The China connection

Claudio Luti

At 8pm on a Friday winter evening, Claudio Luti would usually be on his way to St Moritz; week days are for working hard, but weekends are spent out of the city – skiing in the mountains from Christmas to Easter, and by the sea in Portofino during summer. But Luti, owner of the Italian company Kartell, which is known for its brightly coloured acrylic furniture, hasn’t yet left his office. Last October, he took over as the president of Cosmit, the company that runs the Salone Internazionale del Mobile – Milan’s furniture fair that takes place every April.

The Salone, which hosts almost 2,000 companies, 700 young designers and about 300,000 visitors, is by far the biggest fair of its kind. But Luti is pragmatic about the competition from other shows, and the scale of his responsibility to encourage the innovation and quality that will keep the Salone in first place. While it attracts exhibitors from around the world, first and foremost it is the flag-bearer of the Italian furniture trade.

“Most companies are doing around 35 per cent export – that’s the average,” says Luti. “There are many small companies and they just survive inside the Italian market. But now Italy, Greece, Spain are in a state of crisis and we have to look at every possible new market.”

While Italy’s industrial designers are beginning to set their sights on markets further afield, Luti has long seen the necessity of such an approach: 75 per cent of Kartell’s profit comes from overseas. The company is in 122 countries, with 130 standalone stores and 200 shops-within-shops. An anecdotal measure of its success is the 2m metres of its Bookworm book shelf – a strip of polycarbonate designed by Ron Arad to curl across a wall in a shape chosen by the buyer – that has sold since the product’s launch in 1994.

While Luti’s predecessor, Carlo Guglielmi, was sometimes criticised for not recognising the merits of Chinese design, Luti takes a different point of view. “Everyone needs a programme about being in China,” he says. Kartell has a joint venture there, with a Chinese company, to open 50 shops in the next two years. “We have eight already – just 42 to go.”

The Bookworm by Ron Arad for Kartell, £401,

The 66-year-old Luti is a commanding presence. Tall and athletic-looking, in a perfectly fitted Caraceni suit, he is a keen sailor and plays a competitive game of tennis (he says that the “loser-buys-dinner” rule is good for his motivation). Milanese by birth, he thought he’d go into the family industrial glass business. But his father died unexpectedly when Claudio was still studying economics at Milan’s Cattolica university and his mother closed the company.

“It’s my one regret, not having had the one person in my life I would have liked to turn to as I grew up,” Luti says.

Instead, not long after graduating, in 1978, he went into business with a young fashion designer from Reggio di Calabria: Gianni Versace. “I formed the company, Gianni took care of creativity,” says Luti. “I played very safe. I didn’t think we had enough money to open our own shops, for example. So I set up a series of franchises – 150 – which was a separate business with no risk.” Within 10 years, internal wrangling led to Luti’s departure.

It is not something that he will talk about even now, except to say: “In my head I felt like the owner of the company. Emotionally, I was not a minority [shareholder],” – though in reality he was up against family ties. He left Versace as a strong operation and himself as a richer man: at the time, it was rumoured that Luti had received a £12m buyout of his share – much more than its actual value.

In 1976, he had met Maria Castelli, who would become his wife. Her father was a chemist who had started Kartell in 1949, making a splash with an innovative clip-on car-top ski rack. Her mother was Anna Castelli Ferrieri, an architect who designed some of Kartell’s most notable pieces, including a series of circular storage units – called Componibili – that are still popular today.

Jelly vase collection by Patricia Urquiola for Kartell, £73

In Kartell, Luti says he saw “a field close to fashion – design on an industrial scale that was about innovation and being international”. He bought the company outright from his father-in-law. “I didn’t want to be a CEO,” he says. Around the same time, he also bought a Belle Époque house in via Donizetti, from Leonardo Mondadori of the Milanese publishing family. He still lives there with Maria, among antiques and Picasso drawings that are interspersed with Kartell’s plastic pieces. The dining chairs are Louis Ghost by Philippe Starck, while Marcel Wanders’ stone-faceted acrylic stools pop up next to 18th-century revolving bookcases.

But Kartell had a problem back in 1988. Plastic, the darling of the 1960s, had gone out of fashion. It was seen as a cheap material. “And I don’t like to be in the cheap business,” says Luti. He cast about for designers and brought Philippe Starck, then the enfant terrible of design, on board. From Italy he chose the rational-thinking Antonio Citterio and the old-timer Vico Magistretti.

“My friend Philippe, he changed everything,” says Luti. “The angles, the look of the plastic. Normally it was 3mm, he made it thicker, he made it matt. He wanted special soft colours like those he’d seen in Japan – not one red, one yellow. He mixed the pigments himself and they made it in the lab just to see what happens. He didn’t like the feel of polypropylene, so I went to the specialists, and they added a little more powder which changes the feel, the touch.”

Kartell has 10 factories throughout Lombardy. The only way to keep control, says Luti, is to keep things close. Products take two years to develop and a new mould costs anything from €200,000 to €5m so design decisions are not made lightly. Last year, Kartell launched the first completely translucent dining table, called Invisible, which was designed by Tokujin Yoshioka and weighed in at 20kg in a new non-scratch material. This year, a piece weighing 25kg will be launched at the Milan Furniture Fair, though Luti will not say what or by whom.

But then Claudio Luti is good at playing his cards close to his chest – and just as good at making the world sit up and take notice.

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