August 2022 10 Min Read

Interview: Giulio Cappellini

By Josh Sims

Giulio Cappellini is arguably the world’s foremost entrepreneur of interior design. His father started the Cappellini furniture manufacturing company in Italy in 1946, but it was Giulio who, from the 1980s, transformed it into both a global, design-centred business. It is also a champion for a number of young designers, many of whom would go on to be the superstars of their discipline. Many of its products feature in the permanent collections of design and art museums around the world.

Emerging during a time of postmodern design during the 1980s, Cappellini has created an intriguing space integrating products and global connections. We spoke to Cappellini about the design market, cultivating young designers and talent, and the difference between lifestyle and longevity in design.

ACM: The Cappellini company has been in business since 1946, but you led it through a major transformation. How did that come about?

GCI: Until the 1980s, Cappellini was a small company just selling in Italy. I was coming out of university and got to work for a year with Gio Ponti, which was a great experience. I was thinking of becoming an architect, but started to help with the family business. I said one day – I always say that I must have been drunk – that I wanted to get more involved. I was lucky because my father said about my ideas, “OK, just go ahead,” and I started to move Cappellini on from being a small furniture maker, like thousands of other companies in Italy, towards something that was more about design. In a few years we totally changed what Cappellini was about.

Cappellini transformed his family brand into a design powerhouse during the 1980s.

That also involved looking beyond Italy too, right?

The main Italian companies – Cassina, B&B Italia etc – were only working with the big Italian designers and so I assumed they’d never work with Cappellini. And Italy was already well known for Italian design. It occurred to me that Italy has this big tradition of furniture production, but held onto the idea that apparently nothing was happening anywhere else in the world – so I started to travel to test that out.

A lot of my colleagues said I was going to destroy Italian design: “Why do you want to work with foreign designers?” I had to tell them that I didn’t care if the designer was born in London, Milano or Sydney – the most important thing is that they’re good. Now look at those big Italian brands and 70 to 80 percent of what they produce is designed by foreigners.

It was very hard starting out, but it did allow me to get ahead in establishing very good relationships with very good designers. At the beginning my father was a bit shocked, but he could see the company growing.

Cappellini’s designs combine a postmodern spirit with a desire to innovate.

What are your first memories of having an interest in design?

It was when I played with Lego. As a young kid, I loved playing with Lego, which is why I’m only able to design square things. If you want anything with curves, you have to ask someone like Marc Newson. But I think Lego has absolutely been important in the stories of many designers – and maybe more so now because the variety of shapes is just fantastic now. Go to the Milan Lego shop and there’s always people outside – a lot of them are adults buying for themselves. But Lego isn’t just important for the shapes but the colours, to teach you how to put colours together too. I was always the ‘build a model and then break it apart’ kind of Lego kid.

What we might call ‘designer’ furniture used to be a very niche interest. What’s changed?

I think people have become a lot more confident about design. But that’s quite new. Many more people see design stuff in museums, for example, but they’re still afraid to put design stuff in their homes. Sometimes that’s because they think that design is like fashion and that they’d get tired with a piece of furniture in a few years, which I think absolutely isn’t true with good design. And there’s a problem of communication too, in showing behind the scenes, in what goes into the creation of just such a very well-designed product – the technology, the research, the innovation.

The Cappellini offices in Milan, Italy.

Is interest in design now a global phenomenon, or still mostly ‘Western’?

The interest in design is now really global, whereas before it came and went in different markets. It wasn’t just Western. Interest in design was very high in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, but then died down in subsequent decades. But what’s really driving the market is that there’s this demand for design in public spaces – hotel lobbies, airport lounges, restaurants and so on. In fact, the contract business is 70 percent of our turnover, so we have to be conscious of creating hybrid products that can sit well in a home as much as in an office or a hotel room. These markets are overlapping and getting closer. That’s all good now because interest in design for the home is on [a downturn] at the moment. Look inside the homes of many young people today and it’s all very bourgeois. It’s all very beige and brown, very safe and quiet. And then go to a hotel or an office and it’s all colour and shape. At least that helps people get more comfortable with the idea.

Is there still room for the ‘local’ in this market?

Absolutely. While design is global, it’s still important to know where a designer is coming from, and for them not to lose their heritage – because while we may try to sell our products to the world, they all come from somewhere specific, from a local culture. And that goes for how we present the products too – it’s different in Shanghai to Vancouver. In countries closer to design, we can just show the item. In those more new to design [like China] we need to show it as part of a complete vignette. They want to see the whole living room.

Interest in design can still be rather narrow at times, though. Why do you think recent years have seen this obsession with mid-century modern, as a period and style, for example?

This is an interesting thing. I think when young people don’t have a huge budget to spend on design, they buy most of their interior products in, say, IKEA, but they still want one or two icons in their home, because it gives it an element of heritage and history. In fairness the mid-century period did give us a lot of beautiful stuff and one could say that over subsequent decades there was too much focus on companies creating a lifestyle and not enough on creating really strong products. The latter was true more at the beginning of this design phenomena and, as an industry, that’s what we need to get back to.

Sometimes when we have to do a new product, it’s better to look back at products we took out of the collection many years ago to check if there’s something we can bring back, maybe updated. For example, when Joe Columbo was designing back in the 1960s, there wasn’t the technology to produce many of his products, so there were just a few prototypes. Today we have the technology to produce them. And the look is still contemporary.

They say that in fashion everything has been done before. Isn’t that true for interior products too?

I think [creating] a new product in terms of form really isn’t so easy now. The most beautiful shapes have been done. But today we have new materials and new production systems to work with. And in fact those qualities can be more important than the shape anyway now. Today we don’t have a form and then think about what materials to use. We start with the materials and work out what design can come out of it. We start with the tech and arrive at the design.

“While design is global, it’s still important to know where a designer is coming from, and for them not to lose their heritage – because while we may try to sell our products to the world, they all come from somewhere specific, from a local culture.”

Does that mean design is moving away from being crafted and moving towards being industrialised?

I think a product can be 100 percent industrial, and that’s OK, or 100 percent artisanal, or half and half. We like to use industrialised methods, but after that the human touch is still very important because it’s about achieving quality and innovation. This morning I went to see two or three different companies – one is making a prototype for us that’s very artisanal, with lots of hand-work, and the other is completely hi-tech, without any hand-work. We need to work with both. The only difference maybe is that working with the latest industrial techniques is a big investment, so you need to be sure to try to create products that will not just sell a few pieces a year, but 100 or 1,000.

Recent years have seen a revolution in fashion such that we can get well-made, well-designed clothing at a much more affordable price. Do you think we’ll see the same thing happen with interior design products?

It’s all about the relationship between price and value – you can do a good chair that costs €300 and one that costs €1,500. In the past, the design market tended to mean low distribution, low quantity, high price. But today it can have a high distribution and low price. The important thing is the perception of value, the use of the materials. But I think – and this is important if we’re going to get consumers on board with design – there’s also a much greater freedom now to mix products of different prices and by different designers from different parts of the world. So you have an IKEA table with chairs by Cappellini – that’s entirely normal now, but in the past it wasn’t happening. Sure, we can’t compete directly with IKEA because we can’t do those kinds of numbers. But we can have our niche. You see the same in fashion – a Zara dress with a Gucci bag.

Intriguing design pieces found within the Cappellini office – a neo-vintage chest of drawers from the ‘70s and a geometric chair.

Do you see a growing overlap between fashion and design?

I think design can borrow ideas about colour and materials, for example, from fashion, and fashion can borrow ideas about shape from design. So there’s a relationship there, though of course the numbers are very different. When people buy a design product typically it is something they want to keep for years, and maybe that’s an idea catching on more in fashion too. And that sort of cross contamination is always very interesting. But I always say that if you take 10 people who all dress in the same way, they’ll still have 10 very different homes, from the classic to the contemporary. I’m the same as other people – today we want our homes to reflect our own spirit, our own personality. But that’s quite a new idea. In the past people wanted to live in the same style as their friends.

Fashion design obviously has a major problem with copying and counterfeiting. Is that the case in the design world too?

Yes, the problem for design companies is that they’re mostly pretty small and so we don’t have the possibility of being so well known. So people will pay for a name in fashion, or with a car, but say, “Why should I pay for a design name in furniture that isn’t well-known? We can buy something similar but that’s 30 percent less expensive.” Again, I think it comes back to explaining that relationship with quality and price, so people are happy to buy the original because they know they’re paying for the research and the innovation and the materials. That’s how you create barriers against copies because, you know, we have hundreds of copies worldwide and it’s very difficult to fight against that. I always say if I see bad copies and not good ones that’s OK.

There is a distinct relationship between fashion and design, but according to Cappellini, homes usually retain more individual spirit.

You have this expression about aiming to create ‘long-sellers’ – furniture designs that will still be in demand decades into the future. Why is that so important?

I think it’s a kind of guarantee for consumers – if they see the same product over and over through the years they’re reassured that, wow, it must be a really good product. And over the years we can always use contemporary production systems to produce ever better quality versions of those products. What’s really important is to create real products – which long-sellers are – and not only nice products. It’s part of that process of making people more and more confident with design, so they want to make a piece part of their lives and to like it the more they use it.

Does that go some way to justify production in the first place? WIth sustainability in mind, we don’t need more furniture designs, do we?

It’s funny because when you go to the furniture fairs and design weeks, all anybody wants to know is ‘what’s new?’ And for years the thinking with the Cappellini catalogue was to introduce lots and lots of products every year. Now, of course, it’s quite big – before we take a product out of it, we need to think it over at least 10 times because they’re all my babies and that decision isn’t so easy. But, to counter that, we’re now introducing fewer products each year. And what we show isn’t prototypes, as you often see at the fairs. We show finished products. The engineering has been done. It’s ready. The approach we take with designers is different too. We say, “Look at the catalogue and try to do something we haven’t done that fits in.” We look more at what we might need, while giving designers the freedom to design, rather than telling them we must have a certain typology of product in a certain material.

To Cappellini, the longevity of a design is incredibly important.

Can you always tell when a product will be a hit?

Not always. If you have a really innovative idea it can take time before it takes hold in the market. Thirty years ago, when we introduced Morrison’s Thinking Man’s Chair, I think we sold two pieces in the first couple of years. Now we sell hundreds. But I don’t believe so much in marketing because when you speak to someone in marketing they just tell you to do something just like a product that already exists. We did a chair that, when you sit inside, nobody can hear you speak, so it’s for privacy. It’s huge, very expensive, lots of hand-finishing and we thought, “Well, OK, we’ll just sell a few.” And then it becomes a super successful product because people want them in airport lounges, hotel lobbies and so on. I always have to try to design the kind of product of a standing that means it might make it into the permanent collection of a museum. But really I’m happier when I see it in someone’s home.

Cappellini has a reputation for working with designers very early in their careers, when they’re unknown. They often then go on to become design stars. What is it that makes you such an effective talent scout?

I’m very curious. Sometimes I can see a sketch or a prototype and that’s enough, or maybe just a meeting with someone can convince me. First impressions are very important for me, when I get the feeling that “wow, I want to have this product tomorrow morning in my home”. So most of my decisions are from my stomach, not my head. You can’t be 100 percent rational in considering a design – you need to have an emotional response. And really good products come from establishing a really good relationship with the designer. We’ve made prototypes with many designers, but in the end we couldn’t reach the right balance and the design didn’t go into production. But something that doesn’t happen today may still happen in five years. I used to put out products that maybe I didn’t like so much. Now I have to be convinced they’re all 100 percent right.

Cappellini often champion younger creators, cultivating talent and emerging designers.

Many designers have said that, starting out, having a design made by Cappellini was a major benchmark in making their careers. Are you aware of Cappellini’s power in the design world?

When I go to the design fairs, young designers show their prototypes and all these designers come up and want to take me to see their designs. We [also] get between 100 and 200 drawings sent to us each month. But that’s all OK for me, because I want to find those right people, the passionate ones, and then to be as generous as I can in helping them. I’m working a lot now with young designers from eastern Europe – design and graphics especially was fantastic there in the 1950s and they couldn’t export any of it because of the political situation. Now there’s a new generation of very sophisticated designers. And, of course, it’s a good investment for me if they become successful.

Our thanks to Giulio Cappellini for giving us a glimpse into his space and for speaking to us about the world of design. Photography by Federica Sasso.