Sitting pretty: Italy’s furniture industry

It’s said that good design is written into Italian DNA. Artisan traditions, innovation and global ambitions have given it a seat at the top table

Alastair Smart

15/11/2017

Immediately after the Second World War, Italy’s future looked bleak: a battleground for many years, it was financially bankrupt and politically fragile (becoming a republic for the first time, after the fall of its monarchy).

Thanks in no small part, however, to the investment of millions of dollars of American aid, via the Marshall Plan, Italy’s economy first recovered, then soared. The Fifties and Sixties saw what Italians now refer to as “il miracolo economico”, and one of the main industries to thrive was furniture.

To cite just a few pieces that have since gone down as classics, there was the Superleggera chair by Gio Ponti, for Cassina; the Carlton bookcase by Ettore Sottsass, for Memphis Group; the Mezzadro stool by brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, for Zanotta; and the Luisa chair by Franco Albini, for Poggi.

Italian furniture is still going strong today. Like so many sectors, it struggled during the years of global economic crisis earlier this century, but recent figures are encouraging: in 2016, the industry was worth €21bn, an increase of 2.3 per cent on 2015 (which, in turn, represented a 3.4 per cent increase on the year before that).

This leaves Italy as the world’s second-biggest furniture manufacturer, after China – but quality has always been as important as quantity, something confirmed each year at the Milan Furniture Fair (or Salone Internazionale del Mobile Milano, to give it its proper name). Held annually since 1961, it is renowned as the world’s marquee event in the field – and attracts around 300,000 visitors.
“Many say that good design runs in Italians’ DNA, so synonymous have we become with it,” observes Matteo Casagrande, head of marketing initiatives within Banca dei Territori Division of Intesa Sanpaolo. “But that doesn’t tell even half the story.”

Intesa Sanpaolo is principal sponsor of the Milan Furniture Fair, its commitment born out of an ambition to promote standout Italian enterprises worldwide. Which brings us to the noteworthy statistic that, where just 17 per cent of Italian furniture was exported in 1980, that figure has now leapt to 46 per cent.

Clearly, clever marketing has helped; the “Made in Italy” stamp (a guarantee of excellence in the trade of food, fashion, furniture and cars) is internationally recognised. The country is renowned as the quintessence of style and anything connected to the “Good Life” or La Dolce Vita. However, as Casagrande points out, “beyond mere branding, Italian furniture has a rich and deep-rooted heritage that flourishes to this day”.

One of the keys to this heritage has been designers and manufacturers collaborating in close proximity. Put another way, Italian firms – while keeping abreast of the latest technologies – tend still to be rooted in the tradition of artisanal guilds, which dates back to the Renaissance. “They put great emphasis on, and take great pride in, the design of each sofa, table and dresser,” Casagrande adds. “There’s no hint of one size fitting all, to make a profit.” In short, artists are at work.

Another factor to bear in mind is that Italy’s furniture firms are, in the main, highly localised. Italian design may often be associated with a certain sleek sophistication, but – as Fabrizio Guelpa, Intesa Sanpaolo’s head of industry and banking research, stresses – what’s interesting about furniture is actually its diversity. “[Achieving unification in 1871], Italy is a relatively young country and benefits from the fact that there’s no overarching, national manner,” he says. “It’s marked by a broad range, from the wood furniture of Brianza, near Lake Como in the north of the country, to the upholstered furniture of Murgia Barese in Puglia, in the south.”

Italian business is, in many cases, clustered in so-called “industrial districts” up and down the land – small and medium-sized firms within a given industry proliferating in given areas. The phenomenon is perhaps most readily associated with Victorian Britain, where Lancashire was a major district for textile production, for instance, and Sheffield one for metalworking. In Italy today, the largest district for furniture is Livenza, not far from Venice, where around 65 per cent of the local workforce is employed in the industry.

“Intesa Sanpaolo is primed for this and, through its Internationalisation Office, ready to give business support to any Italian firm looking to make serious inroads abroad”

Matteo Casagrande, head of marketing initiatives within Banca dei Territori Division of Intesa Sanpaolo.



A recent upswing in Italian real estate has boosted furniture sales domestically, but it’s externally where both Casagrande and Guelpa sense the greatest opportunity for growth. Casagrande says: “Intesa Sanpaolo is primed for this and, through its Internationalisation Office, ready to give business support to any Italian firm looking to make serious inroads abroad”.

Through its international network, the bank has a consolidated presence in 40 countries: those where the impact of Italian businesses has traditionally been strongest. It has collaborated with banks in another 45 countries, too. “Above all else, Intesa Sanpaolo is successful in offering its clients a bespoke service and thorough knowledge of international markets,” Casagrande adds.

As Guelpa sees it, “the rise of oil prices in 2017, and likely beyond it too, should drive demand for furniture from OPEC countries,” (the group of oil-rich, predominantly North African and Middle Eastern nations, known collectively as the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries).

“Russia was also a major driver of growth for Italian furniture sales before the crisis in Ukraine [in 2014] and subsequent sanctions. And it’s expected to be so again in due course.” Likewise, China, Brazil and India; countries where, broadly speaking, a furniture-buying middle class is growing fast.

And then, of course, there are the big existing markets: France, Germany, the UK and United States, which currently represent the top four export destinations. “There’s much to suggest more good times ahead for Italian furniture,” says Guelpa. “It has certainly come a long way since 1945”.

“There’s much to suggest more good times ahead for Italian furniture”

Fabrizio Guelpa, Intesa Sanpaolo’s head of industry and banking research.



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