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01 Nov 2006

Piero’s Passion

Words by 

LissoniPiero Lissoni talks about sexy, sensual working, walls that speak and whiter-than-white white.
By Kerstin Zumstein

Take 1: Lissoni in London
Damn it! I should have nailed him when I had him, at the UK launch of his new collection at Tecno’s London showroom. With a cover of a launch issue to crown, I studied the options and was lucky to find many a designer in town for London’s design week. But nonetheless, it was an obvious choice: it had to be Piero Lissoni. The Italian designer is currently acting art director of Tecno, the Italian office-furniture manufacturer that once led the way in workplace design. Three years ago, Tecno’s CEO Filippo Masci got Lissoni on board to breathe new life into the company and boost Tecno back to the top of the office-design world.

At the London press launch, Lissoni moves around on his chair like a bored child amid serious suits. “I’m just a cleaner,” he says to the gathered press. “An expensive one.” The word “clean” seems central to Tecno’s new direction. With Masci cutting its portfolio to a more reasonable size, the new collection is looking sleek, smart and almost loungey.The presentation is held at a large, white, oval-shaped table from Lissoni’s Asymmetrical Mood collection. Its asymmetry is meant to break down office conventions by confusing people as to where to sit, and as a result level the office hierarchy. Lissoni explains: “I designed a non-linear product to twist the standard rules of use. Each place could be interpreted as the wrong or the right place to sit.”
I love it, not just because it is beautiful, but also because I envisage it as fertile ground for brainstorming sessions with my team – a table for thought. Also, this collection
is for an executive office, and although it’s doubtful the form of the table could overthrow company structure, being a non-executive I like the idea. So I grab Lissoni for a moment to speak about life and conventions, and he agrees to an exclusive cover interview the next day.

I arrive the following morning, only to discover that Lissoni has left the country. An emergency at his office in Milan calls for his personal presence. “A decision that only I could make”, he explains, forced him to jump on a plane back to bella Italia. Well that only leaves one thing for me to do: if it’s going to be Lissoni, it has to be Milan.

Take 2: Lissoni Studio, Milan
I arrive at Lissoni’s office and struggle to find the entrance.
In the backyard of a typical Milanese quarter, I find a refurbished factory space, bright, white and open. Donatella, Lissoni’s PA, shows me to his office where I wait for the master to appear.

Lissoni, born in 1956, established Lissoni Associati in 1986, together with Nicoletta Canesi, and ten years later Graph.x. Both studios work on industrial, interior, corporate and graphic design projects, as well as architecture and art direction. Lissoni Associati moved into the current office space eight years ago and has grown to employ 70 people. There is hardly a name in Italian design that doesn’t have a Lissoni creation in its portfolio. Regular clients include Alessi, Boffi, Cappellini, Cassina, Flos, Fritz Hansen, Glas, Kartell, Lema, Living Divani, Matteograssi, Poltrona Frau, Porro, Wella and, of course, Tecno.

Lissoni enters the room, and with him his two dogs, Catarina and Sophia. “Sophia,” he says, “after Sophia Loren, because of her beautiful brown eyes.” Here in Milan, I find a totally different man. He is both energetic and at ease, obviously very busy but immediately able to glide into an interview scenario.

I ask him how much of his time is committed to Tecno. “In my professional life, I don’t divide my time into certain slots. I work in a constant flow. While my clients may focus
on a certain project, I am in an ongoing process. In the same way I transcended from being a designer to being an architect or art director and so on.” Lissoni is a classic Renaissance man, a master of all crafts. “I’m not a genius. I’m not like Ronaldinho, but if you ask me to play like him for a day, I’ll play like Ronaldinho. And if you then ask me to play like Shevchenko for a day, I can do that too. I’m a multi-purpose player,” he says.

Indeed, Lissoni can’t be pigeonholed. He claims his style of working is a result of his education, from a degree at the Politecnico in Milan to studying all over the world – New York, Amsterdam, Barcelona. “I enjoyed a humanistic education that is still the basis of the way I work today.
I look at things from a humanistic point of view, incorporating poetry, mathematics, films and technology … I feel I’ve jumped out of another century into this level of modernity.”

The principle behind Lissoni’s minimalist style is always a classical one, a premise to simplify – clean, white, pure. “Admittedly, I’m radical like that!” he says, smiling. “I like white; if you don’t like white I give you another white and if you don’t like that I give you white again,” Lissoni says, his eyes sparkling. “What is wrong with white? People
say it’s so clinical … And?” In his opinion, the great thing about a white work surface is that people can add their personal elements and make it their own. Office furniture should function as a setting, a clean open setting for each individual’s work life.

I look around Lissoni’s own white-walled office and see his passionate personality mirrored in the choice of decorations: a wild boar horn, a hot chick on a Harley, a plastic penis, books on philosophy and Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince, paintings and a miniature car collection. Lissoni continues in praise of the colour white: “For me, white because it’s beautiful, white because it’s clean, because it’s no noise. I’m a metropolitan guy. The countryside is beautiful, but after a few days I need to return to the city, the confusion, the people, the noise. At the same time, it’s a challenge to create a workspace in this city madness, which can function as a calm zone, a place where you can concentrate.”

We discuss the schizophrenia of living and working in an urban environment and how best to create furniture for us urban knowledge workers. What will the future hold for working methods and workplace design? Masci had told me about his prognosis for future working procedures revolving more around teamwork and multitasking: “Teamwork means flexibility in time and space. We will move away from this territorial approach of doing a single job, in a single place and in a single timeframe. We will work more around the clock with different teams. So we will need to provide a platform to do this.”

Lissoni developed his view by analysing his own work approach: “I personally work by thinking of a surrounding. Let’s say a world! It’s not about production or a product any more. It’s about creating a real ambience.” He tells me about these companies that create everything in a box: you sit in a box, meet in a box, take folders out of a box, have your husband framed in a box, a flower in a box. Lissoni wants to break that up. He says, waving his arms about wildly, “That’s a barbarian way of life!”

But then he suddenly glows, exuding a sense of tranquility: “My vision of the future workplace is sexier, more easygoing. A sensual way to work. My idea is to create an environment that encourages a sensual work/life style. For instance sometimes I come back to my atelier at night, and I work here in silence alone. I get to read my work stuff, relax, work in my own time at my own pace, that to me is a sexy way of life, a sensual way of working.”

As art director, Lissoni is driving Tecno’s new direction and he has the possibility to create the means for a sensual office. “I see Tecno as my laboratory,” he says. “We make spaces for talking, working, sleeping, dreaming – why not?” Tecno’s new look is about making the workplace feel like home. On the other hand, he doesn’t believe in the home office. He doubts people like working from home, as when
he is at home he wants to switch off. The same goes for mobile workers. He questions the level of concentration that people have nowadays who work sitting in a park under a tree with a laptop. People will continue to need designated workspaces and Tecno provides the base.

Tecno’s product range is not extended by new creations but continuously reinvents its classic products. “It’s like in the car industry,” says Paolo Borsani, Tecno president and nephew of founders Osvaldo and Fulgenzio Borsani. “Every year you see small changes, for instance to the Porsche 911. And then every five years it’s a new car. But it always remains the 911.” I wonder whether redesigning a product limits creativity, but Lissoni says, “The limits are the creativity.”

Tecno is currently working with BTicino, an Italian electrical device company, on a pilot scheme to integrate technology further into its office products. For example, by merging technology into its partitioning, it is making previously passive products into active ones, adding core functions such as security, climate control and communication devices into its units.
So we talk about the dawn of wireless technology, but Lissoni doesn’t buy it any more. “The real revolution in terms of technology is happening on the production side. For the end users, however, we’re still faced with a fake, low-level technology. It’s aggressive technology, ugly bullshit! Just look how many wires are still around. They claim all these wonderful developments are here but that is far
from reality.”

In the factory, however, Lissoni is in awe of the way the technology of production has moved forwards. He lights up when describing the robotic arms, the lasercutting, the robotic eye and arm, wrapping steel like origami, so precise and quick. “It’s amazing!” he exclaims. “The quality of our products is paramount, and that quality is industrial – it could never be man-made.”

But for Lissoni, technology is not what it’s about. “To be honest I’m scared of Mr Microsoft. I don’t like the sci-fi movement.” Recently, he was asked to design an interactive wall that registers human presence with radio waves and changes colour when you come close, reflecting your mood. “What is that?” Lissoni’s gesticulate fiercely. “The wall even talks to you: good morning, Mr Lissoni. It’s a wall! Don’t talk to me – shut up! There are things going on in Afghanistan, Iraq … that is real! I don’t like this premature sci-fi obsession because this is simply not the level of technology we are currently at. A digital camera, a device receiving emails, photos, playing music – that’s where we currently are.”

All this leads back to Lissoni’s principle of creating things that are simple and clean: one function, one solution. That’s the way he likes to operate and it works. “You just have to see a building by Renzo Piano to understand the real level
of simplicity!”

How about his life – has it been simple, clean? What were the main turning points? Lissoni laughs: “The turning points were all in my private life and they were dictated by the women; they decided when a new phase was on.”

Lissoni is full of fire – his dynamic swings from smiles to rage, from boredom to sparkling. His passion for design chose his profession for him, and his career has gone very smoothly. “Professionally, everything is possible,” he says. He never acknowledges limitations or rules. “The human factor is important, even when Nicoletta and I started, we only chose to work with people we liked – that’s the only way I can work. Things have gone really well for me, I consider myself lucky and must say I’m feeling good!’
And so, I must say, on meeting Lissoni, am I.

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