He may be the driving force behind one of Italy's best-known furniture brands, but Giulio Cappellini also recognises the need to make high-end design more accessible.
Cappellini quest to make design more accessible
Ask the Bouroullec brothers about their rise to design stardom and they will credit one man with kick-starting their careers: Giulio Cappellini, the art director of the iconic Italian furniture brand, Cappellini.
Since the late 1970s, when he began transforming the tiny furniture company set up by his parents into an industry-leading design house, Cappellini has developed a knack for discovering new talent and turning relatively unknown designers into household names. Under his watch, the company has collaborated with everyone from Tom Dixon and Alessandro Mendini to Jasper Morrison, Marcel Wanders and Humberto and Fernando Campana and this, Cappellini says, has been key to the company's success.
"The monocultural end consumer no longer exists. People are more free; they like to mix different products, from different periods, designed by different people, produced by different companies in different parts of the world. At Cappellini, we like to be multicultural. The Cappellini collection is like a box, where we put different ideas and different concepts by different people living in different parts of the world. This, I think, is what it means to be contemporary."
To this end, Cappellini is constantly on the lookout for new talent. He spends over 200 days a year travelling and meeting new people, and is often a visiting professor at leading design colleges. "There is a new and interesting generation of talented designers coming out of northern Europe. Plus I am looking to the new markets - it could be South America, Africa, Asia and, why not, the Middle East. There's fantastic art here in Dubai and you have this contamination between local culture and international culture. I'm 100 per cent sure we will have interesting designers also coming from the Middle East.
"For me, the first impression is very important. I might see a small prototype or a sketch or I might just speak to someone. Sometimes, in a few months we arrive from the first idea to the product; sometimes it takes years; sometimes, maybe we work for years and nothing happens. A lot of young people think: 'I'll design a chair and I'll become like the Bouroullecs or like Morrison or like Starck in six months' time. No, it takes years and years and you need to work 14 hours a day."
The subject of globalised design is particularly pertinent given that I've met Cappellini at the new PF Emirates showroom in Downtown Dubai. PF Emirates is the local arm of the Poltrona Frau Group, which was formed in 2005 with the amalgamation of three design companies, Cappellini, Cassina and Poltrona Frau. The partnership gives the brands greater market leverage, particularly when it comes to expansion, but Cappellini admits to thinking long and hard before agreeing to the idea.
"Frankly speaking, it took time for me to come to this decision. For Italian companies, the panorama is changing. The real problem for Italian companies is that on one side they are very well known and you see them in all the magazines and their products are on display in all the most important design museums, but in the end, in terms of global competition, they are too small.
"When you look at the turnover of the very well known Italian companies, it is nothing compared to some American giants. So the idea of being together with Cassina and Poltrona Frau is to be stronger in the market."
The challenge, of course, is ensuring that, while the brands take advantage of synergies in terms of finance, distribution, production and so on, each maintains its own identity and individuality. "The same thing has happened in the fashion industry," Cappellini points out. "Gucci and Bottega Veneta are part of the same group, but Gucci has its own image and Bottega has its own image."
The benefits are obvious, he adds. "The location of the new Dubai showroom is fantastic and we can open this shop in this location because there are the three of us together. If it was just one of us, it would be very difficult because, again, the turnover of design companies is not the turnover of fashion companies. It is about looking to the future without, in any way, losing the personality of the brand."
For Cappellini, this brand personality hinges on being contemporary, innovative and a proponent of high-quality Italian manufacturing. "Frankly speaking, in the last few years, the proposal of a lot of Italian design companies was a little bit too flat, meaning that everything looks the same - beige and brown. I think we have to bring to the market what the market is expecting of us. When it comes to new markets, they are not interested in buying something normal from an Italian design company. They are interested in buying something different.
"People want to live with things that are good today but also good tomorrow. That's why I always say it's very important to create a collection of long-sellers rather than bestsellers."
In addition to wanting to invest in long-term purchases, people also want to live in warmer, more inviting environments, with colours such as red, orange and pink emerging as firm favourites, Cappellini says. "A lot of natural materials are coming back, but the best thing is today we can work natural materials with new technologies. For example, in April we will show a new project by Marcel Wanders where we use wood but with a totally new technology, and that is very interesting because you are giving wood a totally new image."
That Cappellini is an impeccably dressed, courteous and forthcoming interviewee comes as no surprise. He is design royalty, after all. What is surprising, perhaps, is his astute understanding of the average person's relationship with high-end design - unexpected in someone so firmly rooted in the upper echelons of the design world. "We have to work on communication," he admits. "A lot of people will look at a design product and they will like it but it's difficult for them to imagine that product in their own home. They may only be used to seeing a design product in a design museum or through the shining windows of beautiful showrooms, so I think it is very important to present design in a more friendly way.
"We are in the design business and we think that when we do something, people should just understand. No. If they don't understand, if they don't buy the original and they buy a copy, if they buy horrible things and not good things, it's not their problem, it's our problem because it means we are not promoting our designs in a proper way and showing people what is behind a real, strong design product.
"I see this happening all over the world. People are still afraid to enter a design showroom. We have to open the doors. At the end of the day, we produce furniture not only for the museum but for the home."
The PF Emirates showroom is on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, 04 339 7111, www.pfemirates.ae
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