The Edra furniture brand founded in the Tuscany region of Italy in 1987 has forged a unique place in the design world. Their curiosity and support for designers often working on the fringe of the art and design world, has produced some of the most fascinating and successful design collaborations, and collections that are as beautiful as they are comfortable and collectable.
Never one for following the status quo, every chair, table, sofa, light and material, is researched and developed over time, often years, working closely with designers, new technologies, craftspeople and material scientists.
Here, more space talks with Niccolò Mazzei, the second generation of the Mazzei family to join the Edra team, who grew up in the furniture world, amongst the designers, the history of craftsmanship and innovation in Tuscany, and the development of the Edra company where design knowledge runs deep and curiosity is the starting point for each new collection.
MS: Niccolò, your father Valerio Mazzei launched Edra in 1987, what was it like growing up on the inside of one of today's leading design companies?
NM: When I was really young I remember meeting Zaha Hadid. She spent time with my family over the summer working on her first project with Edra. This was before she had completed her first building. Edra and Zaha developed a beautiful collection of sofas together, really expressive, and after that it was Masanori Uemeda, Francesco Binfaré, the Campana Brothers. and Jacoppo Foggini.
It is a family business so from the beginning I was inside the company, but officially I started in 2007. We have a strong relationship with the designers we work with and there is a continuous evolution thanks to the ideas of the designers and the structure of the company. This is important. With every project there is something new, which is the main thing for us. We are always adding to the collection something that has never existed before. Now, we are looking for new designers. We always have open eyes.
What academic studies did you undertake before joining the family business?
I studied economics but I love design. art and architecture. When I travel I see so many different things and that is really important. We don’t design for our brand, we prefer to find designers around the world because they can offer different cultural aspects and a different way to approach an idea. This is much more important for us.
How do you know when you have found that designer?
In the beginning it could be a gut feeling. It could be a great idea for the future. We receive a lot of projects during the year, maybe 1,000 ideas. This is important but over the last 10 or 20 years, 90% of the projects we receive are similar from every part of the world which is a bit scary. Designers often use the same computer programs, the same way to work they look at marketing research to see what people want and I don’t think that is the right way to design, it is not an evolution. Instead you create an average and don’t go up. So we prefer to approach things in a different way. When we find a project that is interesting we start immediately to invest in it. Sometimes we spend more than 7 years to realise an idea.
We spent 7 years developing what we call Jellyfoam which is a fantastic product because it offers amazing comfort. Working with Francesco Binfaré, our dream from the beginning was to create what it might feel like to float on a cloud. We met the best companies all over the world but we didn’t find a solution. In the end we worked it out at Edra. We found a way to mix the gelatine with the polyurethane in the right balance to create the Jellyfoam which is a polyurethane with memory. With this product we have never had a problem with loss of density like all other memory foams.
Yes and the approach of the Campana Brothers was totally different. It was genius. They were one of the first to look at recycling and environmental issues back in the early 1990s. Collecting materials from the side of the road in São Paulo and assembling them. They transformed those waste materials into pieces of art. I remember one funny story when they were lecturing at a university in Basel, Switzerland, they asked the students to collect materials from the side of road and to build something from what they found. But Switzerland is so clean that after 6-months they found nothing! (laughter) So they had to go to Germany to collect old car tyres. Brazil is a nation with a different approach and vision. Poverty transforms into ingenuity and this is a crucial point.
Edra’s weaving together of craft and technology is very interesting, does is underpin your approach to every project?
Yes we invest everything inside. Sometimes they are invisible but the tangible for people to feel, not just the beauty of a piece but the comfort. We discovered some new materials from the furniture world and introduced some special materials from the medical world that to add value to the collection. This is very important for us.
The Vermehla chair designed by Fernando and Humberto Campana is a great example. We are very lucky because after 20 years we have found only two people who can do that. It is not easy and it takes one whole week to make one armchair. It requires 500 metres of rope which creates a sort of yoga during the weaving process. It is impossible to make a wrong move because, in the end, it must be comfortable. We also developed the rope which is made exclusively for us and has a special cover so we can add the comfort.
Another technological innovation is what we call ‘fluid friction’. We developed this for the Standard sofa so that you can move the backrest without the click, click, click. You can customise the position you want and it is really supportive of the body, and you can now use the backrest like an armrest, the armrest like a backrest and really relax however you want. It has meant that for me, it is impossible to see the end of a movie (laughter).
Designers don’t always come to you with a final idea, but often the very beginning of an idea – what happens next?
When designers come to us it can be a little bit scary. It is a beginning because sometimes they have no idea what to do with a drawing. They are observers, looking at society and our relationship with it. So they try to transform some aspect of that in their work. Ideas that not all of us see. Sometimes it is a really difficult idea to translate into a real product, but in the end we do find a solution. It can be scary though. Usually we receive a simple hand drawing, and we must translate that which is not easy. Whether it is the Campana brothers or Binfaré, the designers will say to the team, “For me the idea of the sofa is this”, and we will often respond with, where is it? (laughter) Every project Binfaré shows us is presented in this way. With the Pack sofa, he came up with the idea for a platform base where you can move around freely and you can use the backrest (a giant polar bear) like a pillow. It’s genius. We always love to start with a high quality idea.
Francesco Binfaré’s work is always fascinating and comes from his sixth sense for observation.
Yes, Binfaré is a fantastic observer. When we introduced the Pack sofa last year it was difficult and you could say that we were a little bit crazy. But in the end we invested in this project because the sofa is fantastic in terms of comfort first of all, and then second of all it is has created a new domestic landscape.
I don’t think a polar bear has been the inspiration for a sofa before. We studied everything, the material, the cover, the backrest, we visited the Berlin Zoo many times over the summer to get the right size for the polar bear itself. I can tell you she ate a lot of ice-cream (laughter). In the end we found a solution. We worked very closely with our supplier to discover a new way to approach the fabric so that it simulated the ice when there is snow on top of it. Every project is a new challenge and we start from the beginning every time, we never use the same idea for another project. Our company is now 31 years old so we have developed an expansive knowledge in terms of materials and technology.
The Edra team has worked together for a very long time and that rich bank of knowledge developed over the past 31 years across design, technology and craftsmanship must give you a real freedom of expression.
In the beginning when my father founded the company there were four people and today we are more than 50 which is an evolution. We have five or six people in the research and development department working on materials technologies, the ways to build and assemble everything. It is a crucial point. Then we are based in Tuscany which for us is really important because we are surrounded by some of the best suppliers in terms of fabrics and engineering, so those skills allow us to find great quality. Tuscany specialises in different skills but we are almost alone there because 90% of the furniture brands are in the north near Como but they often use the same suppliers. One year the trend may be to use a particular colour, but Edra moves in quite a different way. I remember at the beginning a lot of people believed we were really extravagant.
In what way do you mean extravagant?
We introduced pieces including the Flower Collection by Masanori Uemeda which made our products really unique. But we were also investing in research to develop something new, rather than producing the same product every time. We are proud that our products are in some of the more important museums.
I think Edra is a very curious company, always looking for different ways to make things – that must provide some exciting energy within the research department?
Absolutely. This year we introduced the Egeo table named after the Greek islands It is made of a really thick piece of glass and to create it we use a very special machine that chips away at the edge of the glass so that every table is different. Designed by Jacopo Foggini it is a fantastic idea and we developed the machine together to achieve the detail. He is a genius with materials and both an artist and a designer.
Italian makers have a reputation for pushing things to the limit and being completely fearless when trying something new – where does that confidence come from?
Yes we need to stimulate every time, it is important. In our region of Tuscany we have the history of the Renaissance with the best artists in the world from Raffaello to Michelangelo. They brought in something new, in terms of paint, in terms of culture, in terms of building, everything. At that time it was a really modern idea. It is fantastic that today after 400 years the skills are still very much alive in Tuscany.
You describe your technology as 'Engineering for Relaxation', is that the DNA inside everything you make?
This is important for us to speak about performance and it is important to find a new way to sit on a sofa or to use a specially developed material, it is a crucial point. A lot of our pieces appear relatively normal, but inside is where we add something special. The Standard sofa for example has Jellyfoam cushions and the backrest mechanism uses the fluid friction mechanism.
There are some great stories of how some of the Edra designs have come into being, can you share some of your favourites?
We had started working on the Caprici table with Jacoppi in 2009 and after that he put forward the Gina chair and we just said ‘Wow’. We found the idea unique. His idea was to hand make a chair from high quality polycarbonate, weaving the material like embroidery so that each chair is unique. When we introduced it during the Milan Furniture Fair in 2014, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris selected the Gina for their restaurant in the same colour as the room.
The Boa sofa was also fantastic to watch during development. The Campana Brothers arrived with a little marquette made with the rope and they asked us, “What can we do with this?”. We said what do you want to do with this? (laughter) After that we studied its size and how to weave the 120 metres of pillow tubes. We needed four people to assemble it over four days. It was a super big challenge of industrial process and craft to weave it in and out. Just to understand how to put the pillow inside the cover we spent a year. All the sewing is on the inside too so it is a real secret. It really is a piece of art.
That level of experimentation must be fun to be involved in.
All the Campana pieces are fantastic, they are pieces between the heart and design. The best thing is that each one is a piece of art that you can touch and you can use. This is not common. Here you can have an interaction. The Jenette chair we started to study the spaghetti pasta because we needed to understand the flexibility. I remember that we had a desk in our company where we had 40kg of pasta to look at the best for flexibility. We like to eat but that was impossible.
Who are the designers you are working with now?
We try to have a long lasting relationship with designers. Historical designers who work with us for a really long time like Francesco Binfaré who is a genius and a visionary. Then we have something with a new designer but we are working on that project now so I can’t say much more. We will try to launch it next year in Milan.
You mentioned that you will meet up with designer Trent Jansen while you are in Australia.
Yes, Trent Jansen is a good friend of mine. We have a very good relationship and he has some nice ideas.
He won the Space+Edra Design Residency which took him to the Edra HQ a few years ago, is that when you first met?
Yes. We spent time in Tuscany at the factory and with Massimo Morozzi who was one of the few geniuses I have met in my life. He had the capability to observe everything. He was fantastic. He had a big knowledge and a different way of looking at things. When Massimo was a designer before he was the art director of Edra, Francesco worked at Cassina so he met some of the best designers in Italy. When Massimo became the director and Binfaré the designer, they had the kind of relationship that was unbelievable in terms of quality.
With Binfaré, we have introduced totally different projects to the collection, like On The Rocks which is a sofa without a typical structure inside and the Standard sofa with its smart cushions that offer fantastic comfort. The Pack sofa was born not only as an observation of climate change, but also a reflection of society. In Italy, probably like Australia, when people get tougher they are all looking at their phones it is crazy. Two years ago Binfaré made a show called ‘The Selfie’ and after that he started to think about the polar bear which likes to live alone but sometimes needs a partner. So like society today he transformed that idea. It is an idea like all of our sofas including the Standard and the Flap sofas. With the Flap we had to develop high technology engineering and mix that with the craftsmanship necessary to assemble all the pieces that make up its comfort and function. Binfaré really is the magician. We believe in the end we are a company that makes furniture that people can both use and feel the beauty. Design that is beautiful and practical. The universal utilisation of our pieces is also important for us. You can use these pieces in a really antique house and a really modern context too.
The academic Beatriz Colomina who studies social trends, has written about the idea for a universal piece of furniture, the bed. The Pack sofa and the Standard sofa are great examples of furniture you could live on.
Yes, I believe it is much better to have a few pieces with a really interesting identity rather than a thousand pieces of nothing. We are really happy when we see the houses of our clients where we have just one or two pieces from our collection and the room can totally change. This is fantastic. It’s like having a painting by an important artist on the wall, and then stop.
Thank you Niccolò Mazzei!
Niccolò Mazzei was in Australia as a guest of Space Furniture to host a series of design talks at Space showrooms in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Edra is exclusively available in South East Asia at Space – Australia – and Space – Asia.