Setting up the space: For Foscarini, a luminaire is more than a product. Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
Tutto è progetto!
by Sara Bertsche
Jan 6, 2015

“Tutto è progetto!” At Foscarini everything is a project – at least if one is to believe the Italian luminaire manufacture’s corporate philosophy. A project can be anything that sounds promising – and it is simply of no relevance whether creating a light installation involves collaborating with an extremely well known or as yet unknown designer or perhaps with an automotive manufacturer. Last year, for example, at the Clerkenwell Design Week in London, a modified version of the “Tuareg” floor luminaire was used to place the new Jaguar F-Type coupé in the limelight in a particularly impressive way. To this end, above the rear of the sports car Foscarini installed a gigantic light sculpture comprising circular rods criss-crossing one another and that, like so many enormous Mikado pick-up-sticks, extended across the three stories of the atrium in the Farmiloe Building, illuminating it to great effect. Foscarini, however, does not just conduct projects involving product design and art. Since 2008 the company has also been a sponsor of the Art and Architecture Biennales in Venice, where it is headquartered. And last but not least it has for years now been issuing the magazine “Inventario” which, edited by Beppe Finessi, features free-thinking essays, illustrations, and articles to do with art, design, and architecture.

Foscarini is part of a new, younger generation of manufacturers, which think outside the box, are open to current trends, and – if the opportunity arises – also seek a link to art and architecture. This open-minded approach is reflected in both the company’s collaboration with designers as renowned as Tom Dixon, Patricia Urquiola, and Studio Nendo, and its cooperation with young, aspiring talents. The range of luminaires in the current Foscarini range is accordingly large and extends from the refined and playful to the minimalist and even sculptural. There is no typical “Foscarini” luminaire – and there is no point searching for a homogeneous idiom.

Tinkers’ offices and test labs

In the showroom at the company in Marcon, a small town on the mainland just outside Venice, visitors are greeted by numerous gems, for example the table luminaire from the “Rituals” series (designed in 2013 by Ludovica and Roberto Palomba) or the wall luminaire from the “Le Soleil” series (designed in 2009 by Vicente Garcia Jiménez). The “Havana” luminaire, designed in 1993 by Joseph Forakis, has been included in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and the “Supernova” pendant luminaire, which Ferrucio Laviani designed in 2000, is on display in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. There was, however, a lot of ground for Foscarini luminaires to cover before they enjoyed such international acclaim.

Foscarini was founded in 1981 as a small luminaire producer that worked exclusively with Murano glass. Seven years later Carlo Urbinati and Alessandro Vecchiato took over the company. Under their aegis it has morphed into an international player. In the last few years Murano glass has played an increasingly less significant role, and Foscarini now works more with materials such as Kevlar, carbon fibers, fiberglass, and polyethylene. Nowadays the company, which has 89 employees and currently works with more than 30 designers, has direct sales in 88 countries.

Initial contact with designers who come into question for a product is usually handled by the Product Development section, the realm of Marco Martin. Here ideas are born and rejected, concepts discussed and advanced. Martin’s most difficult task is to make a suitable choice from the flood of designs; around 100 a month are submitted, but on average no more than one actually ever sees the light of day.

Guiliano Mortoletto and his team in the Technical Office are the people who decide whether a design actually goes into production. Here every single component is examined before the production process is developed, tested, and where necessary optimized. After every test phase, inspections are made to ensure that the product is still firmly in line with the original design, which always comes first and through to production, everything else is subordinate to it. Even the material is of secondary importance. For Foscarini the materials are merely something that gives a successful design the right shape.

In the test lab the products are then assessed in terms of stability, quality, and functionality, before the electronics are examined. The biggest problem with prototypes, we are told, is the heat the illuminants build up, which is why every luminaire is switched on 21 hours a day for 30 days and the temperature of the material measured at regular intervals. Luminaires with LEDs are the most difficult, because although they are more efficient in terms of output, compared with classic lamps they respond more sensitively to dust and to being touched by insects.

Ultimately, it is the design that counts

Lunching amid poplars and box trees in the picturesque garden of Villa Condulmer, Carlo Urbinati explains how he sees a Foscarini luminaire: “We don’t sell commodities, we want people to fall in love!” After all, these are not just everyday articles, he says, adding that they orchestrate the surroundings, and it is ultimately the lighting that determines how a space is perceived. With luminaires you can set individual accents, create entire lighting scenarios, and evoke emotions. As such every luminaire is a project to which you have to devote yourself with diligence – even if sometimes that requires a lot of time, he continues.

Urbinati is essentially skeptical when it comes to major furniture fairs such as the Salone del Mobile in Milan. Every year the trade expects as wide an array as possible of brand new products, best of all innovations. Yet this is precisely the approach that Urbinati rejects: “Oh no, not yet another luminaire for the fair, please!” True to the motto “less is sometimes more”, Foscarini deliberately does not bow down to the pressure of every year quickly having to conjure up a new product for the fair out of some designer’s hat. Should the project the company is currently working on not have been concluded, and the design not yet be fully developed, then the company remains patient, preferring instead to present tried-and-tested products.

Urbinati explains that not only in this respect does Foscarini act in a consistent manner. Even the proprietary brand has to play second fiddle to the design – too much branding not only harms the design, it also restricts the designer’s creativity. For this reason, the company does not offer training to designers or light planners. Instead of favoring rapid-fire solutions that sell a branded image, it prefers primarily to engage in project work. As such, it limits itself to discerning persuasive designs elsewhere instead of designing in-house. What is most important is to take care not to constrain the designer. The luminaires do not have to follow a uniform typology, as long as they are aesthetically pleasing they can be totally different in terms of design. This is why Foscarini is giving its blessing to designs and evaluating whether the idea can meet its own, and indeed the market’s standards.

If you rely on projects, you have to accept their failure as well

Not everyone, Urbinati says, can know everything, but you can benefit from others by forging links, for example to small production outfits that possess in-depth technical know-how and are prepared to bounce ideas and opinions back and forth with Foscarini. There is no such thing as a routine here, as if you are open to the differences in the designs, no two projects are the same. The risk of failure included. According to Urbinati, the most difficult thing is telling a designer his product cannot be realized, something that can even happen after you have already invested a lot in the project. Sometimes six months’ work therefore does not bear fruit. Urbinati adopts a calm approach: “That’s what I do!” he comments, with a shrug of the shoulders. An open mind and no aversion to risk helps open up doors to new, unconventional things. In keeping with the motto: “We want people to fall in love!”

MORE on Stylepark:

Directly ahead of the Windsors: Traditional tools and techniques governed the aesthetic flavor at Clerkenwell Design Week. (08 June 2014)

On Spokes and Shadows Spokes by Studio García Cumini for Foscarini: Designers Vicente García Jiménez and Cinzia Cumini presented their new ceiling-mounted luminaire for Foscarini in Milan. (16 May 2014)

Putting on stage design: Foscarini’s cascade of light, made of elements of the luminaire “Tuareg” at the Clerkenwell Design Week in London. Photo © Foscarini
„No, not conventional!” Carlo Urbinati does not like design, which is too technical.
Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
Light chandeliers in the meeting room of the headquarter: The hanging lamp “Lightweight”. Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
Jewellery and evergreens: The showroom on the ground floor of the headquarter.
Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
Thinking and variegating across bounderies: A new finish was tested on a champagne bottle. Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
In the corner, prototypes and rejected ideas on paper are collected.
Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
Think tank: A space for experimenting with different materials.
Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
Testing and tinkering: In one’s own laboratory, every luminaire is tested for quality stability. Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
Hard testing: The luminaires are getting a thermal shock in the freezer cabinet and then are switched on for 30 days, 21 hours a day. Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
Testing “Rituals“: The electronic of every luminaire has to be checked.
Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark
When the designer has finished, the industrial production begins – often it takes a long time. Photo © Sara Bertsche, Stylepark