Boffi CEO Roberto Gavazzi on the challenge of achieving the right balance between product innovation and timelessness…
If you were looking for an indicator of how significant the London Design Festival has become on the global design scene, you would have needed to look no further than the Chelsea showroom of Italian design brand Boffi. There to meet the company’s assured-yet-amiable CEO Roberto Gavazzi who has flown in from Milan for a couple of days of packed-out events at the impressive TARDIS-like show space, who else do we see than one of Boffi’s star designers Patricia Urquiola, there with TV film crew in tow.
And yet, despite the inevitable buzz, there is an understated quality about much of what the Boffi brand does. Its centrally-located Milan showroom in the Brera area of the city is low-key from the outside, but conceals a whole series of jaw-dropping room-sets built within a beautifully classic building and a hugely intriguing layout.
The London showroom is very different, although its modest shopfront display belies the huge expanse that opens up behind, as you descend a long ramp to discover the company’s latest kitchen and bathroom offerings. There is a degree of expectation from clients – and perhaps magazines like Designer – for manufacturers to always have new launches at the ready for any exhibition or festival event. Boffi resists joining this race whenever possible. Gavazzi says: “It’s crucial for us to be able to join the two contradictory needs of introducing new products and ideas, whilst also emphasising the classic ‘here to stay’ nature of our existing products.”
“You need to have a long-term attitude so it is crucial to have products that last a very long time and which can transcend trends. It’s not about current trends, but long-term thinking.”
“There is of course a pressure for ‘new’, but you can do this by playing with the different materials and configurations if the initial idea has been well designed and thought-through from the outset.” He points to the Piero Lissoni-designed Code collection as a prime example. “Code does exactly this. It is hugely customisable and is reflects an approach that involves providing emotion and involvement with the customer.”
Taking the long view brings with it other benefits says Gavazzi. “It lends itself to relationships with designers of a calibre of Piero Lissoni and Patricia Urquiola. The chain of design is always about continuity and adaption for the future.”
Although associated with innovation and high-end design, Gavazzi believes that the brand and its various collections remain very much grounded: “In many ways, the new products we introduce are not so far removed from the mainstream.” In the case of the landmark Urquiola-designed Salinas kitchen he says, the real point of difference is how its modular components can be utilised to execute what is fundamentally the same collection in a multitude of ways. “They are elements that are put together like a puzzle.”
It brings us back to the idea of customisation. Whilst it has always been within Boffi’s capability to deliver bespoke options to customers, Gavazzi says that the emphasis has changed in recent years. “Before it was customer-driven, where clients would come to us with their specific requirements. Today it is more of a company-driven approach in which we are pro-actively offering a multitude of different options, whether that is for the finishes on the doors, the internal cabinetry, or the configuration. If someone wants something very special then we can do it.”
Although Boffi works with a host of different designers, underpinning much of the brand’s output over the years has been the design influence of Piero Lissoni. The prolific Italian designer has been responsible for many of the company’s products over the years – and even provides the art direction for its various showrooms around the world. But it is far from a case of Lissoni designs and Boffi makes – the process is a collaborative one built on a mutual understanding. Gavazzi said: “It works as an exchange of views and opinions. We often travel together around the world and use that time to discuss ideas, share experiences, and consider things that we may have seen in different countries. Of course, we also work closely with Boffi’s designers on all of these ideas and bring their perspective into the mix too.”
“What Piero and myself especially have in common is that we are students of human behaviour and like to consider what people want and how Boffi can do more to enable people to have an emotional response to the products that they buy. It’s very much a collaborative process that ultimately leads to a project that has been drawn by many hands, but Piero is a very creatively stimulating force, and the one that brings the ideas of how to achieve a clean, proper design language and philosophy in the Boffi style. He stimulates us to be more courageous, and we bring the technological, industrial and manufacturing elements, which is why it has been such a successful design strategy for us over the years.”
The Boffi/Lissoni partnership stretches back 30 years so the designer has an innate knowledge of the brand and its ethos, but this is not to say the brand does not also tap into the skills and ideas of many others too. As well as its internal team, Gavazzi says the company has worked with over 40 designers over the years. “For our kitchen projects, we work with fewer designers since the industrial, technical element is so much greater and it is vital to work with designers who know and understands the ways in which we have to work. With bathroom products, we can work with many more designers as there is more scope for experimentation, alternative ideas, and less rigidity in terms of styles, shapes and materials.
“Today, there are 10-12 designers who are closer to the company and whose designs are currently represented in our portfolio, but it is a constant evolution and we never stand still with these links as we need to keep the freshness. It also helps us to work with designers from different backgrounds and cultures as this helps us to develop our products in different ways.”
Although exuding Italian style, Boffi is keen to ensure it is seen as being globally relevant. “We are strongly Italian and are fortunate in being able to take advantage of the industrial heritage and infrastructure that lies behind everything we do. But of course, we try to pick the best of the internationally strategic tools available to us. Entrepreneurship is one of most important assets and for us it is possible to achieve through emphasising our ‘Italianicity’ but on the international stage.”
Closer to home, the UK remains a key market for the Boffi brand. “The UK is very important to us – London in particular. London has become perhaps our most important city in the world. We have two showrooms here, both of which are really successful and are growing substantially every year. It has been a really rewarding market for us. We have been investing and working here for so many years so it is gratifying that we are reaping the rewards of our decision to do that.”
In the context of the UK’s imminent Brexit, does Gavazzi see that changing any time soon? “Of course we hope not, and we don’t see a major negative effect happening. We don’t imagine investments will decrease significantly – there may be some decrease, but I don’t think that it will affect us in a particularly big way since the demand for high-end products such as ours is so high. Just as in the case of the past financial crisis, the London market remained relatively strong and the relationships we have here are so strong that we would expect to maintain a more or less unchanged flow of new projects.
“Even if there is a short-term, low level shift over Brexit, we remain confident that the long-term outlook is cause for optimism.”
Boffi / boffiuk.com