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26 Nov 2007

Kerstin Zumstein enters the bespoke world of Alberto Lievore,

Alberto Lievore has all his shirts and trousers made to measure “by a little Spanish tailor”. He is in Paris for Maison & Objet design fair and when we meet I can’t help notice how his simple white shirt fits perfectly, a first indication of his fervour for precision finishes. His navy blue suede shoes matches his dark trousers and his personal latino touch is conveyed by the fact that he isn’t wearing any socks. Lievore’s furniture designs for Arper, Andreu World, Sellex and the likes have a similar bespoke look about them. I never really understood what the term smart casual actually means but I suddenly sense that Lievore typifies it.

His wild wiry hair, his frameless glasses magnifying his steel blue eyes, that healthy tan and his rather distinctive nose lend Lievore a Dustin Hoffman-esque appearance layered with authority, charisma and a twinkle in his eye. The Argentinian-born designer lives and works in Barcelona as founding head of Lievore Altherr Molina. The company’s Aro stool for Bernhardt Design was celebrated among design critics at ICFF in New York this year due to its clean simple form. It won the Best Seating award together with Lievore’s Celon chair (also for Bernhardt Design) at NeoCon. Lievore Altherr Molina’s lounge chair Valeri for Sellex also won the Neocon Gold Award 2007 for Best Lounge Seating. Then earlier in the year the firm received the iF Product Design Award for Catifa chairs 70 & 80 for Arper, and the Design Plus award for Arper’s Leaf Lounger in Frankfurt.

Today, however, it’s Arper that brings Lievore to Paris and invites me to join the team at Pier Luigi Copat’s studio near the Place de la Bastille. Lievore and Copat (who is known for his work with Renzo Piano) are designing Arper’s new headquarters in Treviso and have known the Feltrin family, who founded Arper, for nearly two decades now. “We don’t work with many designers anyway,” Mauro Feltrin tells me. “But Alberto is practically part of the family.” A very Italian thing to say, I guess, but also a very Italian way to think.

Considering I’m here to interview Lievore, I’m taken back by the number of gentlemen present. Both brothers Mauro and Claudio welcome me to take a seat. Lievore leans over to me and explains: “My English not good. Mauro translate or do you speak Castellano? Catalan? Italian?” Unfortunately I’ve perfected my usual response of “Si pero solo un poccino” so well that instantly the whole room cries out, “Perfetto!” and I get talked into doing the full interview in my poor Italian. God bless hands and feet and expressive gesticulation, without which this piece would be far less animated.

So, Lievore settles into his stunningly shaped Leaf chair, an outdoor chair for Arper, and I am led to the Catifa chair, one of Lievore Altherr Molina’s office chairs, also for Arper. On the table two brochures are displayed, covered in Arper branding, and for a moment there I feel set up. But when we commence the dialogue, Lievore is all mine and the Feltrin brothers politely phase out – except for the few moments when I desperately seek Mauro’s reassurance about a certain term. How come you speak Italian then, I ask. “Because I love it,” Lievore states with his charming smile. “It’s the language of design after all, isn’t it. There is a saying: one image is the equivalent of 1,000 words, but for me it’s the opposite. One word sparks a million different images. Speaking a foreign tongue is a rich experience.”

There is slightly more to it. Lievore’s parents were Italian and immigrated to South America due to the tensions in wartime Europe. They took on an Argentinian identity and mainly spoke Spanish at home, but it surely affirms the affinity. It’s ironic that their son then immigrated back to Europe due to “the bad politic air”, as Lievore puts it, a few decades later. The migratory phenomenon referring to Argentine architects moving to Spain in the 1960s is also the focus of Norberto Chaves’ book Six Argentine Designers from Barcelona, which was published earlier this year. Chaves explores the works of Lievore and his close working colleague Jorge Pensi, plus Mario Eskenazi, Carlos Rolando, Ricardo Rousselot and America Sanchez to highlight their influence on Spanish design. “We Argentinians were able to integrated easily into the fabric of life in Barcelona,” says Lievore. “Within South America, Argentina was – let’s say – quite snobbish about its architecture and design. The country always looked to Europe in regard to culture rather than its neighbours, for instance those that idolised the USA. Our economic approach was Anglophile, our cultural views Francophile, and we greatly understood the pride of the Catalan in Franco’s Spain. His reign, however, has choked creativity, which is where we were able to help bring design back to the surface.”

With Argentina slowly recuperating from the economic crisis of 1999-2002, and Buenos Aires becoming a fresh melting pot for creative talent, is there any interest in moving back to work there? “Doing industrial design in a country that doesn’t have any industry is essentially science fiction,” Lievore firmly states. “And I have my wife here, my life. Barcelona might be quite heavy, quite overcrowded sometimes, but then I retreat to my house in Mallorca and that’s my happy place, my space for thought.”

In 1991, Lievore founded the studio with German designer Jeanette Altherr and Spanish architect Manel Molina. Lievore describes Altherr as a talented stylist with a German work ethic and a French sophistication, while Molina is a very reserved person but an outstanding designer. “We all complement each other. When I receive a brief we’ll sit down together and throw ideas back and forth. Then at some point one of us will spontaneously feel closer to the project and take control. It works so well!”

They each have their specialist area too. Altherr is known as a stylist who coordinates the graphic side of many projects. Lievore is a studied architect, but the few interior design projects aside he prefers designing products. “In the discipline of product design, furniture design has cult status, and among furniture design, the chair has the highest repute.” Lievore goes on to say that in his eyes architecture is easier than industrial design, simply because all you need to satisfy is the client. “There is less responsibility and function required in architecture. A building is a one off and doesn’t need to work and survive on the market.” I stress that constructing a building has a pretty high level of responsibility, socially, aesthetically, environmentally and so on. “Si,” Lievore calmly responds, in a way that I gather means he disagrees. “Designing a chair, however, is like dancing with your feet bound. You’ll never be as free as in architecture. The challenge is to self-express and create rhythm with your legs tied.”

As most chair designers say nowadays, it’s about making people fall in love with your object. A product needs to work in mass production and Lievore Altherr Molina pride themselves that many of their products are still selling well on the market after ten to 15 years. “That’s real sustainability,” Lievore remarks. Yet when I ask about green materials and credentials, he seems a lot less passionate. “Well, to be honest, the Mediterranean region is far less into this eco-responsibility thing that is ruling northern Europe. We talk more about building to last. The English apply a similar concept when it comes to cars, right? You love old timers, antique cars – the older the higher the value.”

For Lievore, the issue of environmental problems is more one of über-consume then of poor recycling. The green craze is only a new form of gaining a competitive edge among the manufacturers. At the same time his studio did take part in an eco project this year with the Environmental Science & Technology Institute at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. This interdisciplinary project included designers, engineers, chemists and environmentalists. “Our input was a city bench with reduced environmental impact. We used a form of fango, an industrial mud to make it as sustainable as possible.”

Reduction in general is the strongest driving force that Lievore sees in design today. “At Maison & Objet this morning I noticed a tremendous shift from last year’s show. The indoor outdoor design world is clearly steering away from using teak and other wood as they were still doing just last year and far more technical fabrics have appeared to reduce material, energy consumption, distribution, everything.” In a similar fashion, reduction is the most evident tendency he sees in workplace design. “The devices needed for work, the space, everything is being physically and numerically reduced. I believe it’s a logical development that the home will become more practical and the office more humane.”

Lievore has always followed the same design philosophy and queries that office furniture has never complied to those rules. “For me there is a clear line of reference when designing: first and foremost it’s about harmony. Creating harmony and the perfect relation between all elements takes you to the next step, which is creating beauty. Beauty is what makes a person fall for an object. This basic but ideological approach leads to long-term product manifestation. Why should office furniture design be any different to regular contract, outdoor or domestic furniture, where you do find the same premise?”

Lievore says objects need to be able to live together. “It’s like arriving in a little village where life works and everything is in harmony. You can’t just scream and shout and disturb the community. You need to blend in. That what good design should do. I don’t believe in this overpowering ego-design so popular with the media. I design my objects to be friendly.” Friendly design that fits – that’s exactly the smart casualness of Lievore’s design I was talking about.

“Then again,” Lievore says, “what has always attracted me to the furniture market is the fact that everyone has an opinion on furniture.” Claudio Feltrin throws in from out of nowhere, “Like football!” “Yes,” Lievore continues, “it’s that passion, that valuation, which led me to focus on design rather than architecture in the first place.” We wrap up and go for a stroll to the Bastille and into one of the furniture shops in Faubourg-Saint-Antoine. Mauro Feltrin tells me about how Arper’s products will all be green-certified next year. “We’ll be the first company in the world to do so.” I’ve no idea if that’s true but it reinforces Lievore’s comment that green credentials are currently manufacturers’ favourite pitch. For an Argentinian in Spain, however, it’s all about designing like a beautiful tango with your legs tied – maybe that’s why he doesn’t wear socks?

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