An afternoon spent in the company of designer Luca Nichetto is an education in the machinations of the modern design world. And it is enlightening, provocative stuff.
The 37-year-old Nichetto – bear-like in size, affable in nature, sharply observant – is disarmingly candid. Over lunch, next door to the Cassina showroom on Milan’s Via Durini, his no-holds-barred critique of the industry flits from star architects who don’t take into account the surroundings of their public buildings; to the fact that some design “names” these days are “stylists and not designers”; that he has just annoyed a powerful Chinese broker by daring to question the credentials of a potential residential client; and that the paucity of the average royalties contract (3 per cent) needs to be reassessed, given that designers are what sell a piece these days and the 3 per cent stems from agreements made in the 1950s, “when you could make a living like that”. These insights are just a few of many, some more printable than others.
It is a fascinating perspective from the product and furniture designer who, according to Cassina’s brand director, Gianluca Armento, is “no longer up-and-coming”. For Nichetto is currently working on new projects for large Italian brands Molteni (a bedroom system), De Padova (additions to his existing collection of Deck chairs, from €390, and an under-wraps design due soon) and Cassina (a new armchair), as well as a 30-piece collection for De La Espada, which will launch with a lounge chair and a sofa (both price on request).
These pieces are in addition to recent designs that range from a collection of Loos lamps for Scandinavian lighting company Zero, featuring a shade with layers of cut-out felt that resembles modernist windows (from £598), to the Toshi storage system for Casamania that is a series of geometric cabinets carved with grid-line patterns (£11,495), via Float, a sleek mirror-polished coffee table for French newcomer La Chance (€2,400), and Hai, a clever folding armchair for hip Finnish brand One Nordic Furniture Company (£1,450), which is designed to be cheaper and more ecological to ship. Alongside these is a fabulously charismatic canary-yellow armchair, Paffuta (£2,980), for the new Italian label Discipline, and pieces for Foscarini that include the Empire floor light (£830) and a quirky TV-shaped lamp named Stewie after the Family Guy cartoon character (£645).
And furniture isn’t the only thing keeping Nichetto busy: at this year’s IMM furniture fair in Cologne, his studio created the key presentation stand – a mocked-up home called Das Haus Interiors on Stage. Add to this a new design for the Tales Pavilion building in Beijing and you have a hefty CV for a man who, as recently as two years ago, was below the radar of most companies.
So why do Nichetto and his team of three permanent staff and several interns, who are housed in studios in Venice and Stockholm, now find themselves the preferred choice for a significant number of brands?
De Padova’s creative director, Marco Velardi, describes the choice to work with Nichetto as “a pretty straightforward decision. We realised he fully understood our heritage, being a born-and-raised Italian designer. And we saw in his style and approach a perfect match to the modern language we want De Padova to speak today.”
While clearly pleased with the work his studio is winning, Nichetto says he hopes the current rush to secure his services calms down a bit. He has just visited a host of production HQs north of Milan to present some new work, and he looks, frankly, a little hot and weary in the harsh Milanese summer sun. “It’s hard being popular,” he says. Certainly, the 37-year-old designer’s readiness to speak out isn’t losing him any fans. But then Nichetto’s deliberations don’t seem to be delivered with malice, nor with any particular agenda. They are simply his observations, some of which are increasingly representative of a new generation who are less egocentric and more solutions-driven than those of the previous great design boom. Nichetto is derisive about any designer who says they “want to change the world”. “Really? We’re just creating furniture,” he says.
Cassina was the first mega-brand to approach Nichetto a couple of years ago. Armento says that Nichetto represents “the connective modern-design generation. They understand that everybody knows everyone else, and that there is a network around the world you need to be engaged with. There’s no professional jealousy with Luca. He only speaks well of colleagues. His frankness – and his willingness to be very direct about what he wants – is refreshing. But this generation knows that everything is very fragile – it can happen one day and not the next. They don’t bank on their credit the way the previous generation did. Luca rolls up his sleeves.”
Nichetto’s hands-on approach can be seen in a series of images from the manufacturing process of his first sofa for Cassina. The La Mise (from £3,504) is a gorgeous design that was inspired by the company’s famous 1973 Maralunga fold-over-arm sofa by Vico Magistretti. (“No pressure or anything,” laughs Nichetto, who had to reach for a drink after their initial contact to calm his nerves.)
The design for his first miniature model was made from one piece of folding kimono-shaped fabric, draped over a sofa frame. But the process of transforming the model into a workable full-size sofa involved the Cassina team pinching and readjusting swaths of fabric, upholstery and stitching – all down on the floor, heads together, progressing through a series of prototypes, each getting closer to the end product.
The finished La Mise is wonderfully soft and comfortable, and comes in Cassina’s vast choice of fabrics with exposed edges that are stitched in coloured zigzagging threads, or in leather without decoration. The design is funky as well as classic – just like the stylish slimline Torei tables (from £882) Nichetto has also created for the company – and is aimed at helping Cassina “shed its conservative image”, according to Armento, who attests that Nichetto is a keeper.
Yet curiously, it took Cassina a while to realise it had a home-grown talent under its nose. In fact, it took making a name for himself in Scandinavia for Nichetto’s own country to sit up and take notice. His second studio in Stockholm – where he is based part-time – was set up to help him take on projects for brands such as Offecct (for which he produced the Robo chair, €640), as well as the likes of the aforementioned One Nordic, Zero and David Design. In Stockholm, and the rest of Scandinavia, he is “really respected”, confirms Joel Roos, head of One Nordic. “Luca is now so familiar with our Scandinavian ways, to some extent he was a safe bet. But his own style is influenced by his Italian heritage, which gives our brand a deeper dimension.”
Its growing international profile meant that Nichetto finally began to be considered for the big jobs at home. For, he admits, as a Venetian who is still resident there part-time, he was always on the periphery of the Milan design radar. Educated at the Art Institute in Venice and then at the city’s University Institute of Architecture, he consciously decided to keep away from the pressures and conventions of the westerly city.
“Being in Venice was easier,” Nichetto says. “You know it is really a village – you leave and come back and it’s the same people, the same way of living as 500 years ago. The rhythms and quality of life are the same. But because there are a lot of tourists it has this feeling that it’s much bigger than it is. To me, that’s really interesting.”
“And of course, it’s such a contrast to Stockholm,” he continues. “Which really is a little too perfect. But it’s nice to experience the kind of city where, if you’re a good citizen, you receive an awful lot back. There they have a true socialism – differences between people, and particularly men and women, don’t exist. You can be a female CEO of one of the best companies in Sweden as well as having a family, and there are no issues with that. And it’s made me a lot more open-minded: I’ve learnt that nobody is impressed by the star designer there – to be successful you have to satisfy what the people want, and not just in Scandinavia, but globally.”
These two educations – Nordic and Mediterranean – may make him a great designer today, but they were not planned. Nichetto was born on the island of Murano, where his grandfather was a glassblower and his mother a painter working with glass, and the factories were a huge part of his upbringing. “For me this kind of environment was completely natural,” he says. “We would ask for old steel blowpipes and use them as pea shooters. We’d have parties in the factories and cook pizzas in the glass furnaces.”
Even during his education he came back to glass again and again. “All my projects were made in it; I was called ‘Glass Boy’ at college – not entirely complimentarily. But for me it was normal to design something and to see the result instantly. And it gave me the ability to be able to translate a design for someone else. With glass you are not the maker, and you have to be able to communicate your idea and respect the people who are doing it with you – and respect that maybe there is a good reason why they’re saying something doesn’t work.”
The glass connections paid off (not least in a commission for Venini – for Nichetto the holy grail of Murano makers – which in 2010 resulted in a beautiful opalescent milky vase collection called Arillo, inspired by Chinese lanterns). In college, Nichetto had offered his student drawing services to Murano house Salviati, then headed up by Englishman Simon Moore. The company was employing the likes of Tom Dixon, Ross Lovegrove and Ingo Maurer, and Moore saw potential in Nichetto. “He bought lots of my drawings, but said he didn’t want to produce any of them. He said, ‘If you want, and you have time, I’ll show you what a company needs.’ As a student, to sit in on presentations with Dixon and Maurer and to see their different approaches was a great education for me. It was an Anglo-Saxon education.”
Nichetto would like to see some of that Anglo-Saxon approach filter through to his own country. He is particularly vocal about Italian education, with its Renaissance-style system of learning that eschews the practical in favour of historical, academic study. “Money hasn’t been put into workshops in Italy, which are essential,” he says. “Whereas in England, students can design a lamp or radio but not realise that practically the same thing was created 60 years ago. We need both approaches.” A plus of his academic study is that his knowledge of global design is encyclopedic, and he can immediately pick up any historical reference in modern work. And having been aware of the canon of Cassina prior to working with the company, he readily understood the style it wanted to adopt going forwards.
Which brings us to Nichetto’s own style. Or lack of it. It can be tricky to see a Nichetto thread or leitmotif throughout his growing body of work and to see what unites, say, his recent glass pieces – stunning Millebolle bubble vases for Salviati (from €555) and, for Gallery Pascale, Les Poupées, combined candle holders and vases (from SKr995, about £96) – with designs such as the new Tales Pavilion. Curvy, say some; modern meets classic with a Japanese simplicity, say others. But Nichetto is particularly pleased that he doesn’t have an immediately obvious visual identity. “You know, Castiglioni didn’t. It was only after his death that you could say, ‘Ah yes, that’s a Castiglioni.’ I hope it will be the same for me. I really like the idea that a design is 50 per cent Luca, 50 per cent the company. My approach is to really understand a brand and its history and to interpret that in a contemporary way. Like with the Motek chair for Cassina – we used a new industrial felt made from recycled plastic bottles, which is compressed from about 40mm down to about 6mm and specially cut. Gaetano Pesce used felt for Cassina 30 years ago [in his Feltri armchair designs], and so it seemed like a modern chair connected to its heritage. I think pushing a company to do something new without a real reason to do it can be quite dangerous. I don’t believe in sculptural pieces or ‘design art’. I like a piece to be honest.”
He is also aware that when he begins to repeat a “style” of design, “well, then I’m a stylist and not a designer any more. And you must let me know when that happens, because at that point it’s all over for me.”
Despite his dismissal of the recent generation of star designers, Nichetto acknowledges that he too plays the game to some extent. His PR campaign is effective and well-directed; he knows that media exposure is essential to a successful career today. “I know a lot of mega-talented designers who could be huge but they’re not presenting themselves in this way,” he says. Renato Preti, head of Discipline, suggests Nichetto is savvy enough to have positioned himself very carefully into his current enviable position. “Of course, I think he is special and fully deserves his international success,” he says. “But I also think he takes advantage of the fact that he is probably the only new-generation Italian designer who thinks, works and moves at international standards.”
Nichetto himself is constantly asked by students what it takes to be a successful designer today. His answer is always the same: “You need to be talented, you need to be patient and, above all, you need to be lucky.” Right now, Luca Nichetto is all three of these things.