Cosmit has ceased to exist: The association of Italian furniture-makers or “Federlegno Arredo” (FLA) decided to dissolve it and to put FLA Eventi in its place. Photo © Salone del Mobile
Milan is realigning
by Thomas Edelmann
Jan 3, 2015

Same procedure as every year? When the Milan Trade Fair recently held a presentation in Hamburg’s Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, much was the same as it ever was, but some things came as a surprise. In addition to long speeches, presentations of special focal themes and activities relating to the coming Salone del Mobile 2015, a few changes were emphasized that already took place in Milan back in mid-year. Claudio Luti, owner of the Kartell company and first elected President of the Cosmit company that runs the fair in 2012, was an assertive manager but is no longer responsible for anything at the fair. He is succeeded by 66-year-old entrepreneur Roberto Snaidero. However, he does not head Cosmit (Comitato Organizzatore del Salone del Mobile Italiano), which has been handling organization of the fairs since 1961 – as Cosmit has ceased to exist. The association of Italian furniture-makers or “Federlegno Arredo” (FLA) decided overnight to dissolve it and to put a new structure in its place. Cosmit has given way to FLA Eventi. Snaidero is now both President of Federlegno Arredo and of FLA Eventi and therefore the boss of the Milan furniture fair.

In Hamburg, the talk was all about the “synergies” this change brings. The restructuring was no doubt triggered by Italian fiscal law, which entails three different rates for VAT: the regular rate, raised to 22 percent in June 2013, the reduced rate of 10 percent for cultural events, passenger transport and hotels, as well as the highly reduced rate of 4 percent for books, magazines and foodstuffs. By dissolving Cosmit and founding a new company, quite considerable taxes and thus costs have been avoided, or so word had it at the presentation. FLA is subdivided into 15 sub-associations spread across the sections Interior (Arredo) and Wood (Legno). Assarredo is the largest of the associations, currently has 800 member companies and Giovanni Anzani (Poliform) as its President, who was represented in Hamburg by Fiam boss Vittorio Livi.

Between fairground and cloverleaf

There was also news as regards the trade fairs held biannually: Office furniture will be presented in 2015 under the banner of “Workspace 3.0”. Michele De Lucchi has designed a new setting for it – the initial sketches suggest it must be a mixture of fairground and interstate cloverleaf. The Euroluce fair will be taking place during UNESCO’s “International Year of Light” and will be flanked by events in the city. And since the Expo opens its doors in Milan on May 1, there’ll be a preview in the form of a walk-through installation on Piazza del Duomo.

“"For things to remain the same, everything must change,” says the young hero Tancredi in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard”. If Europe is busy discussing Italy’s competitiveness, then this also impacts the flexible and inventive design industry. Will its organizational form, namely by “distretto” or the districts to which SMEs who act as suppliers to larger brands then locate, survive? What influence will the financial industry have on the brands? Will they expand their independence and renown?

The figures released in Hamburg were drastic: While in 2009 the Italian furniture industry booked sales of EUR 40 billion, the volume had slumped to EUR 30 billion or by a quarter by 2013. During that same period, exports rose from 32 to 40 percent, meaning that the effect on the domestic furniture market is far more pronounced. Italians are increasingly unable to afford furniture made locally. The only saving grace at present is a complicated system of tax breaks, whereby under certain conditions furniture purchases of EUR 10,000 receive one-off tax relief and can then be written off over a period of 10 years in the form of exemptions of EUR 500 each year. But the associations are already demanding additional steps be taken. And as is customary in the case of subsidies, the furniture makers only get a part of what the state thus waives.

On the other hand, Italian furniture brands are still firing investors’ imaginations. Thus, in early 2014 US office furniture maker Haworth acquired the Poltrona Frau group (it includes the brands Poltrona Frau, Cassina and Cappellini) from Charme Investments. Haworth is a global player and a family-owned company. The President and CEO is a native Italian, Franco Bianchi, and with a staff of 6,000 worldwide the company posts sales of about EUR 800 million.

Ready for takeoff

For a time the small and extravagant furniture makers of Baleri Italia belonged to Cerruti, the fashion company. But during the 2013 Salon the traditional showroom was suddenly closed. Skitsch, an innovative brand with young designers that had set up an internet sales platform with various manufacturers, likewise disappeared after taking the floor at its first international trade-fairs. Both now belong to Hub Design, a company owned by Asset Value Management, a private equity group. Relaunch or final death? At any rate, a press release says we will get to see the revised brands and new products presented in January 2015.

Driade, founded in 1968 by Enrico Astori and one of the first companies to regularly collaborate with Philippe Starck, went belly up and had to close its spacious sales premises on Milan’s Via Manzoni opposite the Armani Megastore. The indebted company owned by the Astori family brought on board Italian Creation Group as a financer; the latter invested EUR 7 million and acquired 80 percent of the shares. On December 12, the new three-floor showroom boasting a total of 500 square meters of space opened in Milan’s Via Borgogona 8 – design courtesy of David Chipperfield, who will in future also be the brand’s Art Director. The new company outlet will function not just as a store but as an art gallery too.

One of the driving forces behind Skitsch was businessman Renato Preti, who abandoned ship in time and founded Discipline. The company offers an exciting mixture of small and medium-sized products, all of which have more of a Nordic feel to them than a sense of Italian design – and were created by young and experienced designers ranging from Lars Beller Fjetland, Nendo and Pauline Deltour to Ding 3000, and Max Lamb to Lievore Altherr Molina. However, the actual manufacturing tends to get done in Italy, with distribution being handled by dealers and the company’s own Webshop. When asked recently why his collection’s designs were so closely linked to Scandinavia, Preti criticized the lack of a willingness to innovate in Italian industry: “About 80 percent of the Italian designer products on sale today were designed over 25 years ago.” He feels the Nordic countries are more innovative (and this includes marketing) than the traditional Italian companies. Another point of criticism relates to the strong competition: Many brands are seeing their profiles dulled because an increasing number of designers work for companies and the rival companies. If the one books a success with a greater innovative step forward, the others swiftly catch up by emulating the idea in their own portfolios.

There have also been several small, specialized newcomers popping up, such as Internoitaliano, which sells accessories and furniture on the Web. The brand was floated by Giulio Iacchetti and distributes the wares of various designers (made by 11 specialist crafts workshops) on the international market. While the new brands may be small, client expectations are great as regards quality, service and flexibility.

Flirting with China

While the large, renowned brands are in the headlines each week with new showrooms in Asia – B&B Italia, Lema and Molteni in Beijing, Agape in Taipeh, Moroso in Singapore, Porro in Jakarta – FLA Eventi is busy planning a furniture fair of its own in China in 2016. In fact, EUR 600 million has already been invested in popularizing “Made in Italy” in China .

Elsewhere, Italian companies who have a strong tradition but were not necessarily first-five players have seized the bull by the horns. One of them is Pedrali, which with strong backward at from its bases in Bergamo and Udine offers a broad furniture range for contract worlds and private residences. Hitherto almost unknown in Germany, the Calligaris brand has started a new drive, opening a showroom in Düsseldorf. To date, the newcomers are all too often fixated on what others have already invented, however.

They share this with the one or other young talent who proves his skill on occasion by imitating well-known items. Nevertheless, for all the crisis the Italian furniture scene is in a sea of change thanks to the international forums and market places such as the SaloneSatellite, dreamed up in 1998 by Marva Griffin and still organized by her. In Hamburg young German designer Sebastian Herkner recounted how important the satellite’s function is by demonstrating how much depends on being able to stand out from the mass of other creative minds in Milan. Everybody will be meeting in Milan from April 14-29 to find out what the imagination and the market have come up with.

Roberto Snaidero is President of Federlegno Arredo and of FLA Eventi. Photo © Salone del Mobile
“Workspace 3.0“ for office furniture, designed by Michele De Lucchi. Photo © Michele De Lucchi
The Salone in former times: advertising in 1974. Photo © Salone del Mobile
Icons like „Sessantuna“ by Gaetano Pesce for Cassina are supposed to be the main income for the Italian furniture industry. Photo © Cassina
In early 2014 US office furniture maker Haworth acquired the Poltrona Frau group (Poltrona Frau, Cassina and Cappellini). Photo © Poltrona Frau
Driade went belly up, but open in this days in Milan a new showroom – designed by its new Art Director David Chipperfield. Photo © Driade
On the path of Marc O’Polo: B&B Italia store-opening in Bejing. Photo © B&B Italia