Words by Helen Parton
Helen Parton went to meet Italian designer Franco Poli to discuss coach-hide furniture, collaborations with Matteograssi and a love of solitude and silence
I first glimpse Franco Poli hunched intently over a laptop with a series of fast-moving projections of furniture manufacturing behind him, like some kind of design boffin, or perhaps a pioneering maestro of difficult electro music. The occasion was a lecture on the techniques employed by Italian manufacturer Matteograssi, specialist in products using coach hide, in the development of Poli’s Loom chair launched in 2006. This was part of an exhibition of Matteograssi products at the Clerkenwell showroom of B-Loose earlier this year.
The morning after the launch party and the showroom is unrecognisable in its emptiness compared to the thronging ranks of the A+D community that filled it the night before. And it’s only then that I get to take a look at Poli’s work. Not being a designer myself, but with, it has to be said, a full appreciation of the pastry goods sector, the process involved in making the Loom chair (a special slitting process that expands the hide before it can be enclosed within a frame) reminds me of the latticework you might find on a particularly well-made pie. And anything that reminds me of that has got to be worth closer inspection.
The craftsmanship is amazing and I’m not surprised to learn that each piece goes through a series of finishes completed by hand after the master cutter selects the hide, or that the firm has been working with leather for over a century. Poli, when he arrives at the showroom with export director Gloria Sormani – who fills in the gaps where his English ends and my Italian is yet to begin – commences by emphatically praising this process. “It is the only company in Italy that deals with saddlery leather in this way and they are one of the few companies that can allow themselves to operate above fashion issues in a truly timeless way. The oldest product [in this exhibition] is 25 years old and still selling well. I hope to always be making this kind of thing.”
We sit down at the Tent table designed by Rodolfo Dordoni, another product where you can really feel the quality of the leather stitching. Much of Poli’s work is on display here, including the Fullerina chair, which he passed amongst the crowd during the previous evening’s proceedings to demonstrate its lightweight properties – the secret’s in the combination of ash frame and plywood legs apparently. Dominating proceedings around us is the Loomy screen, a tactile and contemporary way to separate different areas within domestic, retail or office spaces, again using the coach-hide mesh. What is his inspiration for products like these I wonder? He cites the topological work of 20th-century designer Richard Buckminster Fuller, best known for exploring the geodesic dome shape, a structure designed to cover the maximum possible space without internal supports. He also admires the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto, but mostly, he says, his work with coach hide has entailed years of research and the results were down to pure hard work.
It’s clear that materials have been an inspiration throughout Poli’s life, from when he was a boy asking for bits of unwanted glass from the warehouses where Murano lamps were made or when, at 16, he first began experimenting with offcuts of coach hide with some of his friends. He also enjoyed working with wood for chairs, beds and sideboards for Italian manufacturer Bernini, and during a career spanning over 30 years, he has collaborated with several other major manufacturers including Tonon, Montina and Poltrona Frau.
Born in Padua in 1950, Poli began working as a professional designer after graduating from the University Institute of Architecture of Venice in 1974, though when I ask him about these early beginnings, he proclaims, “I never really started as a designer though,” and rather amusingly can’t understand when this raises a smile amongst the rest of the group assembled around the table. He insists on being hands on in the prototyping process, adding, “In my professional life, when I draw something I always think how I want to make it myself.” During the 1970s, he is credited with helping to bring function back into modern furniture design and he went on to share his skills by becoming a professor of design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in the 1990s.
Though he claims to be taking this year as a sabbatical, there’s little evidence of that at this year’s Venice Biennale. Poli and Matteograssi have worked on the designs for the reception spaces of the fair: the Caffe del Padiglione Italia, the break-out area of the bookshop as well as the Arsenale restaurant. “You are bombarded with artistic images at the various pavilions, but the moment you get to the recreation areas, I have created a serene environment with some very smooth, relaxing colours,” explains Poli. Here, the thousands of visitors to the Biennale will be greeted with the Poli designed Openside sofa – perfect for the large expanse of public areas at the exhibition, but equally fitting for the entrance to a flagship office with its flexible, asymmetrical configuration. The sofas are complemented by his Arete chair, made in two sizes – the standard version for a quirky desk chair and the larger one for waiting rooms and seating areas.
He says he feels Venetian and that the city has adopted him as one of their own, though he currently lives and works alone in Verona in an old house in the historical heart of the town. At the start of his career, he worked in
a showroom with 18 people but he didn’t like the noise of so many others in one place and going solo suited him. Just as his designs have a quiet assurance to them, so their creator eschews noise. “Silence is very important to me,” he says. “I recently went on a trip to Jordan, which was very rewarding. For two nights I slept in the desert in a Bedouin tent with nothing to disturb me – no phones, no television, nothing but silence. It was fantastic.”