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Generation game: Balancing innovation and tradition in family-run heritage brands

Just how do family-run, long-established interior design brands continue to innovate while remaining true to their roots? Peter Howarth investigates...

Two black and white photographs hanging in the Molteni Museum in Milan tell a story familiar to family businesses the world over. The first shows a young Italian couple, wearing new long coats, in front of some factory gates. This is 1941, in Giussano in the province of Monza and Brianza, a district known for furniture making; Giuseppina and Angelo Molteni, who had set up their business seven years earlier, are smiling and clutching playfully at each other.

In another image, this time from 1947, a large group of men line up outside an industrial shed. The Molteni craftsmen – some 60 in number – accompany their boss, Angelo. Standing, frowning, near the front, is a small blond boy of four. This is Carlo Molteni, Angelo’s first born, who would inherit the business from his father and become a prominent figure in the world of Italian furniture. He is still CEO today.

Part of Molteni’s evolution has been down to a programme of collaborations with architects and designers. Pieces by Aldo Rossi and Gio Ponti rub shoulders with others by Jean Nouvel Design and Foster + Partners in the museum, next to the factory, which still stands on the same site in Giussano. But last year, the Molteni family – Carlo’s sister Mariangela and daughter Giulia are board members – took the step of appointing a creative director to the firm. And he’s not Italian.

Vincent Van Duysen, the Belgian architect and designer known for his minimalist approach, was brought in to ensure that this Italian family business continues to evolve. Giulia Molteni, the founder’s granddaughter, who heads up marketing and communication at the company, says: “The idea behind appointing Vincent was to have a neutral, external point of view on our creative strategy.” The man who was named Designer of the Year at Belgium’s Biennale Interieur 2016 says he became involved organically, through collaborating with Molteni like so many before him. But unlike previous partner-designers, Van Duysen was asked to sign up. Molteni will continue to work with a roster of other creatives, but Van Duysen gets to oversee things, and contribute his own creations. His new partners are effusive: “To be in discussion with a north European genius helps our Italian, Milanese elegance, I think,” says Giulia.

But bringing in new talent is not the only way to stay relevant. Going back as far as the 18th century, the Venetian textile brand Rubelli is synonymous with almost every Venetian – and indeed global – historical landmark you care to mention. Now run by the fifth generation, its rich velvets, damasks and lampas fabrics furnish such illustrious spaces as La Fenice, Palazzo Ducale and the Gritti Palace in Venice, La Scala in Milan and, most recently, the refurbished Bolshoi in Moscow.

But how does a brand so steeped in history keep contemporary appeal? Nicolò Rubelli, the brand’s suitably stylish and endlessly energetic co-CEO, has a simple answer: “We break the rules!” Over the past 50 years, the company has grown into a group of four distinct lines, all with a unique identity: Rubelli Venezia, Dominique Kieffer, Donghia and Armani/Casa Exclusive Textiles by Rubelli.

“Whilst of course staying true to our technical roots, our mantra is that every fabric needs to be different. Every fabric has to have its appropriate quality. If you use the same ingredients, all the food tastes the same. So that is why we have so many outlets. With Armani, for example, the emphasis is on colour and design and trends in fashion. Whereas for Kieffer, she thinks outside the box.” It is also why the range and breadth of the Rubelli fabric portfolio is so diverse. While Nicolò might cite Giotto and Brahms as inspirations, he is likely to talk about “synthetic” fabrics, “crackling viscose” and “flame retardant” techniques in the same sentence. Staying relevant, for the Rubellis, is then a case of making themselves stay attuned to developments in fabric technology, and the opportunities this creates for the designers utilising their products.

Another Italian family design business is equally grounded in the constant study of a particular material. “My family is bound by a passion for one of the noblest materials: wood,” says Romeo Sozzi. “Wood is alive and represents the past, the present and the future of my family’s life.” Sozzi explains how his grandparents ran a business restoring and repairing carriages for the local nobility. “My father has a carpentry workshop and it is there that I learned how to work with wood.” Sozzi explains that he founded Promemoria in 1988 when he “felt the need to have my own business producing pieces that could not be found easily on the market”.

Now that Sozzi has brought his sons on board, there is a fourth generation of the family working with wood-based design. “Involving my three sons in the company allows me to see a future – improving in technological research but always keeping in mind this philosophy: attention to details and very high-level standards,” he says. The Promemoria style is “timeless”, says Sozzi. It is also elegantly eclectic, a look that speaks of multiple influences. A visit to the family home, which sits on the banks of Lake Como, gives an insight into this aesthetic: modern pieces of furniture mix with antiques and collections of vintage cameras and cars.

As for staying relevant, Sozzi believes there are several ways of achieving this. “One is for sure the importance of listening to our clients,” he explains. “We have a very demanding clientele looking for high quality products, often made to measure with high-end materials. They look for unique pieces and we try to satisfy their needs, even the most difficult ones. In doing this, we need of course to combine the highest craftsmanship with the most updated technology.”

Although family businesses are certainly an Italian speciality, the generation game is something we find in northern Europe, too. Davidson, the London design company established in 1986 by husband and wife Richard and Deirdre Davidson, gives us an insight into the positive impact the integration of the next generation of family members can have.

Davidson started out with an aesthetic that reflected Richard’s previous career as an antiques dealer. The look was based on traditional Regency style and morphed gradually into incorporating inspiration from other historic periods. By the mid-90s the furniture Davidson was producing showed influences of art deco and 1950s through to 1970s design. However, today, while still using the finest British craftsmanship to create its pieces, the look is firmly one of contemporary elegance, incorporating gold leaf, lacquer and polished nickel finishes. This transition has coincided with the arrival at the company of the founders’ two daughters, both of whom were encouraged to work outside the business to gain valuable experience before being invited to join the family firm.

Alexandra Davidson, now Davidson’s MD, worked for Halpern Associates, the well known PR company, dealing with many of the world’s leading fashion and interiors brands. Her sister Claudia joined after serving an apprenticeship interning at concierge service Quintessentially and the publishers of Vogue, Vanity Fair and The World of Interiors, Condé Nast. She is now Davidson’s head of PR and marketing and, along with Alexandra, a board member.

“I grew up in Petworth, West Sussex, where both my parents had antique shops and I grew up with some of the finest antiques of the 18th century,” says Alexandra. She is clear about how they can design new furniture ranges while maintaining the “Davidson style”: it hinges on finding finishes that are innovative, while creating pieces that are true to the quality and aesthetic of Davidson’s past record.

Perhaps, then, if we think keeping things in the family is potentially a danger to the healthy evolution of design businesses, we are misreading the situation? By inviting outsiders into the family circle to supply some new blood to the proceedings and by empowering successive generations to bring their fresh, youthful perspectives to bear on the work, these firms can successfully ensure the change and innovation required to stay relevant, while also protecting and perpetuating tradition and quality.

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