With the whole Brexit debacle dragging on and on, and a palpable sense of fear and anger seeming to pervade just about everything around me, I went to the Milan Salone del Mobile this year with a determination to uncover a positive story or two about the state of the British design industry. And the truth is, it wasn't hard to find them.
Thankfully, British designers and companies have, in their own idiosyncratic way, been significant contributors to the global design industry in the last three decades. Arguably the result of a really good design and arts education system that reached its peak in the 70s and 80s, and perhaps due to a cultural atmosphere that was both progressive and permissive, Britain managed to produce a whole generation of designers who went on to make significant strides in their chosen sectors - on a global scale. If you are not sure, just consult the current list of Royal Designers for Industry, the RSA's annual award given to designers who have achieved "sustained design excellence, work of aesthetic value and significant benefit to society." It's an impressive list, and there is a whole swathe of significant British designers who are not on it.
So, as is custom when visiting the Salone, I took the long Metro ride to the Fiera on the first day of the show, and began to pad up and down the contemporary halls to see what the key brands were showing, and most importantly, which British designers were in attendance. It didn't take me long to discover the Mattiazzi stand, they are an Italian manufacturer of quite outstanding wooden furniture, who were celebrating the 10th year of their Mattiazzi Collections project, which has seen them establish a strong collection of chairs and stools by a small group of leading designers. Their exhibition was populated with new products almost exclusively by British designers, and the creative direction for the whole project was being undertaken by London-based designers Sam Hecht and Kim Colin, otherwise known as Industrial Facility. I have known them for a while, first interviewing them for a magazine back in 2009, and more recently doing an interview for inclusion in their monograph, published by Phaidon last year. We had a brief conversation on the stand, had a feel of the products, and agreed to talk further back in London.
Industrial Facility’s studio is on Britton Street in Clerkenwell, and I visit a few weeks after we were all back from Milan. They have established a reputation as one of the most progressive design studios working in the industry today. Sam is from London and trained as an industrial designer, while Kim is from Los Angeles and trained as an architect. Their approach, which they describe as “not setting out to produce something different but rather something better”, is both pragmatic and philosophical. They are both Royal Designers for Industry. Over coffee and biscuits, we talk about their work with Mattiazzi, value systems, and how British industry should abandon itself to the creative force.
The story of Mattiazzi is that of an Italian manufacturer founded in 1979 by two brothers, who until ten years ago, had been making pieces for a range of significant Italian design companies, but purely in a business to business context. Kim explains, they would make "anything underneath upholstery that you would never see, and the kind of thing you would see, but their name was never on the chair." Then in 2009, they took the decision to create a new project, the Mattiazzi Collections, which would see them create products under their name for the very first time. "I think the Italians in general have great pride in what they make, and Mattiazzi wanted their name on the things that they were making. Clearly, the things were superb, and they wanted to have an identity. That is the part that changed." What they did is nothing particularly revolutionary in business, as Kim describes, they used a "familiar mechanism", which looks at "how business can benefit, and I mean culturally and economically, from deeper involvement and deeper value of design." What I think is particularly relevant is the timing of when they did it, which was not long after the financial crash, and at a time when the Italian furniture industry had begun to falter. Sam expands on the reasons for this. "I think the Mattiazzi brothers saw the changes in manufacturing coming. Also, because these are family businesses, what do you do? You can’t just close the factory and leave, it’s your family, it is what you do. It’s not like its owned by a corporation, where they can say “oh that one we can get rid of". You’ve been doing it since the 70s, so you can’t walk away. In a way, it is hard, because you are trapped, but on the other hand, if you get it right it can be just the most wonderful thing. So, certainly from Mattiazzi’s point of view, creating the collections was a way out of an inevitable decline. I think last year the Collections has now overtaken the revenue from the non-branded work." To be able to realign your business model within ten years, to mitigate against inevitable decline, and to actually do something quite celebratory along the way, is undoubtedly impressive. So, the question is how?
There are three strands to the answer. The first is that Mattiazzi employed the talents of outsiders and let them do the job of defining the brand. They started with two external design directors, Nitzan Cohen and Florian Lambl, who together drove the ideas for the collections. The basic idea was that each new design should have an identity that was purely the result of the care of the designer. When Industrial Facility was invited to create their first design, the now widely celebrated Branca chair, Kim tells of how the relationship developed. "We got to know them by visiting the factory, by understanding how they make things, what their concerns are. What we learned was that they have got two amazing aspects. One is traditional woodworking, which is handcraft and handmade, hand-assembly, etc. The other is that they are really into robotics, the son in the business said “we’ve got to have the most modern machinery”, and so they have always been updating their machinery. So, for the first collections, we were thinking about how we could show that they have got the most sophisticated stuff. The Branca was demonstrating that. The trick with Branca was to demonstrate it with a certain economy, in other words, what we had to learn to do was to use the robotics for what they were good at, and what economically made sense, and use the handcraft for what it was good at, and for what economically made sense. And the result was an affordable very finely crafted chair without any screws, completely wood. It was an amazing achievement, and it is in permanent collections for that reason"
The second strand is that Mattiazzi have a clear value system, which through the Collections project has been infused into the products. They are champions of good design, but also, says Kim, they "really understand wood, in terms of how to source it, they have a completely committed set of values to sustainability - reforestation, use of wood, recycling of the dust to fuel their factory. They are quite serious about it, they were serious about it before it was cool." The third strand is about creating a broader sense of family. "The collections were a result of Florian and Nitzan going to see people and proposing they work together. So, it was a very curated way to work with designers, and I think all of the designers have a genuine affection for Mattiazzi, they are very generous in the working relationship. Everyone loves to go there, everyone loves to deal with them. All the correspondence are clear and direct, there is no funny business, once it is happening, it is happening. Every year they have the idea that they do a project from somebody already in the family, they invite them to do a new thing or an extension of what was originally proposed, and they also invite someone new into the family. So, the family is always growing, but the core family is always there."
For this 10th anniversary year, Mattiazzi launched four new products, the most they have ever launched in a single year. They are the Fronda stool and chair by Industrial Facility, the Leva chair by Foster + Partners, the Zampa stool by Jasper Morrison and the Cugino stool by Konstantin Grcic (who is not British but trained here at both the Parnham College and at the Royal College of Art). It is an ambitious collection of designs, with a suitably celebratory feel. We talk about Fronda, a stool that also became a chair. It has been designed with the future of work in mind. Kim explains "One of the archetypes that has changed is that a lot of offices now have these very long tables and stools or chairs arranged, that nobody owns. It’s called free address, anybody can have the seat for however long, you could work there all day, or just be there for 10 minutes." The original idea that has become the Fronda stool, was an idea they had for this environment. "It was an idea, a very odd idea because of the plank sides. We wanted the structure to be super simple, and we wanted the shelf underneath, because people carry stuff and want a place to put things. And the metal seat came from the structural idea, the idea of bridging something, so we don’t need too much structure, let the metal do the work, and then the one bar at the bottom do some of the work. The other idea was to introduce metal into the seat, Mattiazzi had used metal in the frame before, but not the seat, and we wanted to try something they hadn’t done, something not already in the vocabulary." Once the first prototype had been developed, the chair then grew from the idea of the stool. By working closely with Mattiazzi’s team of expert product developers, they managed to find the right balance to make both designs work. "The stool sits differently from the chair, because we sit differently in a stool, it is exactly the same elements, just a slightly different position. On a stool, you want to sit forward a bit and your feet are on the ground, in the chair you’ve got to sit back, so it changes a little bit, but they both should sit right with the exact same seat." The choices for the finishes were informed by a desire to create an accessibly priced design that still felt substantial. They choose Russian Pine for the wooden sections and a range of metallic finishes for the seat, which plays on the fact that it is metal. "It was an experiment to see if it would look good, and we liked it with the wood, the tension is good," notes Kim. As is always the case with Industrial Facility’s work, they always think about the product in context, rather than in isolation, and this is reflected here in a minor structural detail in Fronda. "There is a slight splay to the structure, so when you put them side by side you actually have room for your shoulders sitting next to someone. So you don’t feel crowded, and because it has a larger footprint, it feels more substantial. Some stools that are in these same situations at long table make you feel like you shouldn’t be there for very long. This should be the opposite, this should be very comfortable."
Along with the creation of the Fronda, Sam and Kim undertook the creative direction for the whole project this year, and have committed to do the same next year. This involves working on the exhibition design, commissioning the catalogue, and selecting the designers for Mattiazzi to work with. Sam talks of how enjoyable it is to work in such a way, with a little of the Italian romance in the mix too. "Everyone is pulling together, everyone has an equal passion, and there are constant conversations, people are willing to give us their time. I think perhaps from a British point of view, because we have so little of that available to us, obviously you’ve got smatterings of it, but it's not much. So we just value that." I suggest that this kind of all-encompassing approach is just what our industry could do with right now, at a moment of such uncertainty and fear. Wouldn’t it be powerful if this outstanding generation of designers was unleashed on British industry? Sam refers to something they have learnt through working with American industry leader, Herman Miller. "They are a massive corporation, yet somehow they work with very selective small designers, small as in independent designers. And they do it, because, there is a lovely saying, it is "that they are prepared to abandon themselves to the creative force". So, they abandon themselves."