Issue C75 August/September 2015
The Leading Seat
B&B Italia’s quest for quality in design, innovation and research, has resulted in furniture that are icons in the industry.
During the 1969 Salone del Mobile in Milan – the world’s most prestigious fair for modern furniture – crowds were dazzled with not only the revolutionary technology, but also the presentation of Gaetano Pesce’s new UP5 armchair. After being taken out of a vacuum case and released from its sealed plastic, airtight wrapper, it began to expand until it reached its full size, 90 per cent larger than its compacted volume.
The armchair, with a curious, bulbous body, was made from C&B Italia’s new material of cold-shaped polyurethane that allowed for the creation of various forms, thus freeing sofas and armchairs from traditional boxy shapes constructed from wooden frames and foam rubber. Not only that, its method of using machinery to inject polyurethane into moulds allowed for mass production.
The UP5 (part of a collection of six pieces including the UP6 ball-shaped ottoman connected to the UP5 via a chain) is synonymous with the brand that is now B&B Italia. The company was founded in 1965 by Piero Ambrogio Busnelli and Cesare Cassina but Piero took over total ownership in 1973, changing the name accordingly. The farsighted and ever-inquisitive Piero was fascinated by the possibilities of industrialisation as he was with new techniques and materials. The idea for using cold-shaped polyurethane for furniture came from him. He had been inspired seeing the use of it for the production of toy ducks at a London trade fair.
Piero not only invested in the expensive machinery to make furniture using this method, but also opened a research centre and started inviting top architects and designers of his time – Gio Ponti, Joe Colombo, Gaetano Pesce, to name a few – to design furniture that have become household and industry symbols. In recent times, names like Naoko Fukasawa and Vincent van Duysen have been added to the mix. For its achievements, the company has been awarded the prestigious Compasso d’oro Italian award four times: for Studio Kairos’ Sisamo (1974), Mario Bellini’s Le Bambole (1979), Antonio Citterio’s Sity (1987), as well as one given directly to a design manufacturing company – the first time such an award has been conferred.
Piero’s thirst for the new and the experimental has continued through time and down the generations of the family business. Its factory in the Como province of Novedrate is but one example of this. Designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers and completed in 1973, it drew much international attention for its innovative application of Beaubourg concepts.
The company’s current Chairman and CEO, and Piero’s eldest son, Giorgio Busnelli reiterates that B&B Italia has always been a trailblazer in the industry. For instance, they were the first to use wenge wood from Africa 15 years ago before the industry caught on. The genteel character recently stopped by the Space Asia Hub in Singapore where B&B Italia is retailed after attending the opening of Manila’s first B&B Italia mono-store.
Research, Giorgio highlights, is at the heart of the brand. Over three per cent of the company’s annual sales is reinvested back into research and development. In 2010, four million euros was invested into a foaming department for upholstery. Behind the scenes, the research team will fine-tune a design many times. It is released into the market only when it reaches the B&B Italia standard. “It is in our DNA,” says Giorgio. “The important thing for a company’s success is to be able to criticise the project or product in a good way. In this way, you can have dialogue with the architect or interior decorator.”
One designer that has had plenty of intimate dialogue with B&B Italia is Antonio Citterio. The Italian architect and designer is instrumental to many of the brand’s important moments. Aside from inventive products, such as the one-armed Charles chaise longue released in 1997, Citterio also changed the way B&B Italia presented their furniture in, with other companies following suite.
“Before, all the design companies don’t coordinate the collection so if you look at the catalogue, the language from each designer is different,” Giorgio explains. Citterio convinced Giorgio to open an in-house showroom in 1991 where, Giorgio recalls “Mama mia! We saw the difficulty in putting together our products.”
From then on, the brand’s instructions to its designers were to not only embed in the products their individual touches but also something of the B&B Italia language. “Everything should work together in the sense that we can have the table of Antonio Citterio with the chair of Patricia Urquiola and the casewood of Paolo Piva. After six, seven years, we were able to have a complete collection that [gels],” says Giorgio.
Another key architect and designer working alongside Citterio is Patricia Urquiola. The Catalan’s designs, such as the woven, flowery Crinoline armchair, the anthropomorphic, padded Husk chair, and top-selling Bend sofa – B&B Italia’s first three-dimensional sofa – lends a vivacious, feminine flair to Citterio’s refined Italian elegance. In 2009, with her Canasta collection, B&B Italia entered the outdoor furniture market. This year, she updates it with the Butterfly, the brand’s first textile sofa for the outdoors.
With 750 points of sale worldwide today (including stores selling its subsidiary Maxalto brand focusing on wooden furniture), 500 employees, as well as booming contract sales with projects like Hotel Bulgari in London and Milan’s Hotel Gallia, B&B Italia’s position in the industry needs no debate.
The company’s successful growth was in no small part helped by several corporate strategic manoeuvres the family has decided upon. From 2003 to 2011, B&B Italia was acquired by fund house The Opera until Giogio and his brother Emanuale took it back in 2011. During that period, B&B Italia grew exponentially. Its stake in successful Dutch furniture brand Moooi, which it returned to its founders Casper Vissers and Marcel Wanders early this year, also aided the growth. And in April this year, B&B Italia starts on a new wave of expansion as Italian investment firm Investindustrial acquires a majority share of the company, focusing particularly on its international growth and exposure (last year, 80 per cent of B&B Italia’s €160 million turnover came from exports).
Amidst all these changes, Giorgio has and will still continue at the helm as shareholder and CEO to maintain standards. It is crucial to him that the ingredients that has made B&B Italia successful – quality in innovation and make – are still present because “when you are a quality company and when you do timeless design, you produce with the best quality possible,” he affirms.