When you look at the design industry, there are only a handful who successfully work across all the disciplines – architecture, furniture design, city planning, object design and graphics. Piero Lissoni is one of the few who has built a practice shape-shifting between projects.
On the eve of the Milan Furniture Fair we called Piero Lissoni in his Milan studio to talk about work and travel, books, ideas and his favourite city right now... Miami.
more space: You travel a lot, how does that influence you?
Piero Lissoni: I travel a little bit too much to be honest. In the studio they choose me because I am the creative director and I am quite well dressed (laughter). That is my work. I like to be involved in each project, doesn’t matter if it’s big or small. If I have to design a watch, or I have to design a master plan for a town. The primary sketches which are the primary conceptual ideas, normally I do them alone. I like to study and focus and I like to be on the project alone without anyone around me, and after that we organise a team and then we start to discuss.
You were recently in New York, what are you working on there?
In 2007 we opened a studio in New York and one year ago we completely changed the direction. We are moving back to Manhattan because I like to be there. To be honest, I understand Brooklyn is very hip but at the same time I prefer Manhattan.
We also moved one small section of the office to Miami. The American studio is focused on architecture and interior design. We work on a lot of projects in both New York and Miami and many projects in Washington DC, San Francisco and Cleveland.
Why did you choose to open another studio in the United States and not Europe?
The American situation is a little bit more aggressive economically speaking, they are a little bit faster. One day they crash and one day later they start again. Working in the United States now has become absolutely crucial and important for us. The two towns that are fastest are New York and Miami where they are now starting to develop towers and apartments in front of the ocean while working on the infrastructure, including new schools, universities and streets.
In Miami one area is becoming a financial quarter and they are also opening a lot of new museums. It is the same, more or less, in New York. But the most interesting and dynamic town in all of the United States has become Miami.
What draws you to Miami architecturally?
Miami is full of interesting things. think about it, it was founded at the end of the 19th century and in the 1920s it became the most important Art Deco town in the world. Luckily they protected the buildings because in all of the United States they are not so sophisticated for that. In Miami the Art Deco district is like opening a time capsule and inside you are in the 20s with the mafia, with the old cars, it’s an incredible place.
You have also built a very successful career working with the Italian furniture industry – which is often described as joining a family.
It’s exactly like family. Sometimes you don’t talk with someone for some days and after that you spend day and night with the same people for open discussion and to talk and talk and talk.. I like this feeling to be in a family but in the end this kind of family is a little bit different because we are talking about a professional family.
You put inside a special human touch but in the end it's a profession. If I design something ugly for the factory, if I continuously design something wrong, family or not, you are out. Out of the family. In the end it is a business. So, when I design something for a manufacturer I am not alone. I don’t design something for myself and I never design something for the royalties.
Of course they are important, they are very crucial but at the same time I like to be responsible. People inside dream so if you are a worker inside a factory in the end I have to save your dream. That is why I like to design something in a good way and not something that is too personalised because the factory is a factory and you have to respect the different levels in a human way of course.
Your connection with the furniture house Living Divani began in 1988. How do you keep things fresh?
Our relationship is very good because we discuss every day our new projects. It is not one request, “Piero can you please design a new piece, a chair or sofa or armchair”. It is a day by day discussion and it is a process. We discuss what is possible to do, we discover new materials, we discover new ideas around something and every time we develop new products.
Sometimes ideas develop into new chairs or sometimes we design a new sofa but we are inside the project. When I say we, it is a team. the owners, the technicians, the engineers. And after that we design something. After that we discuss new fabrics, leathers, new finishing, new surfaces and then after that for 28 years we are fighting again like the first day (laughter).
The material approach is often quiet in your work but behind the scenes is the research and development and the technology that has resulted in products like the Frog chair for Living Divani which celebrated 20 years recently.
That is crucial. When you design something if you don’t improve the material, if you don’t decide to use a new detail, a new finish or a new technology for production, or for cutting marble. Well that is not design. The design of the material is another side of our work. I give you one example. Many years ago furnishing fabrics were for my personal taste a bit boring, in a fashion business they did incredible work with textures and pattern, so I encouraged the factory specialising in fabrics for the home to do something more focused like fashion. That is design.
Hello.... are you there?
Yes. It’s a long distance. it’s a special triangle from Milan to Sydney and a turn to Mexico City. (laughter)
Have you been to Mexico City?
I was there at the end of November for three different reasons. They invited me to speak at the university and at the Tomayo Museum. After that I was there for professional issues. We have some clients in Mexico City and we are involved in a few projects there. I like Mexico City but some parts are absolutely disgusting (architecturally), but nobody is perfect.
You recently described a collection you were working on as 'controlled imperfection'. What does that mean to you?
The mechanical interpretation is to be perfect, so if you control everything and you try to be absolutely perfect it becomes a little bit artificial. When you are controlling imperfection it means you have to put in a lot of elegance and taste. It means you have to take a risk. Otherwise everything is a little bit cool and at the same time without soul.
When you see something, a good architecture, a good design object, you can see a small imperfection. When you see something a little bit banal or under control, it means the people don’t use risk and they don’t include elegance. Everything has become artificial.
If you think about Jasper Morrison's pieces they look like perfect pieces but it is not true. Sometimes Jasper puts in a special mistake and everything becomes absolutely Jasper Morrison. Marc Newson is the same, everything looks a little bit imperfect but without this controlled mistake it would never be Marc Newson.
For me also, I try to be Piero Lissoni but I always try to put inside a little bit of control, if you like, elegant mistakes. It’s an expression of personality. Otherwise everything becomes too mechanical and too banal.
Do you have a project that you would consider your most important?
For sure tomorrow morning the first thing someone asks me to do will be my most important project. To be honest each project is important. Sometimes it’s important for me to design a new coffee machine, and it’s important to design a new beautiful villa in Long Island in front of the ocean, and a very small house of 25 square metres for guests in the mountains, as well as a new factory headquarters. Every project is important because I like to follow the personality in a project. If I forget the detail I think I will become a little too bored.
Has there been a project that has been a turning point, maybe earlier in your career?
To be honest I have made a lot of mistakes and sometimes i design some things completely wrong and sometimes factories produced something by me that was totally wrong. I love that. I don’t like the successful pieces. The successful ones I respect, but at the same time I love the other ones. I never like to follow the winner. I like to follow the losers.
They are the ones you learn the most from?
Yes, they are more romantic. It’s too easy to follow the great winner. Like Jocovic in tennis but to be honest I like Federer because he's more interesting for me.
What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading two books, both of them are Italian writers. One is a novel by Andrea Camilleri, he a Sicilian novelist, and the name of the book is The Flying Viking Women. Very nice, a beautiful novel. The second one is the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli. I am trying to read poetry again because when I was a student I tried to follow him.
More or less I choose three different books. The rule is one intelligent, one a bit more difficult and one a bit easier. As I am the ruler I also have to finish all of them before I can change them for another three. I can never choose three easy books because it is not sportive, you know what I mean. Of course I don’t talk about another section of books, they are more pornographic – I am not talking about pornography of course, but of product design, fashion and architecture.
What are looking forward to next?
I am looking to take a few weeks for heli-skiing in New Zealand in July and I am interested in a beautiful project in Miami. A client has asked us to design a small museum with an incredible collection, she is one of the greatest collectors in the world. I will be a temporary museum for showing a few exhibitions over the next 5 years. I like the idea of designing something temporary, a museum that's like a clock, a time bomb. A cuckoo clock that in 5 years time the bird comes out and 'cuckoo' and then you have to close the museum. Fantastic.
Thank you Piero.
See Piero Lissoni's collections for Porro, Living Divani, Kartell and Alessi at Space Furniture.