Here we visit the studios of four very different designers who are testing the boundaries of materials, technology and ideas, and collaborating with manufacturers in surprising and inventive ways.

Design has never been more exciting. Not unlike the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s when Italy stormed on to the design stage with new materials such as plastic – taking objects previously only afforded by the wealthy into the homes of the masses – we’re now looking the future in the face as some of the best Italian makers, in collaboration with the world’s most exciting designers, are investing in new ideas, and the research and technology dollars that go into them, to explore a whole new way of making things.

Advances in technology and an increasingly sophisticated consumer taste are allowing contemporary designers and architects to be bolder than ever, serving to encourage the design manufacturers who commission their work to be more receptive to their innovations. Why else would Herzog & de Meuron have been allowed to build a futuristic flagship store for Prada on one of the most expensive retail sites in Tokyo? This same quest for innovation gave the city of Bilbao the confidence to give the go-ahead to Frank Gehry’s exuberantly sculptural Guggenheim Museum. And if it wasn’t for new technologies, neither building would
ever have stood up.

It’s this kind of research and development that keeps Italy at the forefront of design. The Kartell group was the first to develop transparent plastic and the Ghost collection penned by Philippe Starck is now one of Kartell’s best sellers. While the use of non-traditional materials is gaining momentum, the Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola recently developed the Lens range of glass tables for B&B Italia using a new opaque film designed by 3M for buildings, and a collection of chairs using high-strength three-dimensional mesh. Meanwhile Brazilian designers Fernando and Humberto Campana, who work closely with Italian group Edra, translate familiar materials into something altogether different.

Italian design has always occupied a class of its own. Unlike the industrial design of other countries – the serious nature of German things, or the technical wizardry of Japanese things – Italian design pushes the limits of shape and the ways in which materials are used to ever increasing heights. Designers and industrialists learned long ago to work together at every step, from the drawing board to the showroom. Today, manufacturers continue to retain the traditions of the small workshop, yet meld them to the scale of the modern factory.

Fernando and Humberto Campana, São Paulo

“We like to transform our ideas into physical models right away, on real scale.” Brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana launched their studio in 1984 and now work with a team of ten. In a lofted, airy space, their studio looks more like a fabric house than a contemporary design office. Materials lay piled and sorted, ready to be tested, as models are built and re-built to full scale. Here, the computer is avoided as much as possible in favour of drawings, it’s a more intuitive, hands-on approach. The Campanas are inspired by nature and the haphazard, colourful and eclectic surroundings of Brazil, and places they visit on their travels. Recently in Tokyo, Humberto was drawn to the colours of the Akihabara neighbourhood which are sure to surface in future designs. However, their work is always grounded in Brazilian sensibilities. The piece that cemented their career is the Vermelha (red) chair, which they now describe as their calling card. The prototype was made using 500 metres of rope, carefully knitted into shape. So tricky to construct, they made a VHS tape of the process and sent that along with the first chair to Edra in Italy. The Campanas now produce a new piece for the Edra collection each year. Their latest, the Jenette chair, is made using straw in a gesture that feels right. Their unique, often one-off pieces, such as the Multidao armchair, made out of traditional Brazilian cloth dolls from the town of Esperança, and the crazy Banquette chair, made with assorted stuffed animals, are now sought after by collectors around the world.

Tokujin Yoshioka, Tokyo

“I think in coming years we will see more possibilities for design to recreate things we have come to expect from the science fiction world.” From his 150-year-old Kura, or warehouse, Tokujin Yoshioka and his team of three technicians have been collaborating with an extended team of thirty for the past nine months, on the research and development of Stardust, Yoshioka’s latest installation for Swarovski. Comprising twenty thousand 20mm crystals suspended from high-tech fibre-optic cables in a two metre by two metre cube, Stardust is a futuristic chandelier that projects surreally evocative video images. When it was launched inside the blackened interior of the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery in Tokyo, it left the audience speechless. It’s this mesmerising quality that makes Yoshioka’s work memorable. He describes it as touching the heart; to move people is what he likes to do. Yoshioka’s career began with two designers who are legendary for their own swoon appeal. Both Shiro Kuramata and Issey Miyake have had a huge influence on his work. When Yoshioka designed Issey Miyake’s  exhibition, ‘Making Things’ in 1998, the design world reacted. Since then he has worked with Driade on a new collection every season, and his projects range from work with Tadao Ando, a new mobile phone called Media Skin, to architectural interiors and installations. His next project will take things one step further. At the Milan Furniture Fair in 2006, instead of creating the objects within an existing space, Yoshioka will create the space itself. For now it is all very hush, hush, but the word is he will be launching a next-generation material that’s based in science and new technology. And it’s even better than plastic.

Karim Rashid, New York City

“I am very interested in LCD related material and materials that have ‘smart’ reactionary properties or bio-feedback.” Now working with a team of fifteen, Karim Rashid launched his studio in 1994. He describes it as a multi-dimensional pluralist place where art, design, fashion, music are all taking place. He works across projects, as does his team – one day it might be a new shoe for Melissa, a house, a restaurant, a mobile phone or a piece of graphic design. Rashid fills notebooks with his sketches, on average 100 pages a project. Sketches are then reviewed, drawn up in 3D and using a rapid prototype machine models are then made seamlessly. No prototyping is done by hand, it’s all produced by computer within a paperless, digitally focused, clean space. With a material library of over 10,000 samples, polymers remain his favourite. Rashid is interested in material’s smart, reactionary properties. With clients from Melissa shoes to Kundalini, Rashid works non-stop. His new collection of lights for Kundalini are evocative, curvacous sculptures that emit a soft light. Right now Rashid is excited by the projects in his office that include a future house in Toronto and a number of design and art installations in Moscow and Brazil. Working in a different way to other designers of his generation, Rashid is more akin to an editor – he is able to disseminate information and turn it into poignant products for the future. He fuses genres from fashion, art, design and architecture in a way that appears seamless. His work crosses over but remains fluid.

Patricia Urquiola, Milan

“The making process is so important to me but you must be free first. You must be energetic in communicating your culture, your history and your roots.” From her Milan-based studio, Patricia Urquiola is working away on a host of projects for design groups including B&B Italia, Kartell and Driade, a collection of porcelain for Rosenthal, new taps for Axor, and a range of carpets and a disco in China. Every project for Urquiola is like starting again – she goes where her passions take her. With a team of up to twelve designers and architects, the studio overflows with prototypes. Urquiola’s work is drawn from her Spanish roots, from summers in Ibiza in the 1970s when there was plenty of macramé, hanging pots and textures that now inspire her work. She is currently making a series of hanging things for B&B Italia, the crochet and other weaving techniques employed to great affect and telling a new story that’s based in artisan crafts produced in an industrial way. The Flo collection for Driade, a woven collection of chairs and tables, and the Smock chair for Moroso, both have a new language that’s quite domestic and full of personality. Urquiola loves to mix things up. Inspired by a fossil, or the technology of something very classical, she sees that if you give something a very personal language, the audience will understand and react. Currently working on the new T collection for Kartell, Urquiola is busy prototyping and pushing limits. The project is an interesting one, though difficult right now, as it explores a new technology that hasn’t been used before.