Italian furniture design

In the quest for rarefied craftsmanship, connoisseurs are now turning their gaze to Italy, where niche heritage brands are refining and expanding their offerings and collaborating with hip contemporary designers. Jenny Dalton reports

Barovier & Toso glass Pigalle chandelier, €14,820
Barovier & Toso glass Pigalle chandelier, €14,820 | Image: Barovier&Toso

To those customers who visit the Promemoria factory in Lake Como to see their furniture being made by hand, “made in Italy” is very important. So says Davide Sozzi, whose family owns the old-school yet covetable high-end Italian artisan brand. “After visiting our workshop, our customers go home knowing they have found the quality product they are looking for. And they are very happy that everything we do is not just made in Italy but at Lake Como, where it has always been made. In fact, they’re not just happy about it – I would say they love it.”

Rubelli velvet, from £1,990 per metre
Rubelli velvet, from £1,990 per metre

The Promemoria client base is international, yet the majority of those customers have homes in London, and so Sozzi recently launched a full architectural-design service out of the Pimlico showroom. Projects include the refurbishment of a central London property and the interior design of another, with such enterprises now totalling 40 per cent of general sales. The Promemoria team is made up of Italian architects, who speak directly to the Como workshop to deliver bespoke lighting, kitchens and fitted or freestanding furniture, such as the new Sherazad timber and bronze cabinet with leather detailing on the front (£46,272), or the leather-edged, silk-velvet Butterfly chair (£12,948). Sozzi laments his country’s current political state, but knows his customers rate Italian artisanal craftsmanship like no other.

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It’s a view shared by customers of the Mayfair Design Studio, where showroom manager Philip Howe organises visits to Italy for those who have ordered a piece by Ceccotti Collezioni and want to see it being made by hand. Ceccotti is the creator of the most stunning wood-turned chairs and furniture, such as the Neverfull side unit, (from £10,880) in American walnut and maple, and the Saturn armchair (from £10,889).

Terzani nickel Atlantis chandelier, £24,240
Terzani nickel Atlantis chandelier, £24,240

Why does the “made in Italy” tag matter so much? According to Howe, it’s because of the Italians’ “expertise”. Mayfair Design Studio has chosen the brands it offers – from Ceccotti and Barovier & Toso, which makes quite extraordinary (in scale, detail and colour) hand-blown glass chandeliers to glassware specialist Arte Veneziana, with its hand-engraved and decorative furniture, such as the Eglomisé cabinet (£12,200), and Venini for its limited-edition Murano-glass accessories (£3,500) – because “the Italians have been producing designs in the way they have since the 1700s in some instances, and in the case of Barovier & Toso, since 1290. And they’ve maintained the quality of their production throughout. They haven’t tried to dilute anything – the set-up is often the same as when the original designer created the company.”

 Promemoria silk-velvet, leather and bronze Butterfly chair, £12,948
Promemoria silk-velvet, leather and bronze Butterfly chair, £12,948

For Ceccotti, this means wood is sourced for production three years in advance so it has sufficient time to settle. It has to be a certain density and quality, and all finishing is done by a select group of women, whose hands are deemed softer and more effective at producing the famously smooth result. “The way things are created is a little like going back in time,” says Howe.

Tura goatskin and nickel Scultura dining table, £29,995
Tura goatskin and nickel Scultura dining table, £29,995

Similarly, Barovier & Toso – which collaborated with Marcel Wanders on a puppet-themed lighting installation at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair – is still based at workshops in Venice and all glass stems and elements are hand-blown, just as they have been since the company’s formation. No machinery or templates are used in the making of such designs as the LED-powered multistem Pigalle (€14,820).

Baxter mixed-timber Unique cabinet, £7,089, and leather Misa armchair, £6,189
Baxter mixed-timber Unique cabinet, £7,089, and leather Misa armchair, £6,189

And Rubelli – the leading artisan textile-maker in Italy whose showroom is on the Grand Canal in Venice – recently rebuilt a number of its 18th-century looms at its Lake Como factory, which allows it to undertake specialist velvets, made in just the same way as they were 300 years ago. The elders in the company have imparted their skills to two young women to ensure the handworking traditions remain, and the resulting fabrics include jacquards (from £1,990 per metre). For Rubelli, the years since the recession have been a challenge because, says CEO Nicolò Rubelli, the bread-and-butter, upper-middle market died away completely, “and we are not sure if it will ever come back”. Luckily for Rubelli, the crisis coincided with a move towards fitting out luxury hotels and the likes of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Now a major part of its business consists of boutiques, theatres and hotels, plus a newer, increasingly bespoke private market for the handmade and niche artisan product. It recently, for example, created a handwoven decorative velvet for Miuccia Prada’s dining chairs. “The idea is that they will last 50 years, and they are the only ones – almost like an artwork,” says Rubelli.

Dedar cotton-mix Coup de Foudre fabric, £328 per metre
Dedar cotton-mix Coup de Foudre fabric, £328 per metre

This select artisan marketplace is still growing internationally, says Howe, “because it’s in tune with the incredible new homes that are being created, mostly for clients from overseas who have deeper pockets than those in the UK, at least outside London. But this clientele will often be experts in their own right about furniture and design, looking to add to their collection of heirloom pieces. And they may know everything about an item of furniture, which they see as an investment.”

Fred & Juul white-bronze Jean table, £2,230
Fred & Juul white-bronze Jean table, £2,230 | Image: Lorenzo Michelini

That this market is growing is fortunate for a number of Italian brands, because, underlines Rubelli, “Italy is made up of small companies, many of which are still family-owned. This is our strength. We do well what we know how to do well. When we try to be very organised on a large scale, or with distribution, or to grow too much, we struggle. There have been several instances in Italy where brands have tried to increase volumes and haven’t succeeded. So the general trend in Italy now is to appreciate what has always been our strength. Which doesn’t mean you remain doing what your grandparents or great grandparents did. You have to evolve, too.”

Poltrona Frau leather Mamy Blue armchair, £3,440
Poltrona Frau leather Mamy Blue armchair, £3,440

The key, says Sozzi, is meeting the requirements of the new post-recessionary buyer. “Clients now are more inclined to look for unique pieces and high-quality experiences. There is also a return to simplicity, to the truth of things, to essentiality. There is a search for tradition and history.” The result, he says, is that niche companies must be able to offer “customised and personalised luxury products. That’s why those, like us, that believe strongly in the importance of high-quality handmade designs, can be successful.”

Venini Murano-glass Veronese vase, £3,500
Venini Murano-glass Veronese vase, £3,500

Because they’re mostly small companies, adds Howe, “they’re not solely driven by targets, but by creating fabulous pieces of furniture”. And their size allows them to produce ever-more expert, considered designs on a to-order basis.

Arte Veneziana handpainted-glass Eglomisé cabinet, £12,200
Arte Veneziana handpainted-glass Eglomisé cabinet, £12,200

Take Terzani’s lighting pieces. Sold at LuxDeco, its hand-blown crystal and chainmail chandeliers utilise local northern-Italian handcrafting workshops. The tiered Atlantis (£24,240) features kilometres of super-slim nickel chain, worked into intricate and languid loops. “Terzani’s creations stopped me in my tracks,” says LuxDeco senior buyer Lucy Helmore when she found the niche brand at the Milan trade fair. “They are both lights and art pieces.”

Ceccotti Collezioni American walnut and fabric Saturn armchair, £12,298
Ceccotti Collezioni American walnut and fabric Saturn armchair, £12,298

Tura, another of its rarefied brands, focuses on art-deco-influenced furniture using lacquered goatskin, such as the Scultura round dining table (£29,995) with a goatskin-parchment top that is so smooth and shiny it looks like polished wood, or the glam, rounded-edged Eclipse bedside sets of drawers (£9,995 each). Tura was founded in 1939 in Brianza, northern Italy, which Helmore says is the Paris of haute furniture-making, and she feels that although others try to replicate the label’s expertise, “it’s a finish unrivalled by any other manufacturer I have come across”.

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Helmore admits the pieces are not bestsellers. “This level of craftsmanship carries such a high price tag; brands such as this are popular with our most discerning customers, who tend not to buy just one piece but many – perhaps a bedroom suite or living-room collection. And for their yachts, too.”

This growth in the appreciation of the artisan brand, however, means that emerging young designers can harness their heritage in new lines of design and manufacture. Fred & Juul, for example, an architectural duo who studied at the University of Florence and who make beautiful, modern pieces in collaboration with Tuscan artisans, showed their work at Tent London this September. Their collection includes Jean, a patinated-brass or white-bronze, butterfly-motif side table that is wax cast (bronze, £2,230), and pretty, mouthblown-coloured-glass lanterns called Petrona (£620).

It also means that those on the borderline of artisan and mass production are emphasising their artisan credentials. Dedar, the family-owned producers of wallpapers and fabrics, both under its own label and for Hermès, handlooms its Coup de Foudre design (£328 per metre), producing just 10 metres a day. And Harrods’s Italian room has an exclusive range by Baxter, helping to add a bespoke quality. Pieces include the vintage-style mixed-timber Unique cabinet (£7,089) and leather Misa armchair with 1950s-style slim legs (£6,189), but the brand’s main collection – featuring a new piped and padded leather armchair, Dolly (from £4,416), from cult Italian designers Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas – has a timeless, handcrafted feel to it, thanks to weathered, hand-picked leathers and hand-finishing.

Poltrona Frau, meanwhile, may be part of the Poltrona Frau group (which also includes Cassina and Cappellini) that was recently bought by American furniture giant Haworth, but its perspective is increasingly artisanal. At this year’s Milan furniture fair, the company, which has always specialised in leather tooling (it produces Ferrari’s interiors), promoted new lines, including a Mamy Blue leather-headed bed, as part of a campaign it has trademarked Leathership. Its Michele de Lucchi-designed museum also recently opened to celebrate its 100 years plus in craft and business. Brand director Roberto Archetti describes Poltrona Frau as “artisanal with a very strong aptitude to be contemporary and international”. He adds: “Artisanal qualities and craftsmanship have been part of Poltrona Frau’s DNA since its foundation,” stating that its sprung, smooth-leather Mamy Blue armchair (£3,440) and Juliet diamond-tufted leather chair by Benjamin Hubert (from £4,340) require intensive handworking and stitching. “But it is true that lately we are highlighting our artisanal heart, more than in the past. We are proud of our history and want to leverage on those values recognised as unique. We are growing more and more international and need to explain our brand equity to a constantly wider group of people.”

Nicoló Rubelli equally recognises the need to promote his company’s unique regional values in an increasingly competitive international marketplace. “There will always be other companies who can produce something similar for less. But we have assets and values, being based in Venice and having a heritage that dates back to the 1700s, which you can’t just create out of nowhere. No one else can replicate that.”

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