It all began in the hills of Tuscany, a picture-postcard region steeped in culture, art, history, craftsmanship and industrial production way beyond its size, where the Mazzei family has been producing furniture built on craftsmanship since 1949.
Edra was born in 1987 as the Memphis Design movement was waning. The avant-garde design group had been the focus of the 1980s design scene since Memphis founder Ettore Sottsass began applying a riot of colour and pattern to some of today’s most collectable furniture icons. Its influence was felt right across popular culture and its ability to make people rethink design – and taste – laid the foundations for what was to follow.
With the legendary art director Massimo Morozzi, the Mazzei family’s second generation, siblings Valerio and Monica Mazzei, applied the experience of the factory to the development of an advanced research hub, combining technical and formal furniture processes – and at the same time coined a new approach ‘High Tech–Hand Made’. Edra and Morozzi, who had co-founded Archizoom in 1966 and was known as one of the 'Italian Radicals’, developed a partnership balanced by art and practicality, eccentricity and classical lines. It represented the avant-garde of the Italian design industry in terms of form and typology and shaped the ‘Edra spirit’ and identity. The group’s interest in exploring, not only craft, materials and technology but also the social changes unfolding, was led by the inquisitive eye of Morozzi. Form over function was never the thinking at Edra, it has always been a balance of the two, just like uncovering and nurturing designers, many working outside the typical industrial model and those not yet discovered. This became Edra's modus operandi.
"Beauty has always been something to respect, and to respect it we have to give it continuity, not betray it with commercial rules", explains President Valerio Mazzei from his office in Perignano, Italy, "The City of Florence, Yves Saint Laurent, art, photography, music… they are the portraits of beauty across the centuries. I like it when someone creates a beautiful object that is also functional because it becomes something that is a pleasure to use. Beauty and functionality, elegance and intramontability must live together."
The Italian designer Francesco Binfaré revolutionised what a sofa can do in 2000 with the launch of Flap. Its design ingenuity created the foundations for Edra's collection of innovative sofa systems that now include the Essential sofa, Standard sofa and the newest addition to the stable, Pack. "Francesco is a great producer and designer and we see each other twice a week", enthuses Mazzei. "We speak about projects, new requirements, new ways to live in the home. There is a contestant observation of what happens in the world, and from this observation is born the inspiration for projects like Pack."
Other collaborations include the partnership with Japanese designer Manasori Umeda whose playful designs inspired by nature define the spirit of the late 80s and early 90s. The Getsuen and Rose chairs are now the pin-ups for post-modernism and highly collectable in their own right. The Rose chair was recently purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria's (NGV) curatorial team for the exhibition Creating The Contemporary Chair. Speaking with Simone LeAmon, Curator of Contemporary Design and Architecture at NGV about the purchase, she remarks: "There is nothing that makes sense. it’s a parody, a provocation. it says let’s make a chair that’s a big flower.."
It is this sentiment that highlights the role of a chair as more than just function, it also provides a way to express an idea. In this case it heralded a whole movement against the strictness of modernism. The designers Jacopo Foggini and Peter Traag have also found a home with Edra, producing works that push the capabilities of materials and form, while in the late '80s Edra produced Zaha Hadid's first furniture project in Italy.
With an eye for interesting projects and collaborations, in 2011 Edra joined forces with Space Furniture in Australia to launch the inaugural Space+Edra Design Residency The program would provide an important cross-cultural exchange for Australian designer Trent Jansen who was selected from a competitive roll call of local designers to spend two months at the Edra headquarters in Italy working under the wing of Massimo Morozzi. It was the first time Edra had opened up the inner workings of their design studio and factories to a young designer in this way, which says everything about the entrepreneurial spirit of the group.
"The residency was profoundly important to me", remarks Jansen who teaches and runs a thriving design studio in Sydney. "First of all, I had an amazing time and learned a great deal, but my relationships with Massimo and the Mazzei family have also had a significant and lasting affect on my work and my life. Massimo became an important mentor for me before his death, and I visited him on a few occasions after the residency, both to ask for his guidance on projects, and to spend time with him and his wife Cristina. My time at Edra facilitated such amazing professional growth, but most importantly, I consider many of the people at Edra to be close friends. They are exceptional people and I am endlessly grateful for their extreme warmth and generosity."
Probably the most high-profile collaboration is Edra's relationship with Fernando and Humberto Campana who first met Morozzi in 1997 and began working with Edra almost immediately. There is a funny story that the brothers like to tell of that meeting. Morrozzi fascinated by their work requested information about how they made a particular piece, the Vermelha. Constructed by hand in their São Paulo studio, the only way the brothers could explain the design process was to make a video that showed how to weave the 500 metres of string to create the chair's form. In the end a VHS tape was sent off to Morrozzi, heavily dubbed with music to cover the brother's arguments.
The vocabulary of the Brazilian designers had found a home with Edra and what has followed is a collection of remarkable pieces that express the beauty of the handmade in tune with the innovative processes of industry. Named by Forbes magazine the 'Masters of Reinvention', highlights from their 20 year partnership would have to be the Favela chair, made from timber scraps left over from the furniture industry, and the Corallo, the Boa and Cipria. Like all of Edra's catalogue, the work is widely collected both privately and by galleries and museums, from MoMA in New York to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
With the mantra ‘High Tech–Hand Made’ Edra has found a balance, managing to avoid the 'museumification' of their designs by maintaining the connection to real life. While underpinning it all with research and experimentation. "Without research we do not make anything", says Mazzei. "To give life to concrete thoughts and to projects we need research that often generates something that can be difficult to understand, but ultimately improves our level of knowledge and finds extraordinary application in new products."
Edra is available exclusively from Space – Australia.