Naoto Fukasawa crafts a comfortable sculpture for B&B Italia
To the Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, design is about observation, integrity, and ambience. The relationship a piece of furniture has with the space surrounding it is as important as its shape; its power lies in its modest expression and the mood it inspires.
“I believe that design is attributing a countenance to an object,” he wrote in his 2018 book, Embodiment. “The countenance of this object engenders the surrounding atmosphere, and this atmosphere in turn attributes a countenance to the shape… It’s attributing an incarnation to an abstract, a physical structure to a soul.”
These physical structures, more often than not, take simple, carved forms. A prime example: Fukasawa’s Harbor Laidback chair, designed for B&B Italia, which continues his exploration of an upside-down, truncated cone shape imbued with calmness and gravitas. Fukasawa calls it a “comfortable sculpture”. He begins with a single solid mass of foam: “I like to sculpt like Isamu Noguchi,” he explains, “slowly scooping out material to create a surface that people can be relaxed and comfortable inside.”
Where the original Harbor (released in 2017) was fixed, stoic, the Laidback has a gentle, unexpected movement. Although the proportions and height of the seat are designed for comfort while using a computer or tablet upright, hidden within the form is a complex mechanism which allows the seat and backrest to tilt rearward. This duality reflects the truth that many spaces must now encompass both the productive and the serene.
“I think people used to focus on too many things at the same time,” Fukasawa says. His design practice is based on human observation, and he believes that recent events have brought about a clear shift. “Since the pandemic started, people in general try to find and be aware of details. They focus on harmony in the living space and notice any uncomfortable parts that damage it.”
The Harbor Laidback, with its matching footrest and round tray-topped ottoman, is a symbol of this new lifestyle. “When you go back to the Harbor, to your home, you need your time to relax,” Fukasawa adds. “Harbor is your place and moment.”
The flowing line of the chair – upholstered in leather or fabric with an elegant saddle stitch – is grounded by a solid swivel base and exposed zip closure on the backrest. The clever headrest is adjustable, balanced by a distinctive metal counterweight. There is a feeling of comfort, Fukasawa says, from the form enveloping your body, and a freedom “in every position of the chair”.
“Your body feels the tactile feedback from the soft surface,” he adds. “Even before sitting on it, when you see the chair, you can feel that it is comfortable.” What more could you ask for?
Vincent Van Duysen discusses hisfirst collection for B&B Italia’s outdoor line
It is not long now until the wan sun returns to its full strength in the spring and summer months, and we can bask in its warmth. In anticipation, B&B Italia – the contemporary furniture company established in 1966 – has expanded its Outdoor collection with the help of creative director Piero Lissoni and acclaimed Belgian architect-designer Vincent Van Duysen. The former has expanded its sustainably crafted Borea range with variations of sun loungers resembling “landed airplanes” and delicately oval sunbed loungers shaped like “two large eggs”. The latter, meanwhile, imagines an outdoor version of his charming Pablo armchair, first released two years ago, along with a sofa, footrest and concrete optical tables. Originally a reinterpretation of a traditional Spanish armchair and named after the Cubist artist, its essential typology and beautifully uninterrupted form remains largely the same, highlighting the “relation between massing and voids” through masterful joinery and window-like gaps.
Port caught up with Van Duysen to discuss the collection, and how aesthetics may complement practicality.
Where did the idea for the original Pablo armchair come from?
The overall language of the original Pablo armchair has a Latin American touch, traditional but very contemporary at the same time.
What must furniture design accommodate when it lives outside?
Overall design must improve the lives of human beings hence it doesn’t matter if indoor or outdoor. In general, it is crucial to connect the indoor and outdoor spaces so that’s really important when I design outdoor pieces. There needs to be a sense of storytelling so that an outdoor piece has something to say in any dehors.
How does this outdoor iteration evolve Pablo?
Pablo Outdoor boasts a decisive design and innovative proportions, and it breathes life into a series that includes an armchair in two depths, sofa, and footrest. Another characteristic that takes the original Pablo to the next level is the choice of materials. The sturdy yet soft lines of the seats are perfectly balanced in the small cement outdoor tables. Linear, solid, and highly geometric shapes represent the heart of these architectural objects.
Why were the specific materials chosen?
The soul of the original project lies in the wood frame, which is made of teak, the ideal material for outdoors. The continuity of the form and quality of the wood make it particularly pleasant to the touch.
How do the aesthetics of the sofa compliment its practicality?
The geometry of the supporting frame presents a sophisticated balance of straight and curved lines, but this is not just an aesthetic choice. In fact, the frame, with its uninterrupted surface, was designed to ease maintenance of the wood, which is easy to treat as necessary. The rear fabric panels are anchored to rods that can be removed easily. This is also an aesthetic choice that meets a technical solution aimed at simplifying care for the wood and maintenance of the textile parts. These design expedients allow customers to choose between letting it age naturally or have it returned its original condition.
What is your favourite activity when reclining outside?
Well, taking in the sun, reading, meditating, simply relaxing.
Camaleonda is a portmanteau of camaleonte, meaning chameleon, and onda, meaning wave; two bodies that shift and change according to the conditions of their environment. The Camaleonda sofa, designed by Mario Bellini for B&B Italia in 1970, was part of a collective shift in Italian design against bourgeois, establishment practices. The radical design movement, which engaged with Italy’s socio-political context through its utopian ideals and material experimentation, pushed for new ways of inhabiting space, while maintaining a productive relationship to nature. The Camaleonda went a step further, by grounding its radicality in the day-to-day realities of people’s homes; challenging the relationship between the evolution of new patterns of behaviour in the home, and the limitations of furniture available at the time.
The Camaleonda is a modular sofa made up of padded – capitonné – 90x90cm seats, with detachable back- and armrests; individual parts strung together by a system of cables, hooks and rings, which can be unhooked and recombined in potentially infinite configurations. It quickly became popular, and was adopted by many households — including New York’s Gracie Mansion, where ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, alongside another dancer, was photographed performing a naked handstand on the Camaleonda in the ‘champagne room’ during a reception for the Russian Winter Olympics team.
Despite its early popularity, the sofa was only manufactured for eight years, and has since become one of the most sought-after sofas on the secondary market. Last year, B&B Italia reissued the Camaleonda in celebration of its 50-year anniversary. The new edition honours the original design, and B&B Italia’s Research and Development Centre — which was established when co-founder Busnelli built what was once called the most fully automated furniture factory in the world — has finessed the balance between the rigorous geometry of the seating, roundness of the padding, and replaced materials to be representative of new technologies and requirements. They’ve maintained and progressed the Camaleonda’s reputation for adapting to shifting conditions, lifestyles, and new ways of inhabiting space; recognising that the only permanent state should be a constant will to transform.
For our latest issue, Alfred Mallory reflects on 50 years of B&B Italia’s design classic – the Up5 chair
The Up5 chair, like many great ideas, was conceived in the shower. Noticing how his sponge would return to its original form after it was squeezed, Gaetano Pesce – the pioneering Italian designer, renowned for his playful treatment of colour and material – was inspired to apply the same idea to a chair. The result, released by C&B Italia in 1969, was distinctive, oversized – half ancient fertility goddess and half space-age technological marvel: As with the sponge, the chair, vacuum-compressed to a 10th of its size for shipping, expanded dramatically when it was released from its PVC envelope.
A product of its era, the Up5 – which also came with an ottoman, the Up6, connected by an elastic cord – captured the optimism of the swinging ’60s and the decade’s enthusiasm for manmade materials, but it also owes much to the revolutionary spirit of the student protests a year before. Galvanised by the events of May 1968 in Paris, groups and collectives formed around colleges in Italy, espousing radical ideas about design and plastic creation, rejecting the existing industrial system. Pesce’s chair, with its dynamic, curving form and use of polyurethane, brought these new ideas to C&B, and it quickly became an icon: James Bond lounges on an Up chair in Diamonds are Forever. In 1972, MoMA, New York, exhibited the chair as an example of ‘The New Domestic Landscape’ emerging in Italy.
By 1973, C&B, now B&B, had discovered that the leavening agent in the chair was harmful to the ozone layer, and so the Up5 was discontinued. For years a cult collector’s item, the chair was relaunched in 2000 – no longer inflating but still very much Pesce’s voluptuous, iconic design. Now, for the chair’s 50th anniversary, B&B are launching a series of colours alongside a special striped beige-and-petrol-green edition, echoing the distinctive tonal scheme developed by Pesce on its inception.
Alyn Griffiths discovers the moulds, machines and methods of Italy’s most innovative furniture brand
What does it take to be a leader in your industry? Business experts will tell you that the key is to be either the first or the best, but the measure of true success is whether you can be both. This has always been the approach of Italian firm B&B Italia, which last year celebrated 50 years as one of the country’s foremost furniture producers. Renowned for having pioneered many features and technologies that are now commonplace in contemporary furniture, the company’s quest for innovation has continued into the 21st century.
To understand the lengths B&B Italia goes to in its pursuit of fresh ideas and technological excellence, it is helpful to visit the firm’s headquarters in Brianza, around 25 kilometres north of Milan. The area has a long history of furniture production, with several influential global brands based there, having evolved from traditional family-run ateliers during Italy’s manufacturing boom following the Second World War. The legacy of craftsmanship, and a supply chain that provides top quality materials to the region’s furniture makers, remain intact, but Brianza’s current residents also utilise the latest industrialised production methods to meet demand from clients around the world.
Situated close to the A9 highway that links Milan with Como, B&B Italia’s factory building and headquarters offer the first hints that this is a company with progressive design at its core. The factory, by architects Afra and Tobia Scarpa, was completed in 1968, while the headquarters – designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1971 and finished in 1973 – showcase the high-tech aesthetic the pair would later revisit for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The architecture of the campus serves as an important signifier of B&B Italia’s values, but it is inside the factory that the firm’s innovative credentials become truly apparent.
The facility’s 20,300-square-metre floor area is divided into zones dedicated to the various stages of the manufacturing process. Skeletal metal frames resembling wireframe drawings of the company’s iconic sofas and chairs stand in clusters along one side of the building. Welded by trusted Italian suppliers, the frames are delivered to the factory and placed into moulds, which are injected with a polyurethane foam that expands to take on the form of the product. Once the foam has cooled, the pieces are moved to the upholstery area to be covered in the customer’s choice of premium leather or fabric.
It’s an approach to furniture production that was groundbreaking when it was first developed in the 1960s by B&B Italia’s founder, Piero Ambrogio Busnelli. Having already established a successful business with his brother Franco in 1953, Piero dreamed of industrialising what at the time was still a predominantly artisanal process. During a research trip to London, Busnelli visited a trade fair where one exhibitor was showing rubber ducks produced using moulded polyurethane – a process he believed could be applied to furniture manufacturing. In 1966, he left Fratelli Busnelli and set up his own company to pursue this new direction, teaming up with industry leader Cesare Cassina to form C&B. The company would go on to collaborate with leading designers including Marco Zanuso, Vico Magistretti, Mario Bellini and the Scarpas, to develop products that would revolutionise the furniture industry.
C&B grew rapidly, eventually reaching a point where it was operating on the same level as the core Cassina brand. In 1973, Busnelli bought out Cassina’s shares and renamed the company B&B Italia. As the firm continued to expand, responsibilities were passed on to the next generation, with Busnelli’s sons Giorgio, Giancarlo and Emanuele taking on leadership positions. Over breakfast at the Park Hotel, a short distance from the headquarters, the current CEO, Giorgio, explains how his father put in place systems to ensure the company would continue to innovate and remain one step ahead of the competition.
“One of the first things my father did when he teamed up with Cassina was create a centre of research and development,” he recalls, “because he started working with architects and designers and needed to develop prototypes away from the factory setting.” This facility, which moved into the third and final building to be completed on the campus, by Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel in 2002, remains the place where new products, materials and technologies are explored, tested and refined.
Today, many leading designers visit the Piero Ambrogio Busnelli Research and Development Centre to develop new products, hoping to emulate the success of the company’s most famous icons. These include the Coronado armchair and sofa by Afra and Tobia Scarpa – the first piece of upholstered furniture designed entirely for industrial mass production. It features four pieces (a seat, back, and two armrests) that can be assembled with just two screws, making it ideal for shipping internationally. In 1969, the Up series by Gaetano Pesce demonstrated the truly disruptive potential of polyurethane technology, offering an anthropomorphic form without any internal framework, which was delivered vacuum packed. Mario Bellini’s 1972 Le Bambole was the first sofa to be manufactured purely as a padded cushion without an internal frame, while Paolo Piva’s Alanda sofa bed from 1980 emphasised the importance of the R&D centre to the company, with its patented mechanisms for adjusting the headrests, armrests and bedside table.
Several other bestsellers followed in subsequent years, with one of the most significant breakthroughs occurring in 1995 with the launch of Antonio Citterio’s Harry sofa system, followed by the Charles sofa in 1997. By raising the sofa off the ground on cast-metal feet placed delicately at the corners, the designer created a new furniture archetype that has been endlessly copied due to its timeless simplicity. By that point, Citterio was already established as one of the brand’s key designers, and he has been responsible for developing and coordinating the collections of B&B’s luxury sister brand Maxalto since 1993.
By offering designers the opportunity to work with nascent technologies and supporting them in their endeavours to explore entirely new directions for familiar furniture archetypes, B&B Italia has consistently been able to attract top talent, from Patricia Urquiola and Naoto Fukasawa, to Zaha Hadid and Vincent Van Duysen. The collaborations between these designers and a team of 25 experts at the R&D centre are crucial to the company’s continued creative and economic progress. Every product undergoes a thorough process of detailed design and refinement, based on prototypes built by specialists in woodwork, metalwork and foam technology. “When we receive a design idea, we don’t waste our time trying to understand its real potential on paper, we start the prototyping process straight away,” says Giorgio’s son, Massimiliano, who also works at the R&D centre.
Giorgio and the head of the R&D centre, Rolando Gorla, regularly travel to major global cities where they spend time in the latest hotels, museums and galleries to identify new architectural ideas or cultural directions that might inform future projects. Gorla, who has been at the company for over 40 years, explains that the quest for innovation has become more challenging in recent years. “We’re not in the ’60s when everything needed to be done – now almost everything exists,” he says. “It is becoming more difficult to invent something new, so more often designers look to the past for something that might be worth updating.” In this context, the focus of the R&D centre has switched towards sustainability and the evolution of existing technologies to improve performance and efficiency. B&B Italia is at the forefront of identifying ways to allow materials to be separated and reused or recycled, as well as trying to develop a more environmentally friendly alternative to polyurethane. It is also working on ways to make its furniture more lightweight, so it uses less material and is easier to ship.
Inside the factory, the injection-moulding manufacturing process is consistently challenged by ambitious and complex products such as Zaha Hadid’s Moon System sofa, and the SAKé sofa by Piero Lissoni, which requires 19 separate moulds. Alongside this technology, which has remained largely unchanged in 50 years, the company continues to add new machinery that helps to improve the efficiency of production. It recently invested 750,000 in an automated laser cutting machine and accompanying software that optimises the process of cutting high-quality leather hides into precise sections, ready for upholstering.
“It is a hugely complicated piece of equipment and the sort of investment that not many companies would make,” claims Busnelli, adding that it will take a few years before the machine’s efficiencies provide any return. This, however, is the spirit in which the firm has always operated, since the early days when its founder paid for a pneumatic press capable of producing 1,500 tonnes of force, instead of the 500 tonnes necessary to produce the items currently in the collection. “This was another thing inherent in Dad’s strong character,” Busnelli adds. “He actually completely changed the way to produce; we now had a company with industrial processes.”
In today’s hyper-competitive global market, innovation and risk-taking in business is as important as it is in design and manufacturing. In 2015, Busnelli made the decision to sell a majority stake in the company to a subsidiary operated by Andrea Bonomi’s Italian investment company, Investindustrial, which part-owns and supports a range of premium brands, including Aston Martin and lighting firm Flos. With a healthy turnover of over 180 million, Busnelli could have been satisfied to remain one of Europe’s largest furniture brands, but he recognises that continuing international expansion requires more risk and investment than a small family-run company could cope with. “For many years people were saying small is good – it’s nice; it’s craftsmanship. But in the end if you want to play globally you need to compromise a lot to be represented in the market,” he insists.
With backing from Investindustrial, B&B Italia purchased a majority stake in high-end kitchen producer Arclinea in 2016, with the aim of accelerating its international expansion. “I like the idea that it is possible to create a conglomerate like Louis Vuitton has done in fashion,” adds Busnelli. “So the idea is to create a group of the best companies of high-end design in the world.” This ambitious plan will see the Busnelli family adding to its portfolio of brands in the coming years, enabling it to expand into new markets and apply its knowledge of materials, processes and technologies to a broader range of products.
With around 500 staff working for the company across design, production, contract projects, sales, marketing and distribution, B&B Italia is now firmly established in the international furniture market and will continue to extend its influence through key strategic partnerships and investments. As Busnelli finishes breakfast and prepares to dash off to a meeting with the management of Arclinea, he offers a final insight into the mindset that has formed the basis of the company’s success. “One of the most important things my father taught me is to be curious,” he says, “because curiosity is really fundamental for everything you want to do in your life.”
A new documentary offers a unique insight into B&B Italia’s history, design methods and architectural collaborators
Established by Piero Ambrogio Busnelli in 1966, B&B Italia has surpassed 50 years in design innovation. The company’s dedication to creativity and technology has allowed it to become a leader of modern furniture, while its capacity to predict trends and respond to changes in taste and living has resulted in furniture collections that epitomise important phases in design history. Although Piero Ambrogio Busnelli died in 2014 aged 87, his legacy lives on through his son Giorgio Busnelli and grandchildren who now work within the company.
A new documentary by film-maker and writer Didi Gnocchi is a rare and personal glimpse in to the vision of Piero Ambrogio Busnelli, tied together with photographs and interviews with influential designers and architects such as Renzo Piano, Mario Bellini, Antonio Citterio, Vincent Van Dyson and even Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London. The documentary unpacks B&B Italia’s 50-year legacy, and explores the past, present and future of the company and its collaborators.
Gnocchi has always been curious about the vision of designers but does not come from a design background; she spent most of her life as a journalist. Her media production company– 3D Produzioni– has been researching design, architecture and history for many years, building relationships with designers and architects all over the world. During the research process, Gnocchi browsed not only through B&B Italia’s archives, but through her own. ‘We filed a lot of material in our archives that turned out to be useful to give a better context to the years when the company was first set up, and how it later grew in relation to Italy,’ she says. ‘Everyone was very pleased to tell us about their relationship with B&B Italia, especially with their new Research Centre which they all said is a worldwide milestone.’
B&B Italia: Poetry in the Shape, When Design Meets Industry is available to stream via the B&B Italia website from 13 April