Even if you’ve never heard of Giulio Cappellini, or the eponymous design studio he’s run for three decades, chances are you’ve seen some of the furniture maker’s quizzically shaped, brightly hued tables, couches and cabinetry.
If not in top style mags like Elle Decor, Dwell and Architectural Digest, then on display at prestigious museums like the V&A in London, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and New York’s MoMA.
Part of what has made the 59-year-old so successful is a singular ability for discovering, developing and collaborating with untapped talent: much lauded stars like Marcel Wanders, Jasper Morrison and Tom Dixon all got their first big breaks by working with the Milanese master.
When Cappellini was in Toronto recently to give a lecture at the Design Exchange, we caught up with him to talk about his sense of colour, humour and how he finds his bright young things.
You’ve got a knack for spotting fresh talent. How do you do it?
I travel a lot. I visit universities and schools. I meet a lot of people. Sometimes I just see a rough prototype or a sketch. Or sometimes I meet someone and I just think that this person can work well with Cappellini. The feeling I get for the person is very important, because sometimes it takes years between the first prototype and the final design. And I never just want to make one piece with a designer. So we need to build a strong relationship.
A lot of young designers must compete for your attention.
I get about 300 portfolios a month. I have two people who go through them, to make the first selections. Otherwise I would spend all of my life looking through people’s projects. But for me, it’s nice to still have young designers who love and want to work with Cappellini. You know, during the Milan Furniture Fair in April, there is an area for young designers. And when I got there, all these people try to get my attention.The most important thing for me, though, is to be really frank. To say okay this product can be good. This product cannot be good. I’m always very open.
Any words of wisdom?
I always tell young students to take their career step-by-step and stay focused. It’s important to keep up the quality of the design, so do only a few pieces but of high quality. Also, you cannot think you will become rich and famous within six months. It takes a lot of time.
It’s very difficult to make it, so to speak.
Very difficult but not impossible. If you start with 100 people, maybe 10 are good designers.
Are there any young designers you like right now?
There are some very interesting people going. Like [the Japanese design collective] Nendo. I started to work with them a few years ago at the beginning of their career. And now they are becoming very popular. On the other side, I’m very interested to see what is going on in places like the Middle East – in countries that have not been contaminated by the big masters of design like Europe or the States.
What about Canada?
You know, yes, this year we are going to present a prototype from a very talented Canadian designer at the Milan Furniture Fair in April. I just can’t say who yet.
Cappellini pieces also tend to have bold, fun colours.
I cannot live in a house that is all beige and brown. That’s really depressing, frankly speaking. Maybe it’s because I live in Milan, which is like Toronto – it has nine months of winter. So I absolutely need colour.
Do you have a favourite colour right now?
I usually change my mind every two or three years. In the past I have used a lot of blues. From very strong to very pale shades of blue.Right now I think that red is very interesting. The whole palette. From pink to orange. Because I think that red works very well with the natural textiles I am using.
Your pieces are often humorous – an oversized command chair inspired by the movie Tron, for example – but never absurd looking. How do you find that balance?
The idea of humour for me is very important. We have to make people smile and dream. So, I like a little bit of humour. But the most important thing is to create products you can live well with for a long time.
You don’t want people to look back and say, “What was I thinking?”
Yes, that’s very true.
This interview has been condensed and edited. It originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, March 28, 2013.