Lema, the growth of a model, between history and geography

A 360° conversation with Angelo Meroni, President of Lema: errors that have led to success, sudden changes of direction, strategic choices that have become milestones, the eternal tension between residential and contract, and the arrival of a big portion of the world that sees London as a reference point. The city of the London Design Festival, where Lema takes the stage with Inside the Box

Angelo Meroni, Presidente Lema
Angelo Meroni, President of Lema

Organization and design are the fil rouge of Lema’s history. In 1992 you opened the headquarters designed by Mangiarotti, in a period in which not everyone was considering working with great architects: what do you recall about that time?
The choice came because Mangiarotti had designed this structure in 1968, and we had stayed in touch (in the meantime he had designed lines of products for us as well). Our objective was to save the structure, and with him it was possible. We didn’t want a standard facility, so Mangiarotti was perfect for our ideas.

Multiapartment Aka Philadelphia
Multiapartment Aka Philadelphia

The word contract is a bit overused. You started in 2004… what happened at the outset, and how has this business area grown for Lema?
Before 2004 we already did contract, but a bit by chance. We had done all the hotels of the Ligresti Group twice. At the time we were producers of panels, my father was in contact with that group, and the hotels were very easy and repetitive, practically an industrial procedure – but it worked. Then we said to ourselves there might be something more, beyond Ligresti, so we created our first team, took part in tenders, but we always lost. We understood that we needed someone capable of winning bids. It was the period of the first sale of B&B, and we came across Ferdinando Pessina (we already knew him because we had done work for them as suppliers). He didn’t feel comfortable with the Opera Fund, and in the end we reached an agreement. The division began with 3 people, but now there are 40. We have grown a lot, and quickly. We have learned what it means to work on the contract sector. Today our contract projects are only 100% custom.

Hotel Lutetia, contract Lema
Hotel Lutetia, contract Lema

So does contract represent a specific value for Lema?
Absolutely. It is very important for several reasons. First for sales and the resulting margin that allows us to make investments, and then it is fundamental because it allows us to experiment. Architects who work in contract and above all in hotellerie have assured numbers, and with us they can try to design different things, using alternative materials, getting immediate feedback from the company. This experimentation, over time, has also led to ideas and solutions we have then applied to the design of our home collections.

Great Scotland Yard ©Emma Lambe
Great Scotland Yard ©Emma Lambe

For example? We are asking because often the path is in the opposite direction; many designers tend to represent the hotel as if it was ‘your house’… so it seems you have a different process.
Yes, we do things differently. When the designer arrives, we usually start from scratch. We are very seldom able to insert pieces from Lema residential in a contract project, not even the chairs. But the opposite does happen: for example, a chair designed by Gordon Guillaumier specifically for the Hilton in London was then inserted in the home collection, but with very different finishes, and a different price as a result. Doing a hotel means responding to many requests: capacity to industrialized an idea, correct pricing, a given level of durability, the tastes of the chain, being compatible with cleaning procedures which have strict timing. All these things come into play in the design phase. Then you need to have higher expertise in the worksite phase, lately, and even in the 5-star hotels it is becoming much more complicated and problematic. If you are not organized you can really get hurt.

Walk in Closet, Piero Lissoni, Lema
Walk in Closet, Piero Lissoni, Lema

In 1994 Piero Lissoni, at the age of 38, became the art director of the company: what was he like, and how have you changed?
We came from the world of Tito Agnoli, who made the company grow, but it was a world that was wearing a bit thin, and we were looking for someone who could bring about a change of direction. The choice went to the emerging talent of Piero Lissoni. Lissoni had an industrial mentality and a style we liked, we were convinced he would be able to take on the whole package, the products but also the image, as well as deciding where to open showroom. His arrival immediately produced changes, starting with the cleaner lines. Piero was very rigorous back then, now he has softened up. Those were the years of minimalism, we sold only in Italy and Europe, and now we sell all over the world: the image Piero has given Lema works, it is very versatile.
For us Lissoni has been a helmsman capable of helping us not to make wrong choices, and above all he has made us change our direction.

Babi Luce, Piero Lissoni
Babi Luce, Piero Lissoni

Over the years Lema has continued with both trade and contract; for you they are clearly distant worlds, but is there a third factor that unites them?
I confirm the total independence between trade and contract; there are practically no synergies, but there is a middle ground, that of the multi-apartment building, a market where we are leaders in England and Asia.
Above all in Asia there are points of sale with real specializations, in the showrooms there are designers and developers, they follow the trade side, but the design of multi-apartment complexes is their central focus, and in those areas we are very well positioned, and our products work well.

Renzo Piano building workshop, New York ©Stefano Pasqualetti
Renzo Piano building workshop, New York ©Stefano Pasqualetti

A dream for the future?
To dream bigger… we have lots and lots of dreams.