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04 Jan 2019

Arper: Bringing design to life

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Under one roof in Italy's Veneto furniture district, Arper's attention to detail is embodied in its meticulous production processes

Headquartered in the Italian region of Veneto’s furniture district, Arper tells a quintessentially Italian story about family, relationships and the design thinking that ties them all together.

Founded in 1899 by the Feltrin family, the company started as a B2C business, producing a very niche set of modern leather chairs, before it expanded to the contract market and brought into focus the creativity Arper is known for today.

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“When the direction of the company changed, it grew from €5m to €75m [from late 1980s to the present],” says Claudio Feltrin, who established Arper with his brother Mauro and his father Luigi (now honorary chairman of Arper).

This shift in priorities from manufacturing to a design-led approach coincided with Feltrin’s chance encounter with Argentinian architect Alberto Lievore.

“The relationship that started with Albert wasn’t just about creating objects, it was about culture,” says Feltrin. “There was an opportunity for us to share our values.”

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When asked to describe Arper in one word, Feltrin doesn’t hesitate. “The main word is coherence. There’s a commitment from Arper with the society at large, so it’s important for us to act coherently with our values.”

This coherence permeates all things Arper, from its curated product development to its cultural involvement through collaborations such as with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice – “the overarching theme is passion” and Feltrin himself has it in spades.

With a wide-ranging selection of design collaborations with the likes of Ichiro Iwasaki, Simon Pengelly, Jean-Marie Massaud and Lievore Altherr, Arper has truly established itself as a design-oriented company where every product is the fruit of several successful relationships.

“It’s not just a matter of choosing a designer that fits with the personally,” explains Feltrin, who later goes on to draw parallels between collaboration and parenthood.

“If a couple is happy, a baby will be born. In this scenario, the product is like a baby,” he says in jest, and if we stretch that metaphor, the factory is where that baby first sees the light of day.

Under a minute’s walk from the HQ and showroom, Atelier Arper – the company’s manufacturing department – is a buzzing machine where all Arper furniture is upholstered.

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In the span of five minutes, you might catch a glimpse of an Aston chair being upholstered, a stack of iconic Catifa 46 chairs awaiting their quality checks and a four-piece modular Loop sofa being test-assembled before it is shipped to a corner or other part of the world.

It feels like a deconstructed version of the showroom nearby, and where the process starts is at the back of the Atelier.

First comes the cutting of leather, fabric and eco leather. The last two are altered with a machine that can cut up to 12 pieces at a time.

The real showstopper, however, is the leather process. Stacked on rows of saddles are layers and layers of leather hides (some Italian but most from Sweden for its high quality) waiting to be checked by hand. And knowing all products are made to order puts the sheer quantity of material into quite an impressive context.

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A leather quality control supervisor stretches the fabrics over a perforated metal board and scrutinises each leather hide, circling, striking and dotting imperfections with a marker. The hide is then laid on a table, where a leather-cutting machine operator uses a computer to protect a kit of parts on to the hide.

Making the most of the leather is key, and so is for the operator to have a global vision of the product. Once the jigsaw is complete, a leather-cutting machine runs a blade around the resulting shapes for a seamless cut.

Every leather piece is then sewn together back in the main room, either on a sewing machine or, in the case of Catifa 46, a bespoke machine Arper introduced six years ago for the chair’s parallel line pattern. Once the covering is stitched together, it is taken to meet its other half – the shell.

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If the shell is made of wood or ABS plastic, then a specific process, akin to the automotive industry, is used. It involves a solvent-based glue that is sprayed on by a robot so operators don’t inhale it. Polyurethane frames however, require heat-activated glue, which has to be baked in a giant oven.

The upholstering then happens in an enclosed humidity-regulated room where the covering is slid over its frame and meticulously “massaged in” by someone who, as I’m told, has 20+ years experience. In certain cases and where stapling is needed. Arper utilises anthropomorphic robot hands built to mimic varying human strengths according to the kind of upholstery to be stretched over the frame.

An auxiliary rather than a replacement, the use of AI allows Arper staff to be freed of repetitive tasks and develop higher skills, such as the ones deployed in the most difficult of roles – sofa upholstering.

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Once all the parts are assembled, a thorough quality check is performed piece by piece and each chair gets a pair of legs. To borrow Feltrin’s endearing imagery, a baby is indeed born, and if Arper’s honest and caring approach is anything to go by, it certainly is a labour of love.

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