what he envisioned. They agreed to meet to come up with a plan, and they presented it to us on Zoom. Initially we were taken aback, because it was more elaborate than we’d anticipated. But as we started to think of the costs of all the separate items of furniture we’d need if we opted out, it started making more sense.

At that point, we asked for some changes. For example, I wanted to add doors to cover up the open shelving on the corner of the closet so there would be no mess visible, and I needed reading lights. The built-in bed was a little bit lower than my husband would prefer. (In Italy, we found out, the standard bed is lower.) Ezio figured out a way to add some trim to the bottom to elevate it slightly, and we agreed to get a deeper mattress.

Just because I was curious, I set up a meeting with a local mid-range closet company for price comparison purposes. I showed the designer there the planned space, and while the price they quoted me was a few thousand dollars lower, ultimately I was told that I’d have to make significant alterations to make it doable at all. It wouldn’t be as functional as I liked.

I’ve had Ezio design and source the TV unit for my living room (also from Santalucia Mobili), my bathroom vanities (from Idea Group), and my floor tiles (from Caesar Ceramiche). He also ended up designing my kitchen and basement kitchenette from Record è Cucine.

He’s warned me away from some manufacturers whose prices, he believes, reflect their overblown marketing budgets, not their high quality, and suggested times it would be worth it to spend a bit more. Ezio’s own fee and shipping are folded into the cost of the cabinetry. The total still costs about what I’d pay for items from a nice modern furniture store in the United States that are not made to order.

While my addition and gut renovation project is adding some square footage to my home, I’m not building a McMansion. Using the space well matters, and my modern Italian cabinetry will help me make the most of it. Now, the question remains: are my clothes nice enough to deserve it?

Top image courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images

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