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Piero Lissoni: I ask recruits if they know Dante and Gandhi

Italian designer Piero Lissoni on Milan's design essence as his B&B Italia and Flos creations are launched in India

Lissoni at the vis à vis Experience Centre in Delhi in October. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Lissoni at the vis à vis Experience Centre in Delhi in October. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Piero Lissoni is the archetypal Italian designer: cosmopolitan, creative, collaborative and extremely versatile. His portfolio straddles multiple design disciplines, including architecture, interior design, furniture and lighting design for clients across the world. From Jerusalem to Miami, Shanghai to Istanbul, Lissoni’s projects—hospitality, homes and stores—epitomize contemporary luxury.

His extensive product portfolio—everything from kitchens to lights and sofas—is equally emblematic; the outcome of long-standing creative partnerships, over more than three decades, with iconic Italian brands. The Milan-born designer visited Delhi on 27 October to launch new product collections for two high-end brands: the SAKé seating system and Formiche small tables for furniture maker B&B Italia, and a new collection of outdoor lights, including the Camouflage LED fitting for lighting manufacturer Flos.

With slender legs and clean lines, the SAKé seating system and Formiche nesting tables combine the two opposites of solidity and lightness, in an elegant and understated fashion. The Camouflage LED light also represents a marriage of opposites—luminosity with invisibility. The flat, disc-shaped fitting can be finished in a range of materials, and merges into its given surface, to remain invisible when not in use.

Soft-spoken and humorous, Lissoni spoke to Lounge about why Italian design is so coveted the world over. Edited excerpts:

The Camouflage range of lights. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Could you tell us more about how Italian manufacturers and designers have such symbiotic relationships, ones that result in what I call “industrial craftsmanship"—products that have the beauty of being crafted by hand, yet are made in a factory?

I grew up in Milan. Strategically speaking, if you want to be a designer, you have to move to Milan, because the real secret is not the Italian designers, it’s the Italian factories. The difference between us and the Germans is only one: The Italian entrepreneur likes to take a lot of risks with materials, innovation, technologies, robotics, handmade…it’s in their blood. Families own the factories. Traditionally, the new generation takes care of their factories. If they are not good, they crash. This kind of setting is quite different from the rest of the world. Without the factories, without the vision, without the capacity to take a lot of risks, the words “Italian design" are completely empty.

Do you think it is possible for Indian entrepreneurs to do this?

They need tradition. In Italy, we started making furniture 2,000 years ago, but we started to be different by the end of the 19th century. We started to think differently, to be contemporary, a hundred years before the rest of the world. After that, we grew a lot. Many factories and small producers disappeared, because they were not good enough to stay on the market, in terms of quality, creativity. Some took big risks and lost.

But we have an incredible category of producers and factories. They can adjust, they can adapt, change direction. For example, the capacity is not just to work with robots or to design everything by computers, the capacity is not only to make by hand, but to combine three different stories. I’m talking about 2017. Forty or 50 years ago, people had the same viewpoint—combining technologies with incredible hands.

In India, you are well known for mathematics and theoretical physics. You probably have produced the best generations, in the last hundred years, of mathematics and theoretical physics creativity. The result is now that a lot of Indians are settled in Palo Alto or California, or they are in the most incredible places in Austin, Texas or the new generation of electronics. That is a tradition.

You have been quoted as saying: “If you work for me, you must be humanistic. You better know Faulkner, Dante and Shakespeare, you must connect with cultures." Tell us more about how you continue to grow.

I continue to grow because I’m super-curious. I like to constantly put gasoline inside a curiosity engine. Every day is a new day with a new thought—the colour of fabric, beautiful eyes in a girl’s face. You start to read a book and discover something that reminds you of another book.

How did you learn to be curious?

My family raised me to be curious and independent. One simple detail: In our family, after I was 12 years old, it was forbidden for our nannies to cook for us. Which means, after school, it was usual for me to move inside the kitchen and to try and cook something for myself. You start to learn by yourself what is possible to do, because I grew to be respectful of many different rules, but at the same time, to be a little anarchist, to try and cook something good, and to make it by myself.

And humanistic?

To be humanistic, you have to be open-minded. Hundreds of years ago, Vitruvius wrote The Ten Books On Architecture, which details how it is possible to be a very good architect. The main chapter said that to be an architect, you have to be an artist, painter, engineer, mathematician, worker, carpenter, magician. You have to open your mind.

If you are a mathematical guy, it’s not enough to be specialized in your mathematical life, you have to know music, in which way the harmony and the rhythm connects different notes, in which way the painter starts using colour, why one photographer does black and white, and another one not. Without these kinds of sophisticated connections, it’s not a culture. It’s only information; to digest it and to make it culture, you have to know what’s happening around you.

That’s why I ask (potential recruits) if they know Dante, or they know Mahatma Gandhi or they know in which way it’s possible to use silk. If they don’t know, unfortunately, they are not able to work with me.

And it’s not enough to just make connections. I like to use another word, it is “contamination". Connections in one way are from the same field. I like that, but I like contamination more. Not in a negative way, a lot of people don’t see contamination in a positive way. For me, it’s an incredible compliment to be contaminated. It’s not poison or a virus. It’s a virtuous contamination. Think about your culture. Born more than thousands of years ago, its contamination is so sophisticated.

A SAKé modular sofa.

How does this humanistic thinking reflect in the product range you have designed for B&B Italia and Flos?

For me, SAKé is a platform on which to float in peace, but it is also a sofa. And for me, lights are emotional, but for Flos they are machines, they work to give light. One has to respect the purity of their technology. For my collection of professional indoor and outdoor lights for Flos, I like to design something that is silent. When you put one lamp on the wall, its design should be architecturally beautiful, but invisible.

The B&B Italia and Flos pieces by Lissoni are on display (and available for sale) at vis à vis Experience Centres in New Delhi and Mumbai.

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