‘It all started with a plastic duck,’ says CEO of the Italian furniture company B&B Italia, Giorgio Busnelli. ‘It was the early 1960s and my father, Piero, was in London when he came across an industrial process that injected polyurethane into moulds that then reappeared as perfectly shaped ducks.’
The serendipitous moment would launch one of the most successful Italian design brands as Piero returned home and began to experiment with furniture-shaped moulds, injected with foam.
‘He was a visionary entrepreneur because he wanted to make furniture in an industrial way, but with products that were of a superior quality and design to anything else in the market, using technology to enable designers to create any kind of shape,’ Giorgio explains.
Last year, as the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, it appears that that original trendsetting contemporary spirit — best showcased in its iconic Afra and Tobia Scarpa-designed Coronado armchair (1966) and Mario Bellini’s Le Bambole sofa (1972) — remains as relevant as ever.
According to Giorgio, continuing his father’s forward-thinking investment in R&D is key to keeping the company at the forefront of innovation. The division currently has 28 employees with 3% of annual turnover automatically reinvested in its work. B&B Italia also continues to produce its own collection at its Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers-designed Novedrate headquarters north of Milan.
The company’s researchers work closely with a host of leading designers around the world including Italian architect Antonio Citterio, Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola and Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa. ‘They are the designers but it’s a partnership as every product has to fit perfectly within our philosophy,’ says Giorgio.
Case in point: Citterio’s outdoor furniture. Giorgio explains that he tries out each product for comfort. The design for a sleek lounger now comes complete with a moveable sunscreen. ‘It was an expensive mould to add to the design but it makes it so much more comfortable,’ he says. ‘I think of my father who used to bring new products home and we would try them out for two to three months before my mother would ask for her Coronado sofa back. That is why I pay so much attention to comfort.’
Even before 2015 when Italian investor Andrea Bonomi acquired a majority holding in the company, B&B Italia was expanding rapidly. In the last two years it has opened 20 monobrand stores, including a new 3,700-square-foot monobrand showroom in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai where products like a contemporary walk-in wardrobe designed by architect Antonio Citterio is available for the first time in the city. This year, they plan to open up to seven additional new monobrand stores, with plans to expand in emerging markets such as China.
‘China is a very different market and we can see that while it’s growing, the mentality and tastes of the new generation are changing. It’s good to see that they’re already looking less to fake goods and want something original.’
The greatest challenge, he says, is finding someone to take his position at the helm of the family company. At 65, he wants to manage the transition and find someone not only with business credentials but who also appreciates good design.
‘After 16 months we are still looking for the perfect person because while our CEO should have a sensibility and a respect for the company’s history, they also have to understand why the product is so important,” says Giorgio. ‘There has to be a love for this,’ he stresses. ‘I have found people who could run any business but that is not enough for B&B Italia.’
Text / Catherine Shaw
Images / Courtesy of the new B&B Italia showroom, Hong Kong