Contract observatory

What is it like to work in the field of contract supplies today? We asked businesspeople, chief executives, and the heads of the contract division at five companies – Artemide, Cappellini, Duravit, Kvadrat and UniFor.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Caterina Rossi, head of the Global Lighting Projects division at Artemide, has no doubts: the success of her company's bestsellers in contract work is thanks to flexibility. The Architectural line, which features the popular product A24, is thriving. "We use this system across the board – residential, offices and hospitality. Designed two years ago by Carlotta de Bevilacqua, A24 can be applied to all kinds of design projects," says Rossi.

Her view is not very different from that of Kurt Wallner, although it regards an entirely different type of products. Wallner, the CEO of Cappellini, has ten years of experience as the director of the contract division of the companies owned by Gruppo Poltrona Frau. "Our collection is very versatile, meaning it is suited to buildings of different types – hotels, restaurants, offices, lobbies, lounges and yacht interiors. For a product to become a bestseller, it must be recognisable. People must understand immediately that they are looking at a piece by Cappellini. At the same time, it must be so functional as to be optimally usable for public spaces."

The spacious circular foyer at 25hours hotel The Circle, open since 2018 in the Friesenviertel district of Cologne. Studio Aisslinger developed a retrofuturistic concept that respects the original layout of the 1950s-'60s building. Cappellini custom-made pieces of upholstered furniture for this interior, including the Geo chairs. Photo Steve Herud

At Duravit, the most popular series (Me by Philippe Starck) is the one that offers most possibilities. Its success is thanks to the product's many versions, sizes and variants, all made in order to meet the design complexity required by architects. "Two aspects are fundamental for every contract product. One is a shape that can be integrated in all interiors without being overbearing, and two is the broadness of the collection. It must allow us to create, using one and the same series, a tiny bathroom with just a toilet or a spacious bathroom with a spa area," says Albrecht Graf von der Groeben, chief of international sales at Duravit. "We have other series suited to more prestigious contract work, like the Luv by Cecilie Manz. Then there is the versatile evergreen Vero/Vero Air."

The early 19th-century former royal guard house Strandridergården in Vedbæk, north of Copenhagen, recently renewed. Its 14 bathrooms use the Luv sanitary appliances designed by Cecilie Manz for Duravit. Foto © Duravit

Sometimes, flexibility and adaptability alone are not enough, says Carlo Molteni Junior, the general director of UniFor. He touches on another key characteristic for the contract sector: the made-to-measure product. "The furniture we sell most is the height-adjustable desk I Satelliti and the Naòs System by Cerri Associati, which is flexible because it is made using extruded aluminium parts. We often use the RP partition system by Renzo Piano for big projects for its elevated acoustic performance and the fact that it can be mounted with single or double glazing. In almost all cases, these products are customised in accordance with the requirements of each specific project. All UniFor products are engineered to make this possible. One example is the CF bookcase. We delivered a certain configuration of it for the Qatar National Library by OMA. For the Oodi Central Library in Helsinki by ALA Architects, we modified one of the extruded elements and added a strip of LEDs, but it's still the same product," says Molteni.

Top and above: For the Parliament of Malta in Valletta (RPBW, 2015), customised UniFor desks were designed to enhance the geometry of the parliament chamber. UniFor also produced the Parete RP partitions with screens of technical fabric, the MDL System workstations, the Naòs System meeting tables and executive desks with personalised finish, and the Neutra archive cabinets. Photo Mario Carrieri

Customisation and Purpose-Mades versus Ready-Mades

In the furniture business, contract work has the need for the largest number of specially built furnishings. Today's manufacturers use different terms to differentiate between adapted standard products and purpose-built products. Aldo Rivetti, the chairman at Kvadrat, says, "Despite the fact that our collections are so wide ranging, in many cases we make fabrics expressly for a certain project. Examples are the Elbphilharmonie by Herzog & de Meuron in Hamburg, the Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry in Los Angeles, and almost all cruise-liner interiors." 

Grand Hall at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg by Herzog & de Meuron, 2017. Kvadrat fabrics Ginger 2, Tonica, Coda 2 and Hallingdal 65 were used. Poltrona Frau made the 2,100 seats of the concert hall, covered in the Basel fabric by H&dM for Kvadrat

Specially studied items that require extreme performance levels are joined by other solutions. "Cappellini makes two kinds of customised pieces," says Kurt Wallner. "We call one of them personalised. That's a standard product modified to suit the requirements of a job. We ask the designers of the product for authorisation to do this, and usually they collaborate. For obvious reasons, we do not personalise the Le Corbusier pieces produced by Cassina. The other kind of customisation is when we develop new products from scratch, branded Cappellini."

At Artemide, there is the Bespoke division, its crown jewel. It works together with architects on the customisation of the products in the catalogue. The company's Global Lighting Projects office works on new products and solves the lighting requirements of diverse projects on a case-by-case basis. "For the Jaguar showroom, we used linear hanging fixtures with controlled optics conceived for the workstations, but to illuminate the automobiles they are used as is," says Caterina Rossi. Compared to the past, the companies working in the sector of large-scale outfitting are now much more focused on the unique character of what they supply, supporting architects with specialised in-house departments.


Attimi by Heinz Beck restaurant at Citylife in Milan by Fabio Novembre Studio with Rossi Bianchi lighting design, 2018. The dining area is hung with the disks Discovery Vertical by Ernesto Gismondi for Artemide. Photo Andrea Martiradonna

Read the full article on the Contract special, attached to Domus 1040, November 2019

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