Giulo Cappellini

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photo: Tom Miles

words Kieran Long

Giulio Cappellini is dressed immaculately, but in a way that could only be described, to use his own definitions, as "classic" rather than "contemporary". The blue blazer with paisley handkerchief is not, perhaps, a uniform one would associate with one of the men who has shaped the firmament of contemporary furniture design.

But shape it he has. After taking control of a small family furniture business with a very traditional output in the 1980s, Cappellini began a series of discoveries and leaps of faith that has made the company, which is based in Milan and employs around 200 people with a turnover of £30 million, arguably the most important of the Italian manufacturers. And therefore the most important in the world.

His first major coup was discovering Jasper Morrison in the mid-1980s, when the now legendary designer was an unknown. Now Morrison is one of Cappellini's most prolific designers, and his pieces take their place alongside his favourites. Cappellini was in London for the opening of an exhibition of 62 pieces of his favourite furniture from his own collection at Chaplins furniture store in the West End. This exhibition, called Casa Cappellini, and a version of a show he curated at the Milan Furniture Fair in April, included Morrison's recent Hi Pad chair.

There is clearly a special bond between the two. Cappellini describes their first meeting with affection: "I was in London, many years ago, and I went to see an exhibition at Aram design. They had 20 young English designers make prototypes, and there were 20 products, including one handmade by Jasper - the first of the Thinking Man's chair. And when I saw that, I thought, 'I can't leave without this product.' So on the way back to the airport the next day I go and see him in this small room that was his house, studio, laboratory. And I start to speak for half an hour, saying I would like to do business, and he was looking at me, not saying any words, just drinking water. So I said, 'Tomorrow morning I will send you a ticket and you will come to Italy and we will start.' I think that when I turned up, with all my boxes and bags on my way to the airport and just talking for half an hour, he was thinking I was totally crazy."

The relationship between Cappellini and Morrison is more than just that of manufacturer and designer, and Morrison now consults with Cappellini on matters of global strategy, as well as producing designs for individual pieces. Cappellini describes Morrison as "very close to my way of thinking."

His choice for the Casa Cappellini exhibition reveals a fascination with British designers - he is a collector of Ron Arad and Tom Dixon - and it is revealing to hear him speak of British design in relation to an Italian design culture that we are often in awe of. "When we think about the main English designers who live and work in London, the interesting thing is that they are all very different. Jasper is very different to Tom Dixon, Tom Dixon is different to Ron Arad. The power of English design is that they don't have powerful fathers like in Italy with Achille Castiglioni and these big names, so they can work in total freedom."

The company employs designers from all over the world, including some, such as Piero Lissoni, who have worked with Cappellini since his arrival in the 1980s. Lissoni, in fact, was a school friend of Cappellini's, and continues to make work for the firm. Cappellini is a hugely charismatic man, all modest smiles and self-effacing humour, and the personal relationship between him and his designers is paramount. He describes, sending himself up, gradually bringing Morrison out of his shell through a series of meetings and dinners. "After coming to Italy, eating some spaghetti, drinking some wine, now Jasper is more and more open," he says. "At the beginning it was like he would be saying one word per hour, and with me saying maybe 1,000."

The company receives about 100 drawings a week from designers attracted by Cappellini's reputation for taking a chance on younger, less-established names. The main benefit of designing for Cappellini is not financial; the profile that it brings is immeasurable. A perfect example of this is the Bouroullec brothers, whose rise to prominence was very definitely on the back of Cappellini picking up first on Ronan Bouroullec's modular kitchen (designed in 1998) and then putting Erwan's Lit Clos sleeping cabin into production.

"You know that when I met the Bouroullec brothers they were very, very young, but it is absolutely incredible how professional they are," he says. "It means that they could do hundreds of products, but they do not want to. They are very well-known but they prefer to go step by step. A few years ago when I saw them, I decided to follow them, I invest time and money, I believe in them, and they have a lot of offers from other companies who are Cappellini's competitors. But that's why I have the maximum respect for them. I am sure that we can do great things together, and I like very much their approach."

Cappellini is launching a new series of pieces by the brothers at Milan next year, which Cappellini describes as "strong commercial products". It is also clear that he expects payback from the faith he shows in his young charges.

The Cappellini brand looks set to change considerably in the next few years, as he considers how to diversify and reach market sectors hitherto uncharted by furniture manufacturers. As fashion houses such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Dolce & Gabbana move into the furniture sector, Cappellini is trying to steal a march on them by attacking them on their own turf. He says: "We are working on some very interesting projects, working on a stretching of the market. We have a lot of offers to work on the concepts of a Cappellini bar or a Cappellini hotel or restaurant, and on the other side to work on accessories, lights and so on. Many people think that there is a strong relationship between fashion and the design of Cappellini, and many people think we must have Cappellini luggage or sunglasses. I'm working on them. On the one hand, it's very interesting because it makes the name more popular; on the other, we have to be very, very careful. We start as a design company, we are not a fashion company. People are always waiting for some surprise from Cappellini, but we have to give the right surprise."

There are also other collaborations, such as with the electronics company Philips, which attempt to integrate new technologies with pieces of furniture. But it is still the business of making furniture that seems to fire the man, and the possibility that a new discovery may always be just around the corner. "It's not like every year I have to find a new designer. We have probably around 15 main designers, historically linked with Cappellini. But I am seeing some very new and interesting designers in the Far East. I don't care whether a product is produced here or in Italy, or whether a designer comes from London, Milan or Singapore. The most important thing is to have power and energy."

And with that, the great man leaves for the airport, on his way to Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands in the following two days. Underneath the camp Italian cliché, there is a man with a steely determination in a very competitive market.

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