We always remain authentic
May 4, 2011
Carlo Urbinati, Source: Foscarini

One of the convictions that Carlo Urbinati and Sandro Vecchiato share is that the thought is more important than the form. 20 years ago the two architects founded an experimental laboratory on the glass-blowing island of Murano off Venice. Today the founders and Managing Directors of Foscarini head an international lighting company whose products are sold in 2,800 outlets and in 88 countries. Foscarini has long since made a name for itself in the industry. Which is why the collaboration with fashion label Diesel came as a surprise to many. Two years after the launch of the first Diesel luminaire collection by Foscarini, Carlo Urbinati talks to Sandra Hofmeister about his experiences with the fashion world.

Sandra Hofmeister: Foscarini has been cooperating with Diesel for two years now. Please tell us about your experiences.

Carlo Urbinati: Combining two such different fields and mentalities as Diesel and Foscarini is a great adventure. We didn’t realize that at first. Even the start was not easy. When we presented the first collection in 2009, the market collapsed as a result of the global financial crisis, so things were very much up in the air to begin with. But that also gave us the opportunity to examine the first collection of seven luminaire ranges in greater depth. What surprised us most of all was that the luminaires, which were originally developed and conceived for spontaneous purchase, were seen as independent products and developed a sales dynamic of their own. Two years after starting our collaboration we are also receiving relevant feedback from the market, which has now recovered somewhat from the crisis. We took these assessments into account in developing the current, third collection.

To what extent have you discovered a new group of buyers, which differs from traditional Foscarini buyers?

Urbinati: Even though we are not the direct retailers, we did understand that the Diesel collection has a totally different, younger and more spontaneous target group. In this way we come into contact with new buyers – in terms of lifestyle environment, style and age. If we can win over this group then we potentially extend our client base to include a new group of buyers, and over time they might also become Foscarini buyers.

There are now as many as 14 luminaire ranges. Diesel is responsible for the design, Foscarini for the realization. Can you give us an idea of how exactly the collaboration functions?

Urbinati: We have the know-how for the production and development of the luminaires. Defining and realizing a concept is part of what we do. And that is also the case for the Diesel collection. Between the concept and the final product there is a series of steps aimed at bringing out and underlining the core aspects of the concept. All the Diesel collection models have undergone this process.

Diesel has a very strong brand. How does Foscarini deal with that? How do the worlds of fashion and design come together ultimately?

Urbinati: That is a good question. We sell in many countries and have observed that the response to our collection differs from one country to another . Nations with a strong design culture and a strong interest in buying design displayed a hesitancy in accepting the Diesel collection. Yet in other countries where design does not play a central role the Diesel luminaires were appreciated for what they are. People did not expect special features and responses were quicker and more direct. There were also differing responses within Europe, which surprised us. As regards the luminaires themselves, the best-seller in the Diesel collection is “Fork Terra”, a luminaire made with soft fabric. You could say the fabric is a kind of visible link between our world and that of Diesel, for whom fabric is everything.

The rhythm in the fashion world is much quicker than in design. Can you give us an idea of what the rhythm of the Diesel-Foscarini collection is like?

Urbinati: On average we probably buy a pair of jeans every three months. By contrast, luminaires have a totally different expiry date; they are conceived for longer periods of time, which is why introducing new models also takes longer. It is hard to say after just a few months whether a product will be as successful as we expected. A year is also a short period in the design world. In fashion, however, the time intervals are quite different. That is one of the difficulties and one of the special things about our cooperation. After the launch two years ago we put our heads together to think about the follow-up collection. Diesel assumed that the first collection was finished – as is the case for clothing collections following their market launch. But two years later we are still in the process of establishing the first collection on the market. It is not only about a single item, but about a concept, which must first beat a path and find its space.

How does distribution work?

Urbinati: The Diesel stores exhibit many models from the collection, but do not offer them for sale. After all, selling a pair of jeans is a totally different thing from selling a luminaire – you have to understand how it is put together, what kind of light it produces, where you can use it. Ultimately, the luminaires are sold via traditional distribution channels; luminaire specialists and home furnishings stores, whose staff can explain exactly to customers what they are buying.

We have seen many fashion brands launch home collections recently. How does your collaboration differ?

Urbinati: The fashion brands have unsettled the market somewhat with ideas that were not well thought out. So retailers were really hesitant to begin with. This is one of the reasons why we are so insistent about being in the Zona Tortona with Diesel every year. By being there we want to make a statement about the seriousness of our collection. After all, it is not as though we just throw something onto the market and then look to see what happens. That is not our style.

Last year Diesel featured the slogan “Be stupid” in an image campaign; this year’s catch phrase is “Relics from the next future”. To what extent do such image slogans play a role in the development of the luminaires?

Urbinati: Such products of the imagination do not impact on production, even though they create a world around the products, be they jeans or luminaires. It is a way of rousing curiosity. It is an important aspect of our cooperation that the design of the luminaires and the slogans come from Diesel.

Would it also be an option for Foscarini to come up with an idea or a slogan for an attitude to life, and transfer it to the brand?

Urbinati: We do not make fashion, we make products. Our market is much slower paced. We are interested in creating a complex atmosphere with design with the help of technology and forms that do not reveal how complicated they are. The Diesel concepts appeal to a broad public. But we do not have this public. In other words, our concept runs on a totally different track – these are two distinctly separate areas.

Why does it not work in the other direction, from design to fashion?

Urbinati: There are many reasons for that – the market is the major one. It is much smaller for luminaires than it is for fashion. Luminaire firms book sales that do not even remotely match those of fashion companies. Diesel’s sales exceeds the total sales of all the Italian luminaire makers. Even if we were to combine the sales of Luceplan, Artemide, Flos, Foscarini and all the others we would not equal the €1.35 billion a year that Diesel books. Our problem is that we don’t have any direct contact to the end consumers. We position ourselves via certain professional groups and retailers. But we do not have the means to address end consumers. Diesel, by contrast, invests the same amount in advertising alone that Flos, Artemide and the other luminaire labels book in sales. So there is no comparison. It was not for no reason that Diesel began selling directly in single-brand stores around 15 years ago. You need to do this once a brand has developed a certain personality. Whereas in the lighting industry there are a few showrooms, but they are for retailers, not for direct sales. The only company that operates in a similar manner to Diesel in this respect is Kartell – the owner comes from the fashion industry and has a small chain of single-brand stores.

So how can you win over the market?

Urbinati: Diesel projects visuals and images, we find that very interesting. I believe Renzo Rosso is very successful in his world – and this world is much more difficult to win over than ours is –because he has adopted very clear positions. There is no place for people who can’t make up their minds. You must have your own personality.

Foscarini also has a personality as a brand – where are the differences and parallels?

Urbinati: It is our credo to realize projects we think highly of. It is irrelevant whether we are sure they will sell well or not. If we like something we make it anyhow. And have experienced a surprise or two along the way. Sandro and I both started out as designers, and we continue to pursue a product’s interesting aspects.

There are also companies that first engage in lengthy market research before deciding what to develop.

Urbinati: That’s right. All they want is to jump on the bandwagon. But we keep going, we try, try and try again. And that means we always remain authentic.

Carlo Urbinati, Source: Foscarini
Mysterio suspension lamp, Source: Foscarini/Diesel
Drum Box table lamp, Source: Foscarini/Diesel
Duii table lamp, Source: Foscarini/Diesel
Moroso Diesel Collection, Source: Moroso/Diesel
Tough Luxe Stripe Plaid by Zucchi, Source: Zucchi
Bookmark Bettbezug by Zucchi, Source: Zucchi