Genius and the lamp

Flos has a reputation for having an iconic lamp for every occasion. Jenny Dalton talks to its maverick CEO about how he leverages its 1960s and 1970s creative heritage to fuel its amazing forward momentum. Photograph by Guido Castagnoli

Piero Gandini at the Flos showroom in Milan, with (clockwise from far left) a Philippe Starck limited-edition Light Photon table lamp, €3,500, Wallpiercing, from £1,375, by Ron Gilad, and an Arco LED lamp, £1,722
Piero Gandini at the Flos showroom in Milan, with (clockwise from far left) a Philippe Starck limited-edition Light Photon table lamp, €3,500, Wallpiercing, from £1,375, by Ron Gilad, and an Arco LED lamp, £1,722 | Image: Guido Castagnoli

If you are reading this seated on your sofa under the soft illumination of an Arco lamp – the marble-based “pendant” floor lamp with the arched metal arm designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni in 1962 for Flos, and very probably the most recognisable lamp in the world – then you are at least one of two things: part of a club of Arco lamp owners numbering well over several hundreds of thousands (106,461 units have been sold since 2000); using the lamp incorrectly.

Designed as an above-the-dining-table light – which allowed you to walk around the table without knocking the light, and which you could move as and when you moved your furniture – today the lamp has become synonymous with good taste and a stylish, modern interior. For the first time since its invention, the classic design has been tweaked. The update (£1,722) involves incorporating an LED light fixture hidden behind a diffuser, as well as a dimmer, reducing power consumption to just 18 watts. Purists are relieved to know the classic halogen bulb version (£1,615) is still available.

Such meeting of old and new for Flos’s CEO and president, Piero Gandini, is not at all the problem it is for die-hard designistas. Gandini, who followed in the footsteps of his late father Sergio Gandini to become managing director of Flos in 1996 (aged 33), and chairman in 1999, sees no conflict at all between past and present for a private concern which has built its worldwide success on a series of timeless designs from the 1960s and ’70s, but which also chases new technological challenges with a fervour that the self-described “wild” Gandini can hardly contain.

Large Spun lamp, £983, by Sebastian Wrong
Large Spun lamp, £983, by Sebastian Wrong

When we meet at the leafy Flos headquarters in Bovezzo, Brescia, an hour or so outside of Milan, the energetic and charismatic Gandini, who Philippe Starck calls “a Minotaur: he has the power of a bull, the brain of a philosopher mathematician, the sensitivity and intuition of my wife”, is basking in the glory that is Flos’s free iPad app. A love letter to the past 50 years of Flos’s existence – with never-before-seen archival material of the inauguration of Flos (named by Achille Castiglioni after the Latin for flower) as well as quirky docu-videos like Gandini and Starck taking a dawn motorcycle ride around Paris before floating off down the Seine in Starck’s boat – the app is also a serious bit of cutting-edge digital design, and beautiful to boot.

He is also revelling in a number of impressive technological innovations. Take Antonio Citterio’s new Kelvin LED floor lamp (from £274). When you hold the button for an extra second, sensors kick in to allow the LED to read and compensate for the level (or lack) of atmospheric light around it. And Starck’s brand-new Light Photon, a glossy OLED (organic LED) limited-edition table lamp of 500 (€3,500), is, according to Gandini, both the largest OLED lamp in the world and completely unfeasible to create in significant numbers. “We’re not making any money on it. They’re so incredibly expensive to make.” He adds, “We’ve moved from electricity to electronics.”

But, he explains, “Flos has always been about amazing guys doing slightly crazy things, that arrived at beautiful products. To me there’s no alternative except to say, ‘Let’s be visionary, let’s be crazy.’ It’s our biggest challenge to try to keep the attitude of my father and Castiglioni and the founders of the 1960s alive – to try to keep that attitude as pure as possible.” Gandini’s demeanour has all the look of “impress me” about it. They say those who don’t impress him are given short shrift, and indeed one of Gandini’s newest designers, the Brit Paul Cocksedge, says you immediately know when your design isn’t good enough to make the Flos cut (luckily his most recent one did, although details are, for now, top secret).

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Many design companies talk of green innovations, but not many put their money where their mouth is in quite the same way as Flos – a company that Cocksedge says “doesn’t compromise either on quality or conceptually”, and which French designer Ronan Bouroullec describes as a “rare company in which the project is the centre, the most important thing”.

Gandini’s latest move – and one of his principle focuses for the next 50 years of Flos’s development – is to replace all the plastic components in their oeuvre, beginning in 2014, with an eco alternative. Starting with its all-time bestseller, an all-polycarbonate table lamp by Philippe Starck called Miss Sissi – a new eco-plastic polymer created from the byproducts of the sugar-beet and cane industry will replace the current oil-based plastic (Miss Sissi Bio-on, price on application).

Sounding a little like science fiction, the new bioplastic, known as a PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate), is formed from a sweet-smelling mass that can be manipulated into a material just like polycarbonate. Being a byproduct, it has reportedly zero impact upon the food cycle, requires no organic solvents and is fully biodegradable in water after a number of hours. At the beginning when Gandini was approached by “this crazy guy from Bologna” – Marco Astorri of Bio-on – he admits he was dismissive. “I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t until six months later that he called back and said, ‘We’ve done it. We’ve engineered it to have the same qualities as polycarbonate.’”

Tatou lamps, £230, by Patricia Urquiola
Tatou lamps, £230, by Patricia Urquiola

There is still work to be done on refining the material, plus the setting up of factories and production in Italy to allow for a serious amount of consumer production. They have also yet to establish exactly how to add colour with the longevity needed for a lamp that is designed to last many years, but the entire project is revolutionary, and potentially revolution-starting.

“Look, I’m not on a mission to save anybody,” says Gandini frankly, although with three daughters Giulia, 18, Elena, 14 and Chiara, 13, with his wife Paola, he must think about the younger generation. “I understand it’s possible to be hyper-sceptical of the green factor. You have a lot of people who chat, chat, chat and everyone has some kind of vegetable plastic in the pipeline. It’s also hard to measure consistency with eco projects. But we have to do it, and we have to do it because you have tonnes of these [he picks up a plastic water bottle] being dumped every day, which is a disaster and a global problem. It takes 500-1,500 years for one of these bottles to biodegrade. And only a few hours for this [he picks up the prototype Miss Sissi].” For Starck, the move into bioplastic is “so logical we almost don’t need to speak about it. It’s the only solution today to solve the coming drama of the end of oil”.

This need to push design innovation, as well as to assume responsibility for production that has run through the company since its outset, seems to sum up the rebellious Gandini, who is dressed in a beautifully cut suit jacket with jeans. Growing up in his mother Piera’s furniture and design stores in Brescia – to which city the nascent Flos was moved by Piero’s father Sergio Gandini when he became CEO of the company in its early months – he struggled to focus and find motivation in school (he was a truant). Finding his personal salvation in design and technology while studying design at Milan University, he would still only show up to hear Enzo Mari and Achille Castiglioni lecture, and he often faked his own grade reports.

Gun bedside lamp, £941, by Philippe Starck
Gun bedside lamp, £941, by Philippe Starck | Image: Piero Fasanotto

Once he found discipline, following a stint in one of Flos’s subsidiaries in Germany, post-university (“Because I wasn’t a total idiot”), he says he thrived on focusing on the product side of the business and by working on collaborations with new international designers. His father put him in charge of Research & Development (R&D) while in his twenties, and despite Gandini Snr’s fears, Gandini Jnr was a natural, taking risks like Starck’s suggestion that Flos produce the plastic “parody” of a lamp, the Miss Sissi, and later partnering again with Starck on the infamous Gun lamp series – a glossy, golden pistol‑shaped upright lamp (bedside example, £941) which, since its launch, has earned well over €800,000 for the Fratelli del Uomo social-change charity. Says Paul Cocksedge, “Gandini’s conversations are never about the business, always about creativity. His energy and enthusiasm are very magnetic – like fuel for me.”

Starck was already working for Flos when Gandini Jnr began to take over the department, and later the company. “Like everybody, I was anxious to see a son taking over and drive the company, but Piero arrived and he was young, strong and clearly a genius. We became brothers and since then our relationship has become a sophisticated chemistry of love and intelligence. We do not work together, we play together.”

Gandini isn’t all about play, however. The business has continued to grow over the past few years despite difficult trading circumstances, and Flos’s turnover in 2011 totalled €127m, 15.9 per cent up on 2010. One clever move that has really paid off is the alliance formed in 1998 with Spanish architectural lighting manufacturer, Antares. Flos acquired a 75 per cent share of Antares (launching Flos Architectural Lighting) in 2005, which means Flos can today offer a complete lighting service for consumer and professional architectural requirements. In the past year the architectural side of the business, based entirely in Valencia, made up 40 per cent of Flos’s turnover (€57m). There are real beauties among this collection to rival Decorative’s latest offerings, including Patricia Urquiola’s brand-new Tatou family of lamps (from about £200), which look like they may be woven textile, but are a contemporary plastic take on a traditional hanging lamp.

Kelvin LED floor lamp, from £274, by Antonio Citterio
Kelvin LED floor lamp, from £274, by Antonio Citterio | Image: Germano Borrelli

The architectural spotlights may be quieter beauties, but they’re beauties nonetheless. There are neon-orange tiny tube downlighters within square recessed boxes (LED Pipes) so they appear frameless (from £204), or simple tubular extending spots (Tubular Bells) by Piero Lissoni, from £143. The components laid out on tables in Flos’s showroom in Milan look like pieces of sculpture.

The new award-winning Soft Architecture lighting collection – bulbous lamp shapes seamlessly placed within false plasterboard walls or ceilings – is phenomenally simple but effective. The lamps, such as the Spun standard lamp by Sebastian Wrong (from about £596), appear to emanate from the walls themselves, almost ghost-like. Paola Antonelli, senior curator at MoMA in New York and a long-time friend and supporter of Gandini, suggested Flos approach New York artist Ron Gilad as a potential designer, and the collaboration has resulted in Wallpiercing, a semi-circular 3D ring shape that can be grouped to form a powerful looping wall installation of LED light (from £1,375). It is one of the collection’s strongest designs and now part of the MoMA design collection.

The strength of the architectural work has also allowed some markets to cool slightly, as the growth of the BRIC markets has meant overall consumer sales for Flos remain strong. Which you would think would please Gandini. But it is not as simple as that. “New business in places like China and India [Flos opens a Calcutta store-within-a-store at the end of the year] is of course a good thing,” he says. “But I don’t like to think of a country as a market, and its people as consumers. I prefer to understand the people of a country.”

Miss Sissi Bio-on, price on application, by Philippe Starck
Miss Sissi Bio-on, price on application, by Philippe Starck | Image: Hasselblad H3D

It is an interesting stance for a Porsche-driving CEO to take, but perhaps what sets Gandini apart is an ethos he shares with his greatest two designers. First, there is Achille Castiglioni, who on his death in 2002 was virtually part of the Gandini family, and whose interests in design were always about lightness and democracy. According to staff at the Achille Castiglioni Studio Foundation, a charity run by Castiglioni’s widow, despite the beauty and success of the Arco lamp Castiglioni considered his greatest achievement the universal “clic clac” slide on-off switch that still exists on just about every bedside lamp flex. Then, secondly, there is Starck of course, who Gandini labels, laughing, “a communist”.

“Of course, neither he nor I are communists in the sense that we want absolutely the best, and we don’t believe everybody is the same in every sense. But I’m not crazy about some people’s perception of luxury. If you’re talking about just having more money than someone else. Really? Is that the idea? But if something is expensive because the process of doing something is expensive, well of course you can’t buy it cheaply. If luxury means the development of interesting ideas and techniques, then that starts to intrigue me. I am not interested in luxury companies today that feel they must create a sort of distance between people to be successful: that’s not useful – I’m interested in a certain level of humanity.”

He continues: “What Achille Castiglioni taught me – and he was the most straight and rigorous of people but, at the same time, light, amusing, fluid and elegant like no one I have ever met since – was that he believed in zero space for self-indulgence. He would allow no space for bullshit, and would always bring me back to earth but with elegance and irony. I love self-indulgence, and we play with it here. But decadence is a different matter – that is a dangerous thing. We have to acknowledge it but manage it, and I hope we do that.”

Wallpiercing, from £1,375, by Ron Gilad
Wallpiercing, from £1,375, by Ron Gilad

These are timely comments from a high-end lighting manufacturer, in that companies selling products that are beautiful but not strictly necessary are having to justify themselves and their work to an audience interested in both value and values. But, values aside, Gandini’s nose for talent, and a beautiful lamp for every occasion, as well as a refusal to slow advancement in the face of economic uncertainty, means he, in the words of Paola Antonelli, “deserves great respect and success. Many veterans were sceptical of the second generation’s ability to keep the amazing momentum of the 1960s and ’70s. Piero is among those who proved them wrong”.

As for the next generation? It’s a little early to tell. Although there is talk Gandini’s middle daughter is “bossy and creative”. “Yes, I’ve been told she’s very like me,” laughs Gandini, acknowledging his reputation. If so, the next 50 years at Flos look bright with promise.



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