Earlier this year, Parsons The New School for Design and storied Italian furniture manufacturer Poltrona Frau presented Wasteless, a competition where students were asked to repurpose leather scraps from the production floor into new and exciting products. This competition culminated with a visit to Poltrona Frau's factory, museum, and research and development center in Tolentino, Italy, by the three student winners: Yuna Kim, Benjamin Billick and myself. For one week in July, we were immersed in the brand, its history, and its manufacturing and production processes, as we experienced a unique opportunity to further develop and refine our winning designs. Our time in Tolentino was marked by a rich and open exchange with everyone at Frau, from the brand director to the marketing and communications team, the designers, leather technicians and the master artisans.
We began our week at the Poltrona Frau Museum to sharpen our understanding of the company's century-long history and identity. This was an essential step in further refining our design into the language of Poltrona Frau. We then were introduced to the Poltrona Frau factory and research lab, which was certainly one of the highlights of our trip (well, come to think of it, everything we did while there blew our minds). We were amazed to observe the artisans at work on a range of projects, from iconic furniture models to the interiors of the latest Ferraris and Maseratis. It's one thing to read about a technique from a book and trying to master it—but utterly fail every time—and another to witness the artisans perform their magic.For example, Ben attempted to make his own buttons for his capitonne at Parsons. This process took him a few days, while at the factory, upholstery buttons are made in mere seconds. The visit to the laboratory challenged any preconceived notions of what leather should or can be: It is so much more than just the hide of an animal. As designers, we have an inherent tendency to explore and understand with all our senses. With leather, it goes beyond the touch of skin; you can actually hear the difference between Cramon (chromium) and Tannin (vegetable) processed leather. At Frau, there is a department dedicated solely to the research and development of its leather upholstery so that the company can continue to push the boundaries of its use of this luxury material.
Cristina Nardi and Mirko Splendiani from the New Product Innovation department also took us through the exhaustive design process for the Ginger armchair, showing us about 20 prototypes for a single chair model! Each prototype is an exploration in dimension, comfort, material, manufacturing possibilities and cost, all without compromising value and quality. This demonstrates the importance of the design process, an aspect that is often overlooked when browsing furniture in a showroom.
Using this new knowledge, Ben, Yuna and I proceeded to refine our projects with our new resources and understanding. We were challenged to create a cohesive collection of our pieces for Poltrona Frau and to present our developments on our last day. Each of us was paired with amazing artisans from the prototyping department to help make our products. As we'd expected, our Italian wasn't up to speed and communicating our ideas to the artisans proved to be a challenge. Yet for all that might have been lost in translation, there is a certain quality and beauty that transcend words. These artisans have dedicated their lives to perfecting their skills and their craftsmanship immediately apparent in their work. With their incredible insight, they offered more possibilities and solutions for our pieces.
The last day of our workshop was packed with mixed emotions. First, anxious and excited, Ben, Yuna, and I individually presented our concepts to Roberto Archetti, Poltrona Frau brand director, Cristina Nardi and Mirko Splendiani, Eleonora Vissani from marketing, Giuliana Reggio, head of worldwide communications for Poltrona Frau, Graziano Marzioni, head of operative marketing, and our instructor, Andrea Ruggiero. There were high expectations, and I was so nervous the conference room felt like summer in the Sahara! However, by the end, we were so energized that we could have knocked out six more presentations—what a thrill! We each basked in our own sense of achievement and satisfaction but were also saddened, knowing this amazing experience was about to come to an end.
Our trip to Poltrona Frau only confirms what school has taught us, that design is never arbitrary: Each step of the design process is a calculated and concerted effort, taking every minute detail into account. Understanding how a product concept is realized—from research and development to the cycle of design, prototyping, testing to marketing and pitching the idea—is a package for success. Design is not a one-way street but a confusing, kooky and exhaustive maze. You often hit a dead-end, but with a bit of perseverance, other roads will always present themselves before you. It is a long and iterative process one must continue striving for to arrive at a final destination: the end goal.