Kartell's CEO Claudio Luti on the Design Giant's 2010 Collection

How do you keep a 60-year-old furniture firm on the cutting edge of design?

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Last week, Kartell, the 60-year-old Italian furniture giant, presented its 2010 pieces at the Milan Furniture Fair, in a massive black and white booth, each set against an inky backdrop to highlight its unique form.

Kartell installation

The booth was a hive of activity, swarming with press, buyers, and retailers. Presiding over it all was Claudio Luti, Kartell’s 63-year-old president and CEO. Luti, the son-in-law of Kartell founder Giulio Castelli, took over as head of the company in 1988. Since then, he’s been the force behind both Kartell’s star power and its inquisitive exploration into materials. Luti took a moment to speak with Fast Company about the new collection, and about how the brand stays relevant as it heads into its eighth decade in business.

Kartell sundial

This year’s collection brings in three new designers best-known for conceptual work: Front, Tokujin Yoshioka, and Nendo (whose Sundial bookcase is pictured above). How do you pinpoint those designers, and how do you go about forging those relationships?

I’ve been doing this for 21 years, and when I’m deciding whether or not to work with a designer, I look for someone who can be the best and with whom I can have a very close relationship. Because there’s a lot of back and forth: We try to make a project, we start, we come back, we change the idea. It’s a difficult part of the business that I do personally with each of the designers. For me to work with Starck or Citterio or [Kartell art director] Ferruccio Alviani is easy because we know each other very well. We meet regularly, and it’s easy to know what they’re thinking. With new designers, it’s more difficult. I know their reputation, but I don’t know exactly what they can do, and they don’t know exactly what Kartell can be.

How hands-on are you in sourcing new talent?

I look around a bit, but I’m lucky because a lot of designers want to work with me, and they send me their projects. Kartell is a leading company and it can offer designers a lot of visibility and a lot of money. But I cannot work with more than 10 or 12 people. I must be careful or I’d have no time to develop the projects. I like to be in every meeting every time. I don’t like for other people on my team to approach the designer directly without me. I have my engineer and my technician, and if I want to take them with me, I do. If not, I do it alone. Because it’s up to me to decide whether or not to invest the money.

Pissoni Audrey Chair

Piero Lissoni’s new die-cast aluminum Audrey chair (pictured above) is a huge departure—the company's first chair with a wholly metallic frame. After years specializing in plastic, why now?

Sometimes to realize a design, you need a new technology. Sometimes you need a new material, or a new technique, or a new machine. But I’ll only innovate if it makes sense, if the idea is there. I don’t do something just to do it. And it’s a different approach with each designer. People don’t work in the same way. Some people design a lot, some people design a little bit. Sometimes it’s enough to speak and have a cup of coffee, and sometimes it takes months to decide. But no matter what, they must have something inside, some idea, some dream. Even if there’s a new technology at work, you need the hand of the designer as well

glue cinderella

Kartell has become increasingly linked to the fashion world, first with the Mademoiselle à la Mode chair, whose seat is clothed with textiles by international fashion houses, and now with Glue Cinderella (pictured above), a small collection of plastic shoes. Where does that impulse come from?

My background is in fashion; in my first experience, I was partners with Gianni Versace. It was a very interesting period in my life. I find the design market is very close to the fashion market, and I have always found it easy to translate my fashion background. The struggle is the same: to remain new, to work with the best designers, and to have the best quality.

More from Kartell's 2010 Collection

Patricia Urquiola's polycarbonate riff on the Windsor chair:

Comback chair

Philippe Starck's Magic Hole armchair, with cavities meant for storing magazines.

Starck Magic Hole Chair

Philippe Starck's Master's Chair, a mash-up of the silhouettes of famous chairs designed by Earo Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, and Arne Jacobsen.

Starck Master's Chair

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