Healthy Obsession

Gabriele Centazzo draws inspiration from myriad sources: nature, literature, aerodynamic airplane wings, and elegant automobile dashboards. He claims that most of his best ideas come to him in bed, in the early morning dormiveglia—the state between sleep and waking—when he can conjure and sustain detailed three-dimensional mental images. “The mind is like a kaleidoscope,” says the 56-year-old founder, designer, and chief administrator of Valcucine. Based in Pordenone, in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, the 25-year-old company is known for its lines of finely designed, highly ergonomic, and ecologically conscious kitchens. “We fill it with multicolor shards of culture, of knowledge, of random observation. And in order to create something, we have to assemble these shards and fragments into a new amalgam, into something that has not been imagined or seen before.”

However eclectic his sources—or idiosyncratic his design methods—the orientation of Centazzo’s production has remained remarkably constant. During the past quarter century he has persevered in a quest for dematerialization toward a radical reduction of the materials and energy used in the production of Valcucine’s counters, fixtures, and accessories. “It is a way of being responsible to the planet,” says Centazzo, who worked as a factory chemist and shop foreman before he and three partners purchased a bankrupt furniture manufacturer in 1979 to form Valcucine. “Most people think of eco-compatibility in terms of recycling. But even with recycling, the earth’s resources aren’t nearly sufficient to allow the bulk of the planet’s population to consume at the levels we do in the developed world. If we are ever to allow the entire population to reach our standard of living, we have to learn to make do with less.”

Centazzo’s ideal of dematerialization has led Valcucine to a novel system of design and assembly using ultrathin panels mounted on ultralightweight recycled aluminum supports and frames. The company’s original, signature product line, called Artematica, uses panels of wood, laminates, aluminum, stainless steel, carbon fiber, and tempered glass just 5mm thick. In its latest product line, Ricicla, the panel thickness has been reduced to 2mm. “I conceived the first panels in a dormiveglia moment,” Centazzo recalls. “It was a matter of decomposing an object into those elements that constituted its technology and those that constituted its aesthetics. I realized that the panel of a cabinet or counter or kitchen island was nothing other than a surface—like a pane of glass in a window sash or a piece of upholstery stretched across a frame.”

Centazzo’s inspiration allowed Valcucine to dramatically reduce the quantity of materials used in its furniture and fixtures. A Ricicla wooden panel requires just ten percent of the wood necessary to craft a similar panel of standard thickness. “This is a kitchen you can’t make in a shop,” says Brian Jevremov, a New York-based Valcucine importer. “It’s simply too intensive in research and development. Sometimes clients of mine send their cabinetmakers here to see if they can replicate these pieces. They can’t.”

Valcucine’s dematerialization required more than a commitment to eco-consciousness and austerity. While the company’s aluminum elements provide structure and support to its fixtures, the panels still needed sufficient strength to bear weight, and sufficient durability to last through time and use. So Centazzo created a series of laminates sandwiched around a support layer of carbon fiber, fiberglass, or polyester fiber. Produced through a hot-lamination process using nontoxic solvents and finishes, Valcucine’s laminates are highly resistant to moisture, heat, and abrasion. A display in every Valcucine showroom demonstrates the negligible effects the company’s laminates suffer when immersed over time in room-temperature and boiling water, and the disastrous effects the materials of their competitors suffer when subject to the same abuse. “If you replace an object every year, you’re not reducing consumption,” he says. “These objects have to last.”

As Centazzo worked to decrease the quantity of material used to create aesthetics, he also labored to heighten the quality of those aesthetics. “The essential element in design is always beauty,” he pronounces. “This is true in nature, in the architecture of trees. Trees invent a way to coexist and survive with other organisms through beauty.” Centazzo’s emphasis on aesthetics was also driven by survival. In the early 1980s, when the level of environmental consciousness was low, he knew that few designers and buyers would purchase a Valcucine kitchen based solely on the company’s commitment to planetary health.

While eco-consciousness has spread in the 25 years since Valcucine’s founding, most of the company’s clients—the firm currently enjoys revenues of a35 million per annum and exports to 38 countries—are still drawn by the look and feel of the product. “I’ve used Valcucine for clients, and also for my home,” architect Winka Dubbeldam says. “I admire their approach to the environment and the use of recyclable materials. But what I most admire is that these convictions don’t diminish aesthetic choices or the quality of the product. The company does some really daring things.”

Valcucine’s ergonomics and sublime ease of use are also strong selling points for designers and homeowners. Cabinets and worktops are easily customized to accommodate for height, kitchen traffic, and personal preferences. Tower units with sliding or carousel baskets allow for maximum storage space and easy access. The company offers a five-year guarantee on materials and assembly, and also guarantees that clients will be able to find spare parts seven years after the date of purchase. Valcucine even maintains a computer database that helps clients who are relocating reconfigure the kitchens to their new homes.

Among Centazzo’s most original—and effective—ergonomic solutions is the Logica utility panel and upward-sloping kitchen hoods. Logica is a 22cm metal unit often mounted between the kitchen sink and wall. The panel offers chefs a convenient space for damp dishes, small cutting boards, spices, utensils, and electrical outlets. It also pushes the kitchen work space away from the walls and wall units, affording users greater comfort and ease. Valcucine’s upward-sloping hoods resolved another ergonomic annoyance: the need to bend to work on counter space beneath the hood.

But perhaps Centazzo’s most elegant creation is his Ala wall cabinet. Based on the design of an airplane wing (from which the unit takes its name), Ala is an aluminum-frame wall cabinet that measures up to three meters in length and is enclosed by a single door. Minutely balanced with a series of counterweights integrated into the frame design, its door opens vertically with minimal force and remains open without the aid of pistons or other mechanical devices. When closing, the door forms an air cushion to brake its progress. The recent integration of translucent panels and built-in LED consoles in Ala units permits a marked reduction of electrical consumption, as objects stored inside require less light to be visible.

“I saw how people repeatedly opened and closed their cabinets while they were working in the kitchen,” Centazzo says. “These movements were inefficient, with a lot of unnecessary movement and force. The Ala system allows people access to all their cabinets for the entire time, exploiting the most efficient force that exists—gravity.”

Centazzo’s quest for dematerialization has generated a visual language of monosyllabic words and a transparent, almost invisible grammar. His latest creations can be mounted directly on wall studs or perched on slender aluminum legs. The objects appear weightless. “In our age, and in ages to come, man will have a growing need to surround himself with a visual sense of freedom,” Centazzo says. “This is the search for leggerezza—lightness, the thing Calvino spoke about. It’s man’s ancestral quest to liberate himself from gravity, to soar freely in the air.”

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