Antonio Linares, Senior Managing Director Laufen and CNEE Division

Setting new standards

Antonio Linares, Senior Managing Director Laufen and CNEE Division in an interview about the fascination of the bathroom, attractive markets and the importance of "Swissness".

Stylepark Magazin: Mr. Linares, you have a degree in civil engineering. What attracted you to the sanitary ceramics industry?

Antonio Linares: In fact, I worked as Civil Engineer in projects and construction for almost 10 years. Bridges, roads, tunnels, industrial buildings, hydroelectrical power stations. But then there was always a lot of chemistry and physics of building materials such as concrete, steel, stone, wood, or ceramics. And all of it as an integral part of architecture, construction, and design, all of them disciplines that I have always found fascinating because of their capacity to construct our relationship with all that surrounds us. But then at some point I got tired of having mostly the Public Administration as a client and decided to move to the Real Economy, to there where the client risks his own money and not that of the Taxpayer. And there was the bathroom, a space that has a lot of different materials in it, with a strong relationship with architecture and with construction and design., In the end, the bathroom is a space of fun and relaxation, a cocoon where we are allowed to rebuild our own selves. Ceramics, brass, steel, wood, composites, are all highly fascinating building materials that are present in the bathroom and that we produce in our factories with mastery. Ceramics among them is one of the oldest malleable materials known to mankind. So, in a way I am back to the Chemistry and Physics of materials, but also to my passion for architecture, construction and design.

For the Roca Group, the parent company of Laufen, you looked after the Russian market for over a decade. What was your most important professional experience there?

Antonio Linares: Undoubtedly the most important was to acknowledge that you cannot let the stereotypes rule your vision, you need to build your own opinions. My main professional achievement is there to speak for itself: an excellent team, good ideas and an eye for the needs and wishes of people in a very dynamic market. All that in a wonderful country full of contrasts and with great people, like everywhere else. We had the chance to experiment a lot, to try out innovative products and new sales and marketing concepts. And like everywhere else, it is essential to meet people at eye level, to listen to them and to act as partners even in difficult situations – this is the only way to create the trust that is essential in business relationships. I have made many friends for life, and I have seen the side of Russia that you seldom find in Western Media.

Russia is an important market for Laufen. How can Laufen become even stronger there? Are there other Laufen products in demand than in Switzerland or Spain?

Antonio Linares: In Russia there is an appetite for dialogue and participation. We see more and more that the traditional relationship client-supplier is changing towards a wish to know more. To know more about the Brand and the company: its people, the expertise, the values, and the imbrication with society. Together with it we find more and more a wish to participate through customization, a wish to communicate and to have a channel where to express your experience as a user, as a customer. Russia has moved through all the steps through which Europe has moved, only faster. In Russia there is even more appreciation for industrial expertise, the kind of expertise that we at Laufen can feel proud of with our 129 years history in ceramics and innovation and our tradition and experience in the manufacturing of faucets since 1854.

However paradoxical it may sound, in Russia there is now more appetite for challenges and experimentation than elsewhere in Europe. It is a market where our high-end collections are particularly appreciated. Not only because of their outstanding design, but also because of the challenge that they represent in terms of the use of materials and shapes that none or very few can afford. I am talking here about washbasins with big dimensions and with perfect ceramic surface, also about ultra-thin ceramics where we were pioneers before many came with their copies. Also, Russia has moved from a tradition of Classic to a growing appreciation of modern design. Laufen has always been a brand at the forefront of design and innovation. We are now enjoying this growing interest in a market that 10 or 20 years ago would mostly consider that Premium or Luxury should be Classic or not be.

Kartell by Laufen

How much does a company have to adapt to different global markets today? Is the design claim that Laufen has 1:1 transferable to countries like China or Dubai or does the design philosophy of Laufen have to be interpreted differently for these parts of the world?

Antonio Linares: Judging by the progress that we are having in markets like China we could claim that design is becoming more Universal. Still there are local trends that often come as sub-trends or adaptations of Global trends. Furthermore there are the Country technical specifics. In many countries, technical regulations have been used and are still used as an instrument to protect local producers. We often find differences in technical regulations that require for changes in the product without bringing any value added other than creating a barrier. This sometimes influences the design and requires for a smart engineering. When you take the decision to invest in an international Premium brand like Laufen, you are making a statement that you are interested not only in excellent functional but also in excellence in Design. And excellence in Design does not have a passport, it is Universal.

You manage a company where "Swissness" is an important part of the identity and self-image. How do you feel about this as a Spaniard?

Antonio Linares: This is not as difficult as it may seem at first glance. First, I come from a family that has lived in Paris in exile for many years during the times when there was a Dictatorship in Spain. My parents were teaching in Nanterre and La Sorbone. Also, I have lived out of Spain for close to 20 years and I have always been curious about “the outer space”. Switzerland is a wonderful example of Civilization and cultural coexistence. Besides, I was already familiar with the independent perspective of Laufen to the bathroom from my work for the brand in Russia. In Switzerland, there is a highly developed bathroom culture, where, for example, the shower toilet was invented. In addition there is a genuine understanding of design and function. Traditions of the Southern European and Northern European design schools merge here into a philosophy of life that I share after having lived many years in the extreme South and the extreme North of Europe. It can be said that Swissness and what Laufen stands for is the perfect center of Gravity of what my life has been till now (laugh).

Bespoke washbasin – Herzog de Meuron, The Public Hotel
Marcel Wanders – The New Classic

You have set the goal that Laufen should grow significantly in the coming years. What areas do you have in mind? Will Laufen concentrate on its core business, sanitary ceramics, or will new business areas be added?

Antonio Linares: Laufen will continue its evolution from Industrial excellence into Service excellence. We are already since several years a full Bathroom company, we see year after year how our products that are not ceramics grow 2 digits. Of course, we will preserve and develop our legacy as the best ceramic bathroom producer. At the same time we will develop our expertise in faucets, where we have a history that dates back to 1846 and with technology that we sell as well to other important Luxury brands that rely on us for their faucets. Beyond that we will continue to explore with our Laufen Bespoke the limits of tailor-made solutions made specially for iconic projects. We have wonderful examples in different corners of the word and with Architects and Designers of the importance of Herzog & De Meuron or Marcel Wanders. It is true that there is no other material that can offer as many advantages as ceramics offers in the bathroom. And it is also true that in ceramics we have seen Laufen invent the floor standing washbasins, the wall hanging toilets, the pressure casting.

Our ultra-thin SaphirKeramik has set a new standard in ceramics that now many try to copy or follow. We have developed the material to a point where we can use it to create new designs and typologies of washbasins that were completely unthinkable in ceramics a decade ago. We produce outstanding bathtubs and shower trays and we also have a broad range of bathroom furniture. A lot has happened in these areas in recent years, with new surfaces, materials, colors, coatings. We have seen the shower toilets come back to Europe where they were born. Our innovation heritage goes back to the development of the very first shower toilet invented in Switzerland; which included our ceramic body. Now this category is gaining importance every year with our shower toilets being the best in design but also the best in hygiene, with all the electronics inside the ceramic body and with state-of-the-art disinfection. All in all, we are moving in the direction of offering full bathroom solutions, an approach that offers more confidence and gives the guarantee of one interlocutor for all your bathroom needs.

Laufen is already very strong in the "Bespoke" area. How important will this business area be in the future?

Antonio Linares: Finding the balance between industrial efficiency and customization, between smart design and customer engagement, between engineering and emotion is more and more important every year. Bespoke is a state of mind, it is declaring that we do not give a “no” as an answer: If somebody is asking for it, it means that it makes sense to somebody. That means that we are obliged to study it. By not saying “no” and by studying Bespoke projects we have put our limits under question, and we have innovated and achieved solutions that we would not have tried otherwise. Our Bespoke project list grows every year, and through these projects we find new textures, finishings, colors and materials. The demand for customized options is growing steadily. Bespoke solutions are increasingly in demand when planning large real estate projects or hotels, as they are a proven way to carry the client's brand identity into the bathroom - sometimes this can be as simple as a special colour or logo print.

Throughout its history, Laufen has repeatedly developed pioneering products and processes. Can you give us an indication of what the main focus of research is at the moment?

Antonio Linares: We are proud of our innovation team. It is constantly looking for solutions that can bring new and unexpected experiences to the bathroom. The team tries to anticipate needs and find new solutions that have not even been expressed before. But as you can imagine, this is an area where we are very careful about sharing information. We have to be serious and rigorous in times when copies often reach the market faster than the originals.

In recent months, a project developed by Laufen together with the Viennese design studio EOOS and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has caused a sensation. What is "save!" about?

Antonio Linares: We believe that save! can be a game changer. It is a urine-separating WC, which is suitable for end users and complies with the relevant industry standards. We developed it together with the Austrian design office EOOS, within a project that has been co-founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Swiss water research institute Eawag and Laufen. Urine waste is a big environmental problem that pollutes our lands with an excess of Nitrogen. Thanks to save! urine can be separated, cleaned from medicines and chemicals, and then the remaining nutrients can be converted into fertilizer.

How long do you expect the new technology behind "save!" to take hold? And what other developments will we see in the field of sanitary ceramics in the coming years?

Antonio Linares: It will still take some time to see save! as a solution at industrial scale but we are already installing the whole system in some key projects in Switzerland, US, and Sweden. If everything goes as expected, in 2 years we will see save! in many projects around the world. Furthermore wecollaborate with various public institutions, universities and laboratories to research new materials and finishings that offer a better user experience or bring solutions to the hygienic and sanitation challenges that still are a major problem in many regions of the word. We are committed to making our company sustainable by participating in projects that do not have an immediate business application but which we see can help improve access to sanitation and hygiene.