B&B Italia: choral evolution

Interview with Gilberto Negrini and Piero Lissoni, authors – in perfect balance – of the new path taken by the company

B&B Italia showroom, Miami - Photo © Emilio Collavino
B&B Italia showroom, Miami - Photo © Emilio Collavino

A new CEO and a new art director to conserve the stylistic consistency of a company that has made design history, projecting it into a future of innovation and contemporary flair

Gilberto Negrini

CEO of B&B Italia

Gilberto Negrini, CEO of B&B Italia

Let’s backtrack: what has been the impact of the passage from the Busnelli family to the Design Holding fund?
It has been a gradual, well-balanced passage. Also thanks to the entrepreneur, who stayed involved until my arrival one and a half years ago, and who wanted to lead the company towards an even more international project, with an even wider strategic vision. First, in 2015, there was the ceding of the majority share to the private equity fund Investindustrial, followed by the acquisition of Arclinea and Azucena. Then came the entry of Carlyle Group at 50% with Investindustrial, and hence the creation of Design Holding, of which Flos and Louis Poulsen, in addition to B&B Italia, are also a part. Everything was managed with extreme intelligence, respecting the strong, recognizable global identity of the brand.

What are the objectives and guidelines of your work as CEO?
My professional background has been in design companies, and I know how important it is to maintain a high level of quality, not just quantity. The two funds have clearly conveyed the concept that their reputation is based on making companies grow in a healthy way, providing the resources for this to happen, and I like this approach very much.
There are strong points to be conserved, which are the product itself, a research center which is fundamental for its growth, production that happens for the most part inside various plants, and the series of specialized craftsmen. I will follow the path already outlined, but in a more structured way, with a major retail growth plan based on new openings. The distribution channel in the world is a very strong one for B&B Italia, and the strategy is to reinforce retail operations in a very careful manner. Then there is the Contract division, where B&B Italia has been a pioneer, as one of the first companies to launch such an initiative. We want to grow more in this area as well.

Maxalto collection

Maxalto collection

What digital strategies are you activating?
The most important change will be in the website, whose upgrade will be officially presented in July, and where Maxalto will have its own specific domain. This is an important message we want to convey, that of providing a distinctive identity to a brand that now reports over 40 million euros in annual sales. The sections of B&B Italia will also be completely renewed, more elegant, clean and easy to use, with a configurator to create your own domestic layouts, a part for consumers to interact directly with the company and to receive project support. A website that brings emotions, created together with our new art director.

Speaking of the new art director, Piero Lissoni…
He has been a friend of the company for many years, in an already existing relationship of collaboration. Having differentiated Maxalto, where the art director for many years has been Antonio Citterio (also of Arclinea), we required support on an equally high level for B&B Italia. Piero has approached this challenge with great enthusiasm, aware of the need to conserve the identity of the brand in a coherent way, a very delicate and fundamental operation for a company with such a distinctive personality. He has very clear ideas about where we should be heading. The operation has to be done on an all-around basis together with the company, from products to catalogues to showrooms…

Arte Surfside residences, Miami - Photo © Kris Tamburello

Arte Surfside residences, Miami – Photo © Kris Tamburello

One Thousand Museum, Miami - Photo © Emilio Collavino

One Thousand Museum, Miami – Photo © Emilio Collavino

The Research & Development center is the core, connecting the various brands and their art directors. The proof lies in a total synergy, beyond the new product just launched, Noonu, an important upholstered piece designed by Citterio for B&B Italia, whose launch has been coordinated by Lissoni in an exchange of ideas and opinions with Citterio himself.

We can see a focus on outdoor at the moment. What are you aiming for?
It’s important to grow. The collection continues to expand every year, to live. So much so that we would like to make it become a brand with its own identity. Once again, B&B Italia was the first to create this niche design inside the company, almost 20 years ago, and this area has gradually revealed all of its potential, with sales reaching tens of millions of euros, which is not bad at all for a company not specializing in this field. But that is not an arrival point. Piero has designed a beautiful collection, Borea, and we will be presenting many new developments, new catalogues. We believe our stores should be the ambassadors of B&B Italia outdoor, with products that are synonymous with design, modernity and sustainability. The latter is a question we will be approaching in a very serious way, also in terms of our corporate structure.

After the acquisition of Azucena in 2018, this brand has collaborated with Serapian. How is it inserted in the production?
Azucena, a historic firm with very high design content, founded in 1947 by Caccia Dominioni, Gardella and Dell’Acqua, has been acquired as a strong point of the entire B&B Italia collection, a synonym of discreet elegance, rich in content, and it is a major added value for us. The collaboration with Serapian has happened with ease, and sums up shared values, because like Azucena the company stands out for excellence and craftsmanship, not to mention the fact that they were founded in the same year. We have personalized Catilina, the historic seating by Caccia Dominioni, with a mosaic texture, presented as a limited edition in the beautiful setting of Villa Mozart in Milan during the last fashion week. Putting two brands together is anything but a banal operation. They should be on equal footing.

Piero Lissoni

Artistic Director of B&B Italia

The new phase of art direction at B&B Italia began in January this year. How did that happen?
I believe Gilberto Negrini had a big role, but above all Antonio Citterio, who at a certain point asked me if I wanted to get involved with the company. That is how it all began. I’m still studying the situation. Intervening in a company that has maintained such a high level of excellence over time is not easy. You have to be very cautious, and have a sense of proportions. What I would like to do is to bring continuity, without destroying anything, simply inserting some non-conformist elements. The company is very strong and versatile, and it has invented ‘worlds’ that are now considered normal, generating points of extraordinary vision that are still astonishing for their level of creativity. What interests me is to look to the future with a sideways gaze.

Piero Lissoni, Artistic Director of B&B Italia

What kind of input were you given?
The request is simply to respect the brand, to continue to use a very contemporary language. My attempt has been to make B&B Italia speak an even more contemporary language than it did in the past.

Dock sofa by B&B Italia, Design Piero Lissoni

Dock sofa by B&B Italia, Design Piero Lissoni

No easy task. What are you relying on, in order to succeed?
Actually I am not alone. I work with the Research & Development center, with the in-house architectural team, and a group that focuses on communication and marketing. A series of people in everyday dialogue, with whom I can come to terms. The opportunities through which to see the initial results of this collaboration have been the recent opening of the store on Via Durini for a special presentation, without an audience, with the possibility of viewing only the shop window, and the installation of the entire corporate showroom at Novedrate with the new Noonu sofa designed by Antonio Citterio, as well as a presentation only for this new product.

Continuity, then, but B&B is also a company that looks forward, hence its focus on innovation. What is your personal contribution, in this sense?
My contribution will be to utilize the past in order to trace new lines for the future. I would like to make the company return to reasoning as a leader. Furthermore, I would like to construct, without any hierarchies, a team of not necessarily famous designers, young or not so young, simply capable of doing their job. Drawing on the worldwide market and trying to make the R+D division function as a machine of research, in the fullest sense of the term. Research is intellectual food, which has to be generated and discovered, also in the interpretation of people outside the classic channels, otherwise it will be hard to build credibility in the next 20 years. What we do today will be legible in terms of duration in about ten years. This mechanism has to be evaluated, as in a sort of chess game towards the future. Already in January, for example, we have begun to understand and to decide how the stores will be made in the future, the displays, the graphic design, while we are now searching for that new generation of designers who will become part of the B&B Italia team.

Which are the factors with which you feel most in tune?
Above all, the fact that the brand touches on all types of interiors, permitting 360° action. In the catalogue there are certain parts that are stronger than others, which have helped us, and other areas that need rebalancing, but all this is part of the life of a company. B&B Italia also has a strong outdoor approach, which we want to reinforce, which has developed from the outset in a very natural way.

SAKè sofa by B&B Italia, Design Piero Lissoni

SAKè sofa by B&B Italia, Design Piero Lissoni

Borea by B&B Italia, Design Piero Lissoni - Photo © Tommaso Sartori

Borea by B&B Italia, Design Piero Lissoni – Photo © Tommaso Sartori

On this topic, let’s talk about the Borea collection, which you have designed with an emphasis on ecology.
Thinking about a new generation of products developed for outdoor use, we began with a series of questions. How do we want to do it? With materials that are strong, durable and honest. Aluminium came to the fore. Then we realized we should design very light objects, hence the project with a framework that seems like a bicycle. Borea has a very high level of strength, requires little maintenance; it is stackable from the start, because by removing the totally waterproof cushions, the structure of the sofas is stackable. The best way to respect the environment is to give products a long life, therefore building them in the best possible way. When Borea reaches the end of its life cycle, it will be 88% recyclable. The cushions are made with recycled PET, like the fabrics produced with industrial scrap, using recycled semi-finished products to transform them into new ones. The collection is constantly growing and will be expanded with a series of poolside cots and ample lounge seating, with a particular form. It is a model that is still evolving, another characteristic of B&B Italia production.

Please tell us something about other pieces you have designed, like SAKè, Eda-Mame, Dock. What’s the leitmotif?
I have tried to design products that are a bit ‘drier’ from a stylistic standpoint. Mapping the brand’s catalogue, made of gentle, soft items, I wanted to shift the focus towards products that are a bit rawer, with the aim of inserting them in a very strong existing range. So I have searched for small oases of work, missing points inside these constructions. I have looked at B&B Italia as it if were a giant tapestry, to find the empty gaps.

Since you knew him, what did Piero Busnelli, the founder of B&B, transmit to you?
He left me with a sort of feeling, that of the company totally integrated with life. Though the company is now in the hands of investment funds, you can still sense the power and presence of the family. Anyone who approaches the firm also approaches the extraordinary vision of a man, which still seems to hover and to be perceptible. In my own small way, I will try to move forward with that vision. And we have the same first name.