Piero Lissoni could be succinctly described as “someone who makes products”. Not to dismiss him, rather to acknowledge, in a period marked by diversion, decoration, re-visitation, his ability to create “real design” that can be industrially produced and sold. Piero Lissoni’s creations are everyday articles we can live with at length, not sensation-seeking gimmicks aiming to raise eyebrows and stand out in design mags rather than be of any real use.
As Lissoni himself says: “At the end of the day, ours is a craft. Full stop! We have to quit seeing ourselves in the priestly robes of the saviours of mankind. I try to “re-humanise” the things I work with, using my own language. There are many types of expression; people are best off discovering and honing their own, expressing themselves as best they can in their own way”.
The linguistic metaphor fits Piero Lissoni’s method to a tee. Many products bear his name. 80%, he admits, have worked, 20% have “sort of made it”. But first and foremost Piero is a designer of companies rather than products. He creates the concept, updates and renews it, co-ordinating the products - his own and those of others - invents the backdrop and the setting. Marketing people would call him a brand creator, a term that many furniture manufacturers still find somewhat mysterious, even forbidding. Lissoni goes out of his way to dialogue with his companies. He shows them respect, and is in turn respected by them. Or rather revered. Everything he says goes. They know he does not act on whim, that everything he proposes is the result of arduous striving after impossible perfection, thought through time and again. For that reason, they also accept the last minute changes to his prototypes. “If it were up to me”, says Piero, “projects would never get finished. They’re the ones who call a halt at a certain point and take things out of my hands!”.
He continues: “Design is flawed today by sensationalism. Companies are used as a means of becoming known. But each of these companies has a story of its own, exceptional or otherwise, and that has to be understood and respected”.
Lissoni is liked by the companies he works for - and they are increasingly numerous. His ability to listen eases the designer into the company culture, helping to dissipate suspicion and distrust of what many consider self-referential creative people intent on instrumentalising their company.
Lissoni’s projects for products and company alike are clear and concise. They appear to have come to him naturally, without effort. Yet Piero confesses to wading through a lot of confusion to get there. “The Formula One sector works on the basis of perfection. We have to deal with imperfection. Imperfection doesn’t bother me though. It reminds me of a little book by an English writer given me by my grandfather that said: ‘the truly elegant man always has something that’s not quite right’. My projects never satisfy me entirely. If it were for me, I’d re-do them all. I’m hypercritical towards myself.” This ever doubting, questioning approach - despite his unchallenged success - may seem standoffish to some. But these are people who don’t know him or haven’t ever heard him talking to Caterina and Sofia (his two golden retrievers) - usually to be found under the table or stretched out on the chaise-longue of his studio - or who haven’t been regaled by a wealth of tips on the exhibitions to see, the places to go to, reviews to look at, books to read…
Lissoni plays on his alleged aloofness. “My installation for the third edition of Tabula Rara, Rossana Orlandi’s space in Milan (December 2005) makes a wry comment about myself. I assure you I don’t watch telly while I eat. But here I put two TVs, one for each person sitting at an aseptic, perfectly laid table, to represent the total absence of communication”. This deliberately gelid installation is in direct contrast to the tasteful, blithe conviviality so in vogue today but which often hides real incommunicability”. Piero sums up: “I create elegant kitchens that present ritual invitations. But I know they end up with people who watch television while they eat!”.
To say it like it is, producing good products that are right for a company doesn’t mean making a name for yourself as an eccentric or artistic creative, a temptation few can resist today.
“I don’t deny that I was once attracted to playing the artist” Piero adds, “but I chickened out. I’m always reminded of that conversation between a Jesuit and a Dominican. The Jesuit says: ‘Every time we get close to knowledge we risk heresy’. The Dominican replies: ‘After heresy comes the Holy Inquisition’. Well, the Inquisition scares me. I have fun enough with my installations, where sometimes I even make a few artistic citations. When I design I dialogue with the companies and try to meet their needs as best I can with my language. I don’t do things for effect.
And so Lissoni continues to make products that sell, for companies in the Brianza area near Milan, run by people with the reputation for being the ‘salt of the earth’. And he designs and re-designs the ideas underpinning companies, giving back an identity to those that have lost it, without betraying what they are. He nurtures them, leaving nothing to chance, taking care of the product ranges, presentations, communications, artwork and so on.
He does not go around with a Harry Potter invisibility cloak performing magic, which, if you listen to many of the new generation of designers, would seem to be what many people demand in order to sustain their Peter Pan syndrome. Lissoni produces real design that won him the Hall of Fame of Interior Design Award in November 2005, marked by an important reception at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
As the Milan Furniture Fair is drawing near, a few pointed questions are inevitable. Although Piero is an old hand, the fair continues to terrify him.There will be new “pieces” of the kitchen that is increasingly taking Boffi its manufacturer towards full brand communication. There will be new Kartell products. And a very decided change at Porro. Living will also be presenting a new look. Perhaps too there may be a product for Cassina, and a project by Cappellini for pieces of furniture that Piero has dubbed ‘the superfluous’. “If they are ready in time, I’d love to present them together with Capodimonte ceramics. Kitsch is part of that imperfection that’s so important for me”.
Finally there will be a collection for Fritz Hansen. The project, started some three years ago, has been long in the making - perhaps because the Danes aren’t ‘salt of the earth’ types - and Piero’s interest has slackened. His practice, whose library has a vast array of fashion, design and architecture journals from all over the world, employs around 60 people. They deal with design and company image but also increasingly with architectural projects. Recent briefs include the re-design of the Boffi, Tecno and Living Divani factories; a large project in Miami including two hotels, a resort, apartments and a mall; a project with Turks&Caicos, a luxury resort and villa project completed in collaboration with a group of international architects; the refurbishment of a historic hotel in Istanbul.