Moving with the times - Issue 71 - Magazine | Monocle

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“Italian men are always very tough,” says Francesca Molteni, the eldest daughter of the ceo of Molteni&C, one of Italy’s most respected furniture companies. “They are the boss and they are very present.”

On the surface it’s still a man’s world in this part of Italy. Molteni&C is headquartered in Brianza, 30 minutes drive north of Milan. It’s the home of the Italian furniture industry. The road up from the city is peppered with signs indicating the headquarters of the great and the good of Italy’s design industry: Poliform, Cassina and Flexform. Most of them have been here for decades; the vast majority are still family run. Yet many, like Molteni &C, are finding themselves at a crossroads, as the elder patriarchs give way to new blood (at the time of writing, B&B Italia’s founder Piero Ambrogio Busnelli died).

“My sisters, my brothers, cousins and uncle are all in the middle of a transition,” says Francesca. The question is, how to move forward? Molteni&C was founded by Angelo Molteni in 1934. Its rise through the ranks was rapid: throughout the 1950s it worked with a roster of Italy’s most prominent design names, including architects Aldo Rossi and Tobias Scarpa. Indeed, its low-lying modernist building of brick and glass is a reminder of those post-war glory days.

“The firm could transform the idea of a designer into a product,” says Francesca. “My grandfather put a lot of life and energy into the company with a lot of risk, and it still upholds these values today.” What started as a small-scale craft firm turned over €225m in 2012, employs 800 people and has 600 points of sale in 70 countries. It is famous for its modular furniture. The 505 customisable shelving system by Luca Meda, for example, was a novelty when it launched in the 1970s and often gets an update; 2011 saw the relaunch of the 505 by designer Nicola Gallizia.

The binding trait of Molteni&C products is the search for perfection. “I remember playing in the factory when I was a little boy – it was the only time I would hear my father shouting,” says ceo Carlo Molteni, Francesca’s father. “He didn’t get angry often and the only reason he did would be if something was made badly.”

Carlo not only inherited the business – he joined the company in the 1960s – but also his father’s exacting standards. The impeccably dressed ceo is a commanding presence, clouded in the wisps of smoke that escape his ever-present Marlboro Light. A concern of his is keeping everything firmly “Made in Italy”; he’s insistent on using Italian suppliers whenever possible, from paint to uniforms and even high-quality Italian cardboard for boxing up furniture.

Ambrogio Mauri, head of the firm’s upholstery division, says: “I don’t think many would insist on using the cardboard as it is expensive and customers throw it away, but Mr Molteni wants only the best – and he only wants Italian.” Carlo has been ceo for 29 years and is now the grand old age of 70. Although his spirits and control are still strong – he bends his own rules and smokes inside the office – in recent years the king of this castle has become increasingly reliant on his brood for support in operating the business. The junior workforce includes his children Francesca, Giulia and Giovanni, together with their three cousins.

The company they find themselves inheriting differs vastly from the one that flourished during Italy’s golden age of design and manufacturing between the 1950s and 1970s. “It was an easy time for Italy, there was no war and no financial crisis,” says Francesca. “They were free to invest in the company and research. Now the world is changing.” It is this changing world that Francesca, her siblings and cousins are bracing themselves for with the all-seeing eye of Carlo ever present. Their vision? “We can’t just stay in Europe; we have to look to the world and I think the younger generation can bring in a sensitivity that takes things like the web revolution and communicating our sustainability into account,” she says.

It is no coincidence then that it was the eldest Molteni sibling, Francesca, who was put in charge of one of Molteni&C’s biggest ventures in recent years: the 2012 reissue of a series of eight rare 1950s pieces designed by Italian design master and architect Gio Ponti. The designs may be decades old but they have already helped Molteni&C reach new audiences and open up markets in the US and Asia. “Gio Ponti’s name is more world-wide than the name of Molteni&C,” says Giulia Molteni. “But we can only appreciate this and see it as an honour to produce his work.”

The appearance of these reissued works is part of an increasing trend on the part of Italy’s biggest furniture firm’s to scour archives of past design icons and purchase their reproduction rights. Off the back of a surge in enthusiasm for mid-century design, it’s a savvy decision. Reissuing classics is hardly pioneering or avant-garde but items such as the d153 armchair or the d655 chest of drawers have a timelessness that means they sell.

Molteni&C has a history of working with a roster of heavy-hitting architects and designers – including Jean Nouvel, Foster + Partners, Arik Levy and Ron Gilad – but the visually playful Ponti pieces have brought a certain punch back into its portfolio.

“This is a project that is part of the ‘Made in Italy’ story – it’s part of our heritage and will re-establish the good things we are doing in the present,” says Francesca. “Archive pieces have never been so popular in helping to propel the big names into the future.”

A bold Carlo foresees his company not only making room for a new generation but also becoming custodians of past greats. “It is a story that can continue for years,” he says, as he stubs out his cigarette and heads to his next meeting. “I am excited about the next generation, who I hope will continue our dna and our philosophy.”

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