Since its beginnings in 1966, research and development has been the modus operandi of everything from the designs B&B Italia creates to the way in which the group talks to the world. A visit to Casa Villa Necchi in Milan, with its neo-classical architecture, rich details and materials offset by a modernist addition by Gio Ponti collaborator Tomaso Buzzi, is a good way of understanding the cultural roots of Milan: a city built by industrialists and shaped by artistic patronage. It is in Milan that the design world gathers for one week every April to exhibit, meet, explore, and invest in new ideas that will soon be released to the world. It is also in Milan that B&B Italia changed the direction of furniture retail and took a leaf out of the fashion brand book, opening its own flagship furniture showroom in 2002. Immediately, it revealed the creative direction of a company with its design roots firmly connected to Milan and headquarters centred within a Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers-designed compound in Novedrate in Como, north of the city. It's here that ideas, research, design and manufacturing have been fostered and developed by the company since 1966.
This strength in research and innovation over the past 45 years makes B&B Italia an exciting company to watch. Together with Patricia Urquiola, Antonio Citterio, Naoto Fukasawa and a host of other carefully chosen designers, the group has created its own design language, one that cleverly bridges the pared-back refinement of, say, Fukasawa, with the more textural playfulness of Urquiola. It is a design approach that has paid off for the group.
B&B Italia works closely with the designers with whom it collaborates. Their Novedrate headquarters includes the Research & Development Centre whose job it is to realise ideas and explore materials, working closely with designers in the workshop, as well as those whose drawings and ideas come remotely, from design studios in other parts of the world, such as Naoto Fukasawa in Tokyo, or Jeffrey Bernett in New York. It is this way of working that defines B&B Italia. Its collection of furniture, lighting, objects and outdoor pieces is diverse yet focused; creating a language that is clear and recognisable.
Today, Massimiliano (Max) Busnelli, grandson of founder Piero Busnelli, is a key part of the research department, bringing with him a degree in architecture, a masters in business, and the skills of both left and right brain essential for the high stakes involved in launching a new product in a competitive market. Here, we chat with Max about the inner workings at the group's Centre of Research & Design in Como, Italy, and get an inside look at some of the most exciting new pieces launched this year in Milan.
HD: Since 1966 design research and development has formed the foundations of the B&B Italia collection. Would you say it has also shaped the identity of the entire company?
MB: The strategic role of the Research & Development Centre is to coordinate the image of the company. So first of all it's about the products, but it also means coordinating the entire image of the company – the advertising campaign, catalogues, website, events and the B&B Italia stores around the world. The company has been building its success thanks to a revolutionary technology of manufacturing sofas and chairs that we still use today. Using the cold-foamed polyurethane injection technology and metal framing, we are able to create all the shapes that we want, without limiting the creativity and moreover granting a high degree of durability of the upholstered products. Some of our most technically complex products, like the Moon-System by Zaha Hadid, would not have been possible without our injection technology.
HD: 3D printing featured during Milan Design Week this year at a time when digital manufacturing systems have been described as the future of manufacturing. How has technology changed the way you work in the factory?
MB: 3D prototyping is extremely supportive to us and offers us the possibility to test designs in real time. Meetings are usually held in the laboratory, a restricted area where we develop the prototypes, which is inside our R&D department. Here we have all the machinery and all the specialists to work on a prototype to the guidelines discussed with the designer. This technology allows us to test in real time and to scale and means we can also speed up the developing phase.
HD: You have many long-term relationships with designers, for example Antonio Citterio, Patricia Urquiola and Naoto Fukasawa to name a few. How do you choose the designers you collaborate with?
MB: We are not a company picking up new designers every year. We rely on our strong critical ability to judge new proposals. In general, we do try to establish with designers a long-term relationship. If they are already well known we know how they express their philosophy and our cooperation is about developing something together that also respects B&B Italia’s identity. It becomes a relationship of mutual trust. In the case that they’re an up-and-coming designer we must invest more time in understanding each other. Primarily we are interested in a new relationship more than in a new project.
HD: And with so many young designers eager to work with you there also must be a lot of emails requesting a meeting.
MB: I don’t know exactly how many proposals we receive each year, certainly almost every day, but the company is open to welcome new talents. Of course we need to see more than one project to understand the potential of a designer.
HD: B&B Italia is known for pushing the technology envelope. Can you tell us about some of the new pieces you have been working on that were particularly difficult to achieve?
MB: You’re right. B&B Italia is strongly committed to research and innovation since its origin in 1966. One of the most challenging recent projects we did is definitely the Canasta outdoor family collection from Patricia Urquiola. The idea was to enter the outdoor market with the same creativity and distinction we are known for with indoor furniture, while aiming to maintain the same level of comfort. We briefed Patricia accordingly and she came up with the idea of the XL woven pattern. It is a Viennese straw pattern with a strong contemporary look taking inspiration from a picture of a woven basket.
This handcrafted technique was difficult for us because of our industrial approach. So we realised that the best way was to go with Patricia to the Philippines where there is great experience and ability with this weave. Once we reached the required degree of quality we finalised the shape and the structure here in our factory. We spent a week in the Philippines working night and day in order to finalise every detail. I have to say that Patricia invented something completely new. With her idea of transparency and lightness she set a new standard for design in the high-end outdoor market.
I think that one of the most challenging products is the Tobi-Ishi table that in 2012 marks the launch of the collaboration with the English designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. We met them the first time three years ago and we had a very long period of discussion. They had an idea for a round table and we didn’t have one in our collection. We told them we really admired the design of the Eero Saarinen table. As a consequence they went through all the different kinds of round tables, centre based and perimeter based, but there was always an existing product to compare to. Finally, they came up with this base that is absolutely unique. You cannot compare Tobi-Ishi to anything on the market because it is not a centre piece, it is not a table with the legs on the perimeter so it gives you the freedom of sitting all around without having the legs in between. It also changes in appearance from every angle you look at it. I think it was one of the most impressive products and material innovation of our exhibition this year. You’ll love it or hate it. The reaction was strong.
HD: How secret are the early stages of a project within the company?
MB: Before we are sure about the design concept, we don’t want to share or to be influenced by our technical department, purchase department, or even by the commercial or marketing department. We want to be free of any influences and to pursue the real innovation. So until we are completely sure about the shape and the project, we keep it secret inside the R&D department where you need a pass to enter.
HD: You describe very close and long-term partnerships with the designers B&B Italia collaborates with. Could you describe the design process and one of the more complex working relationships in recent years?
MB: We always like to say, “Every project has a mother and a father.” Where the father is the external designer who brings us their idea and we are the “mother” who helps the “baby”, the idea of a product, to grow up. With the Papilio family of products, Naoto Fukasawa sent us the drawings and renderings and we developed the first prototypes accordingly. He then came to our R&D Centre and we went on discussing with the prototypes in front of us. The discussion took a while, as it was about understanding which were the strengths of the project. Even for him it was a kind of a discovery of his idea. So we talked a lot about the good things that we saw and the ones we were not sure about. We knew that there was something potentially interesting in the idea, but we were not sure about the execution as it reminded us too much of products of the 1970s. He’s the kind of person who likes to think a lot and could stay for half an hour without saying anything, quietly looking at the project. We were all waiting and wondering where his thinking would bring us (laughs). Then suddenly he just took a pencil and did this very fast sketch removing the base of the chair and extending the seat down to the floor. This is to say that it's always an open discussion with designers. In that case we looked at the product in a critical way and we found the solution together.
We have great respect for the creativity of our designers. With some of them we have a specific “modus operandi". It is a relationship that you establish with them, a personal relationship, of mutual trust. They bring an idea and we try to translate it into a design product relying on our know-how and expertise. While always having clear in mind that they are the source of creativity and we are the manufacturer.
HD: Are there any specific technologies that you see will have an interesting impact on B&B Italia's collection into the future?
MB: We have a new production plant that opened at the end of last year to produce our wall systems so we can now keep the entire production inside. At Milan Design Week this year we presented a brand new finishing, a poly-film that we apply using a folding technology to achieve a mirror-finish. It is very hard and scratch-proof, is a completely new innovation for the storage system and represents another key step into innovation for the company.