Monday July 30, 2012
Carlo Colombo: Stylishly Italian
Stories by LEONG SIOK HUI
Carlo Colombo, the poster boy for Gen-X designers from Italy, was in town recently to share his thoughts on design and his dolce vita.
NAME 10 huge global design brands that are not Italian,” Milan-based designer and architect Carlo Colombo throws the question to the floor.
“Err ... Vitra, Artek, Fritz Hansen, Carl Hansen, Herman Miller, Louis Poulsen,” I begin to rattle off a few names off the top of my head.
“You can’t name even 10 because the best designs are all from Italy!” he grins, cutting me off when I grappled to come up with more non-Italian brands.
A bold assertion, indeed. But coming from one of the most prolific young Italian designers in recent decades, perhaps he has a point?
Colombo was in Kuala Lumpur to represent one of his clients, Poliform, a leading global furniture brand, at the launch of premium furniture retailer Space Kuala Lumpur’s new showroom recently.
At 44, Colombo represents the new generation of Italian designers: cosmopolitan and indefatigable yet flippant at times. He churns out furniture, lighting and shelving systems for a stable of international brands like Moroso, Zanotta, Cappellini, Artemide, Poltrona Frau, Flou and Antoniolupi. With offices in Milan, Beijing, Sao Paolo and Qatar, the globetrotter spends the other half of his time working on high-end interior design and architectural projects for commercial and residential buildings.
One of his most challenging architectural projects to date is the completion of the sleek, swanky Poliform Lab in Inverigo, in Italy’s Lombardy region. (Lombardy, the design-studio hub of Italy, is home to design powerhouses like B&B Italia, Kartell, Flexform and Artemide).
The creative hub of Poliform, the 13,000sqm solar-powered Lab houses a showroom, studio space and restaurant. It also serves as a gathering space for different professionals – from marketers and photographers to visual merchandisers and designers – to brainstorm.
“It took us three years to complete the Lab,” says Colombo who designed the building and the interior. “But it was very fulfilling!”
A self-professed workaholic – “My job is my life,” he says – Colombo has garnered a string of awards, like the ElleDecor International Design Awards (2005, 2008, 2010, 2011) for his furniture design and the 2009 Good Design Award (US) for his Colombo w092 lamp manufactured by Sweden-based Wästberg. (The 62-year-old, US-based Good Design Award was founded by design legends Eero Saarinen, George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames to highlight innovative design and technology.)
For the last 15 years, Colombo has been hitting the road, giving lectures at universities and conferences on Italian design, earning him the moniker “the de facto ambassador of Italian design”. He’s certainly a booster of his country’s talent.
“I think it’s the best in the world, whether in fashion or furniture design,” he reiterates about Italian design. “It is our creativity, high-quality craftsmanship, beauty and innovation.”
Born in Carimate, a small town 25km north of Milan, Colombo spent a lot of his childhood years hanging around his father’s workshop.
“My father was an artisan who made prototypes for designers and manufacturers,” he explains. “He worked a lot with wood, which explains why I love working with wood and natural material like stones.”
His taste for the natural influences his designs today, such as the series of bathtubs, sinks and bathroom accessories that he created for Italy-based Antoniolupi.
“My bathtubs are sculptural yet functional,” says Colombo whose other passion is art. “It is a combination of design and art.”
While he was an architecture student at the Politecnico di Milano, the brazen 23-year-old knocked on the factory door of Cappellini, one of the giants of Italian design manufacturing.
“I brought a prototype chair I had designed and asked to see Giulio Cappellini,” recalls Colombo with a laugh. The artistic director of Cappellini, Giulio helms the family business and is known for sniffing out talent and producing works by designers like Jasper Morrison, Tom Dixon, Marcel Wanders and the Bouroullec brothers, to name a few.
Impressed, Giulio commissioned Colombo to design a bed that was exhibited at the Salone del Mobile fair in 1992.
Twenty years and hundreds of designs later, says Colombo, “I am still particularly attached to that first bed that I designed, the Kyoto.”
It was at that same Milan show when Colombo was scouted by Poliform, a crucial step in his career. Officially established in 1972 as an evolution from a small artisan workshop dating back to 1942, Poliform was an up-and-comer producing wall systems, wardrobes, beds, tables and chairs in the 1990s when it spotted the young Colombo. In 1996, Poliform acquired the Varenna brand kitchen systems and in 2006 expanded its collection to include sofas and upholstery; it is now one of the big names in global design.
“My relationship with Poliform spans 18 years and I’m now working with the second generation in the family,” says Colombo who designed shelving systems, beds, kitchen systems and sofas for the company. His Sintesi wall system, Memo bed and Park sofa are featured at Space Kuala Lumpur.
“These days, it is a dream for designers to work with Poliform because it’s a global brand known for its quality and design,” says Colombo who also designed the private home of one of Poliform’s owners.
In the Klang Valley, luxury residential projects like Amarin Wickham, Platinum Suites and Zephyr Point are outfitted with Poliform wardrobes and kitchen systems.
So what is the Carlo Colombo style?
“For me, design is like a language. I would rather shut up and speak to people through my design,” asserts the debonair designer. “One thing’s for sure, I don’t change my style, like one day, Baroque or the next, minimalist.
“Of course when I work for different brands like Artemide, Capellini and Flou, I have to shift my mindset and ideas a little to fit the companies, but more or less, the lines, shapes, proportions, details and materials are similar.”
A quick look at his designs for Poliform, for example, shows they share streamlined and simple yet sophisticated looks.
“Take the Park sofa, it looks simple but the details are important: the material, shape and technology,” he elaborates.
“And white is my colour – it’s elegant and natural. It’s my life and it’s like me, inside I’m white,” he chuckles.
Colombo credits design masters like Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Achille Castigliolini (1918-2002) with inspiring him, along with art, culture and his global travels.
When he is not travelling or plugging away on a design, he loves to play golf with his 12-year-old son, drive his vintage Ferrari or kick up a sweat with his personal trainer at the gym. “My indulgence? That would be my art collection, mostly works by contemporary Italian artists like (Pop artist) Mimmo Rotella (1918-2006). I spend too much money on art,” he adds, laughing.
And what does a Carlo Colombo house look like?
“A lot of white, of course ... it’s neutral and you never tire of it,” he explains. “I have a mix of vintage furniture and contemporary designs, like the (Arne Jacobsen) Egg Chair and Eames chair (both iconic modern classics) alongside my Poliform furniture.”
The next big thing
With the sluggish economy worldwide, especially in Europe and the United States, many design companies are feeling the pinch. Today, major Italian design brands are looking more and more towards the East.
“In most of these Italian companies, the export market makes up 80% of their sales. And my business in Asia is growing at a rate of 20% every year,” says Colombo who is currently designing three luxury villas in China. He also teaches industrial design and architecture at De Tao Masters Academy in Beijing.
In China, his clientele are mainly the nouveau riche who are partial to furniture from luxury brands (like Versace, Fendi Collection and Armani Casa/Giorgio Armani) and sophisticated fittings.
“Five years ago, I can’t imagine working with Fendi but now fashion houses and designers are collaborating and presenting their collections at the Milan (furniture) show,” he says.
Colombo has also designed a shoe collection for Levi’s and was responsible for the interiors of the Hong Kong showroom of Massimo Bonini, the Italian luxury fashion house.
“I think this (collaboration) is a good thing because fashion and design used to compete against each other but now we are like in a marriage,” he says.
Apparently, there might be a Carlo Colombo for Fendi furniture collection the pipeline.
“This is the first step (of his projects in China), I have to build my name in China first,” he explains. “Who knows, in the future I think it is possible to build my own building with my ideas.”
Looks like we may be seeing more of Carlo Colombo on this side of the world.
■ For more of Carlo Colombo’s work, go to carlocolombo.it.