Astori’s dream team

One of the latest events to mark London’s status as the capital of cool was Driade’s launch of its new brochure and its focus on British-trained talent. In a rare interview Lynda Relph-Knight talks to Enrico Astori.

The party at Viaduct’s London showroom earlier this month would have charmed Milan. Furniture design’s glitterati were out in force, quaffing prosecco and glancing with approval at the elegant, understated furniture dotted around the place; the usually stark showroom transformed by hanging polythene planters into a series of smaller spaces. Italian accents mingled with East End twangs, Milanese fashion with London street style.

The occasion? It was the UK launch of the Italian furniture manufacturer Driade’s fifth magazine-style brochure, Driade Edizioni, and the London showing of its latest, largely British-designed, collection.

Two things were surprising about the event. The first was to find so many British designers – or at least British-trained designers – working for one Italian furniture firm. Jasper Morrison, Sebastian Bergne, Konstantin Grcic, Matthew Hilton, Ross Lovegrove, Ron Arad and Platt & Young all have pieces in there. The second, and more interesting, was that Driade had a London launch at all, let alone such a stylish party.

But architect Enrico Astori, art director of the company he co-founded in 1968 with his wife, graphic designer Adelaide Acerbi, and his architect sister Antonia, believes that London is where the talent is. Such is his belief that he and Acerbi moved here last April and have no immediate plans to return to Milan. Being Italian, Astori considers himself “of the south” and is especially interested in the designs, literature and culture of “the north”: the UK and Germany.

The original idea behind Driade was to create “a philosophy of living”, says Astori, “to create a culture of the home”, not just a commercial venture. To this end, Antonia Astori developed what he describes as “a systematic line of products”. This is supplemented by individual pieces by different designers to give a “total home concept”. In Italy there is a healthy market for modern domestic design. Here in the UK it is growing fast, but you’re still more likely to see Driade products in a commercial setting. The idea, says Astori, “is to make a nice product for the residential market, but with the technical performance to suit contract”.

Astori says the company is now in its third period. Initially, all the furniture was designed by Antonia with Italian designer Enzo Mari, but in the Seventies the then Italian “brat pack” got involved – Ettore Sottsass, Achille Castiglioni, the Vignellis, Paolo Deganello, Rodolfo Bonetto and Alessandro Mendini. These, says Astori, “were like flowers being added to an already consolidated bunch”. The aim was to add to Driade’s “minimalist, rationalist” designs to create other special trends and this has been continued.

You could say that the “enlightened patronage” approach to contemporary design is typical of most self-respecting Italian furniture firms. But Driade has proved more forthright than many, on a par with the likes of Vitra’s Rolf Fehlbaum or Sheridan Coakley of SCP in London in its attempts to nurture talent.

You can see this from what Astori calls “the second period”, which began in 1984, when Driade launched its Aleph collection and started to look beyond Italy for “minimalist avant-garde” design. Borek Sipek’s “new Baroque” and Oliver Tusquet’s “Gaudiesque modernism” were in there. But the biggest name to join the stable in recent years is French star Philippe Starck, whose designs for New York’s Royalton Hotel, among other things, are produced by Driade.

The relationship with Starck is still “very close” though there is less opportunity to meet these days. But Astori detects a move away from the power of a single superstar towards teamwork among a group of designers. This, he believes, Driade is achieving with its growing British design stable. In terms of trends, the Brits are categorised by DE editor Vanni Pasca into three types: Morrison, Grcic and Bergne are dubbed minimalists; Arad, Hilton and Platt & Young organicists; and Tom Dixon, Jeremy Lord and Inflate neo-pop.

Astori says British design is a phenomenon of the Nineties. “English design is the most important thing that has taken place (this decade),” he maintains, identifying “a group of people with something in common”. It’s not just about the expression of one person, he says, but about teamwork, even if the individuals concerned are using a different form of expression.

He extends his view beyond the UK, across Europe, saying that he sees a European design emerging. It’s coming about through designers of different European nationalities working together “like a choir”.

Arad, whose picture makes the cover of DE, was one of the first and strongest of the Brit pack, says Astori. The challenge for Driade is to bring out the best in designers like him, in a way that works in the home. Arad’s wicker chair Loop Loop of 1992, for example, was conceived in metal mesh, but, says Astori, that would have been too sculptural, so Arad was persuaded that wicker was more appropriate for the home.

The Astoris’ commitment to London could extend, with talk of a Driade shop, but there are no firm plans about location. The original shop in Milan’s fashionable Via Manzoni is owned by the company, while other outlets across Europe and the Far East are franchised, so it’s likely that a London shop would be as well. He also introduces the idea of manufacturing in the UK, trailing off the thought with a dismissive “maybe in the future”. Another ambition, perhaps, is to achieve “the softness of the English living room”, something he tried without success, years ago, with the now Pentagram partner Daniel Weil.

The polythene planters, by the way, are Italian – Erbale by Bortolani, Bechelli and Maffei. We Brits still don’t have all the good ideas.

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