Arm-Chair Quarter-Back

It was the end of an all-day presentation at Boffi. Managers from the venerable Milanese company had walked journalists from 55 different publications on an extensive trilingual tour of its 25,000-square-meter factory in Brianza, the prime Italian design area located north of Milan. Sales directors previewed the high-end baths and kitchens the firm would display at the upcoming 2006 Salone del Mobile—sharp rectilinear forms worked out of Corian, wood, and stainless steel. In between a decorous buffet lunch and an equally aesthetic afternoon tea, Boffi executives marched their media guests through a thorough review of partners, suppliers, and spectacular company statistics. Now with daylight and the audience’s attention waning, CEO Roberto Gavazzi finally broached the subject of the company’s future plans. “Our plans for the future are very simple,” Gavazzi said, pressing the remote to summon the last of the day’s innumerable slides and sliding himself, at last, into silence. The image on the projection screen had three words: “TO HAVE PIERO.”

Conceived 20 years ago—when Boffi president Paolo Boffi invited a fledgling 30-year-old Milanese architect named Piero Lissoni to become his art director—the relationship between Boffi and the Brianza-born designer has evolved into a rare and extremely fruitful symbiosis. Few firms have placed so many of their chips in the hands of a single designer; few designers have so fueled their own careers with a single client. An industry leader in Italy in the 1950s and ’60s, Boffi saw its fortunes droop in the following decades as other firms eroded its market share. The death of the factory’s cofounder Dino Boffi, in 1972, left the company without a creative spirit and long-range vision. By the mid-1980s the company was in the red. “There was a lack of direction, of identity, especially at the top,” says Gavazzi, another talent recruited from the world of international mergers and acquisitions by Paolo Boffi in 1988. “Boffi needed something new and radical to get its luster back.”

Paolo’s bold wager on Lissoni paid off quickly. After two years spent revising company graphics and retouching a few individual products, Lissoni emerged with his first kitchen line, Esprit, in 1989. Three years later Boffi’s art director presented Latina, a series of interchangeable kitchen components that could be personalized and assembled on an almost custom basis. These lines and others helped Boffi regain its prestige and position in the Italian market. By 1995 Boffi and Lissoni set their sights on expanding sales beyond il bel paese and also on broadening their bathroom sector. Over the past 10 years Boffi has experienced a 146 percent growth in revenues; it had 45 million euros in sales for 2005. Exports, which a decade earlier had accounted for only a fraction of company revenues, now provide more than half. Boffi’s bathroom sector, practically moribund before Lissoni’s arrival, has seen sales increase ninefold since 1995. Equally significant, it has once again become synonymous with original and functional high-end design.

“Piero has been instrumental in all facets of our revival,” Gavazzi says. “He’s had an enormous influence on the image of our brand and company. He’s helped reshape our catalogs, presentations, even the way our factory works. He even oversees an internal marketing study group. He leads us; he teaches us how to run the company, how to market our products, how to rally and inspire the entire firm around a single idea and mission.”

It is difficult at first meeting to gauge Lissoni’s mood and intent. He speaks in muted tones at a constant, strolling cadence. A wry, ferretlike smile, somehow playful and somber, girds his face, which is simultaneously warm and distant, cordial and withdrawn. “I hope there is an earthquake of global dimensions that creates a tsunami to engulf this Brianza and erase it from the face of the earth,” he tells an Italian journalist who has called his cell phone for a comment about the upcoming Salone del Mobile. Lissoni’s long frame, draped slightly backward across a wicker chair, is completely void of tension. “Or that a German bomber drops a bomb of such dimensions that it will completely obliterate this place. But of course you know I’m joking,” he says, turning to two American visitors seated across from him, his tone and voice unchanged. “It’s just a bit of irony. Because without irony we might as well shoot ourselves.”

Born in 1956, Lissoni studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano and found his first job in a Milan design firm in 1978. In 1986, the same year he and Nicoletta Canesi founded Studio Lissoni, he agreed to become art director. “Boffi was certainly a launching pad for me,” he says. “Without Boffi, I wouldn’t be Piero Lissoni. Although it is also fair to say that without Piero Lissoni, they wouldn’t be Boffi.”

Set in an airy, sunlit former industrial space in Milan’s now fashionable Brera district, Lissoni’s firm employs more than 60 people. A soft but constant ferment bubbles through both floors of the studio—teams of architects grouped around a drawing table, single graphic designers scrutinizing their computer monitors, a trio of product designers adjusting a cardboard prototype. “It’s a bit of a Milanese trademark,” Lissoni remarks, his brown eyes widening and growing slightly brighter, “this idea that we can do it all, as if we could be the quarterback, the down lineman, and the linebacker all at once. And we can do it all—although I like being quarterback the best.”

It would be inaccurate—if not unfair—to label Lissoni a minimalist. While frugal in form, the kitchens he has designed for Boffi convey a sense of ease and solidity. In Zone, Lissoni’s latest kitchen creation for the company, the designer blends an assortment of materials, including wood, polished laminate, stainless steel, and ceramic tops into an essential and almost futuristic composition. Linear and understated, the kitchen is also intrinsically elegant, with long, uninterrupted surfaces, an implicit balance, and a smooth, rational integration of components. There are no excesses of material, no flourishes of style. Yet nothing is lacking. Lissoni uses abstract and almost rarified elements to conjure a sense of comfort.

While Lissoni’s expressive vocabulary is often austere, it is drawn from a rich and vast encyclopedia of influence. Italian translations of Edgar Allan Poe and John Donne lie piled beside a painted plaster statue of Lenin on his sprawling office coffee table. Quotations from Mies van der Rohe and Italian comic actor Toto are pinned onto the bulletin board above his desk, with a collection of plastic model Porsches perched in pyramids on plain shelving across the rear wall. Two wooden Buddhist statues, partially decomposed, pose in silence beneath Plexiglas cases on the edge of his desk. “I find inspiration everywhere,” he observes, scrutinizing the screen of a ringing cell phone and then deciding to ignore it. “Everywhere, that is, except in the pornography you find in style and architecture magazines. I read incessantly. I think designers should know painting and music and the history of the Romans—and math and physics too. These are important. Of course we need technology. But humanities must come first. And these design magazines: it’s lovely pornography, beautifully rendered, but it’s still pornography, self-referential and voyeuristic, full of everything except design. In the end, despite the finery, you realize the emperor has no clothes.”

Lissoni and his firm, now called Lissoni Associati, have been enormously successful. He has designed residential interiors in Parma and Como, and renovated hotels in Zurich, Venice, and Istanbul. The firm has provided graphics for Takashimaya’s shopping center near Kobe, Japan; designed houses in Moscow, Tel Aviv, and Bangkok; and worked with Luca Brenta Yacht Design and Kitty Hawks on Ghost, a 37-meter sailboat. Current projects include two hotels in Miami, a tower in Shanghai, and a 52-meter yacht. In design, probably his company’s most active sector, Lissoni maintains more than a dozen collaborations with companies including Kartell, Cappellini, Porro, Living Divani, and Fritz Hansen. “Piero is a prominent Milanese architect, and we are a prominent Milanese company,” says Ivan Luini, president of Kartell’s U.S. division. “He has the great gift of being a talented designer and the equally great gift of knowing how to listen. It’s a perfect marriage for us.”

Lissoni freely admits to having entered into all these marriages—and that it is often difficult for him to always satisfy his partners. “Once a company starts working with me, it tends to continue working with me,” Lissoni says, neither boastful nor bashful, but almost bemused. “It’s like being everybody’s wife—or like having a harem.”

Yet Lissoni’s relationship with Boffi is the most special and the most time consuming. “It’s more like a marriage than the others,” Lissoni says, sitting up now and glancing furtively about his spacious, sparsely appointed office. “It’s a relationship between people, one that grows between those who share the same desire to work and to create things. Our projects aren’t realized because someone at Boffi asks me for something. They come out of discussions, presentations, and workshops, of nights and weekends spent at the factory. And in the end I don’t know whether I’m the designer or whether it’s Roberto, or whether I’m the company foreman.”

Enrico Boffi, director of product development, also describes the relationship as a marriage. “But the nature of that marriage has changed,” he notes. “It’s rare these days for Piero to show up with a handful of finished drawings. He’ll come in. We talk. Sometimes about a specific product, but more often about how that product fits in with our larger objectives, with our philosophy. There are times when he loses his patience because we ask so much of him. But I know this marriage will never end in divorce.”

It was the end of an all-day presentation at Boffi’s factory in Brianza. And finally, with little fanfare, with no video or PowerPoint slide, and with night approaching, Lissoni walked down the center aisle. He carried a tattered plastic shopping bag. Taking a seat in front of the journalists—and taking his time—the key to Boffi’s past, present, and future placed the bag on the table and began to fish inside. “What is a kitchen?” he asked, speaking without a microphone, as if in soliloquy. He pulled a wineglass out of the bag. A ripple of nervous laughter radiated through the audience.

“What will remain of these things you have seen today if you come back in a year? It is this: a glass of wine. And the bathroom?” he asked, reaching once again into the bag to pull out a block of soap, neither hurriedly nor slowly, at his own pace and pleasure. The rings of nervous laughter grew slight and distant. “What is it except the place of another ritual? A kitchen, a bath,” he said, pulling out a block of wood, a span of Styrofoam, “these cannot be just things. We cannot just be producers of objects. We need to be producers of structures, of objects that dialogue with space and destroy the space—that transform the act of eating an ordinary green salad into a gourmet ritual.”

In the space of a few moments Lissoni had transformed the room. The audience—it was his audience now—was rapt and still. “These things you have seen today,” he said, placing his props on the table, the sly grin now vanished from his face, “they have our souls inside, the combined force of an incredible effort, of evenings worked and love affairs forgone. These things are blood—real blood, our blood.”

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