Antonio Larosa, a native of Milan, is chair of the SCAD furniture department and the kind of designer who makes you want to join the revolution. "American furniture design has been hibernating for fifty years," he said to me earlier this week. "I want to wake it up!"
PW: So, you want to reinvent American furniture design.
AL: When I first came to the U.S., I was surprised by how much furniture designers were misunderstood in this country. I was in an elevator in New York City, this was 1991, and a very nice lady asked what I did for a living. I told her I was a furniture designer, and she starts to tell me about her wobbly bookcase. She asked, "Can you fix this for me?" This is what people do in America when you tell them you design furniture! They think you are a repairman!
PW: How is it different in Italy?
AL: They take you out to dinner! You are a hero! They don't ask you to fix their tables. It is like telling someone you design cars, and they think you are a mechanic. This is even the mentality of furniture manufacturers in the U.S.! Look at Charles Eames. His molded chairs are still the freshest thing in American furniture design, and that was sixty years ago! I want to change this.
PW: So how do we reinvent American furniture design?
AL: We have to convince U.S. manufacturers that they need design. We have to get them away from thinking of us as woodworkers. Furniture design is not about building. There are already a million builders in other parts of the world who can do it more efficiently and more affordably than we can here. I want to take a bus full of students and drive to every furniture trade show and market and get on the loudspeaker: "Save your company! Hire a designer!"
Student work at the High Point Market in North Carolina.
PW: Why all this love for American design, when you're from Milan?
AL: I grew up idolizing American design! Florence Knoll, Charles Eames, these were my heroes. And when I got here, I saw that it was gone, vanished. I want to help bring it back.
PW: Okay, so what are your favorite pieces of furniture?
AL: I worship the Thonet No. 14. This is the mother of the modern chair, designed in 1860. So brilliant! So simple! It is only six pieces. And see, Thonet used innovative processes to create this chair—the steaming of wood.
PW: What are the big trends in furniture design right now?
AL: Everything is becoming about common sense. I was at a leather company in Italy where they manufacture Gucci handbags, and I noticed a giant pile of scraps. They were throwing this leather away, so I took some samples and ended up creating a whole furniture collection around this scrap leather. I used the smallest pieces to create tiny flowers that are part of the design. I called it "Millifiore," which means "a million flowers." You could call that sustainable design, but it makes more sense just to call it common-sense design.
Design for a key-ring from the Millifiori Collection.
PW: What's been your proudest moment as a design educator?
AL: This spring, the Italian government sponsored our students to visit Milan. I introduced them to my mentor, Alessandro Mendini. He is elderly now, but still full of ideas. He showed them all his current projects: a coffee maker, a new kind of wine corkscrew, a briefcase, and his concepts for a new museum that will be powered by the ocean's waves. All this, from a furniture designer! We ended the trip at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, where we were named the Best International Design School. The students were so happy! Here they were, in the Mecca of international design, and SCAD's young American designers took the top prize. The revolution has begun!
Students with Alessandro Mendini (left) and Antonio Larosa (second from left) in Mendini's studio.
[Image 1: Eames chair; Image 3: Thonet No. 14 chair]
Paula Wallace is the president and co-founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which was established in 1978. Over the last three decades, she has served as the university's academic dean and provost and was appointed president in 2000. Since that time, Wallace has led the university in unprecedented growth, transforming SCAD into the most comprehensive art and design university in the United States—a nonprofit, accredited institution with more than 9,300 students and 1,500 faculty and staff.