Inside Jobs

The leading Italian furniture companies engage in a little-known but highly lucrative sideline—acting as construction managers for high-end interiors.

B&B Italia has seized a niche at the high end of the furniture market, producing pieces created by a who’s who of design: Antonio Citterio, Patricia Urquiola, Naoto Fukasawa, and Zaha Hadid. But like many of its competitors, the company is also active in a less visible but more lucrative sphere: providing custom interior services that go far beyond delivering couches, chairs, and beds on deadline.

“Let me be clear, we don’t design, but we do almost everything else: engineer, develop, suggest any changes that might help the architect fulfill his vision,” says Paul Statham, the sales and marketing manager of B&B Italia’s project division. “We’re the glue that makes the project come together.”

No longer simply manufacturers or suppliers, venerable companies such as B&B Italia, Poliform, Poltrona Frau, and Promemoria, among others, assist architects and developers as cost analysts, value and product engineers, material sources, and project managers. B&B Italia helped Citterio transform a former convent into the Bulgari Hotel in Milan, and it is now working with David Chipperfield to fully fit out London’s old Café Royal. Poliform produced custom furniture designed by the local firm Rhed for the Templar Hotel in Toronto. It also supplied curtains, carpets, and bath fixtures to animate Citterio’s sumptuous interiors at the W Hotel in St. Petersburg. Poltrona Frau assisted Piero Lissoni in realizing eight luxury suites at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. In some cases, manufacturers shepherd interior construction projects for which they don’t supply furniture.

Turnkey services—wherein a construction company, distributor, or in this case, furniture manufacturer takes charge of, and responsibility for, projects from beginning to end—are not new in contract furniture. Florence Knoll created one of the first in-house planning units for commercial interiors in the 1950s. But while the idea may have been born in the United States, Italian companies enjoy a virtual monopoly on such services in the luxury market.

“Of course, these companies have written the history of design,” says Franco Bianchi, the Italian-born CEO and president of Haworth, Inc. “And they have considerable technical and material expertise. But they’re also effective in this segment of the market because they’re small enough to be flexible, yet solid enough to withstand the financial risks that turnkey projects entail.”

Italian turnkey projects evolved slowly at first. In the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s military asked B&B Italia to help outfit private residences for high-ranking officers. “We designed and provided the furniture, fixtures, textiles, even the dishes,” Statham says. In 1985, the company’s contract division signed on to outfit cruise ship cabins for Costa Crociere. B&B Italia engineers sped up the process by designing and installing modular decks and cabins before the hull was sealed. The joint venture—which still exists today—allowed B&B Italia to develop its skills in sourcing, transportation, engineering, fabrication, and project management.

Still, until the last decade, turnkey projects made only minor contributions to company revenues. Then a tectonic shift in the hotel sector changed the landscape. Many chains began selling off their properties. At the same time, boutique hotels began to sprout up across the globe. While chains had established protocols for build-outs, fittings, and renovation, new developers wanted every room, chair, and foyer to be unique—especially at the five-star end of the spectrum. Demand for custom design and installation soared. “The latest hotels are controlled by investors attracted by the chance to do something special,” says Roberto Barbazza, the sales and marketing manager for B&B Italia’s contract division. “They’re usually in love with their project, and often doing it for the first time. They don’t want furniture that someone else can buy in a store, no matter how exclusive.”

Convincing first-time developers to enter into a partnership isn’t easy, even for companies that enjoy significant prestige and reputation. “We must show them we understand the project,” says Barbazza, whose group numbers 45 full-time employees, including engineers, cost analysts, logistics experts, and construction managers. Representing ten percent of the B&B Italia workforce, the contract division provides between 30 and 40 percent of the company’s annual revenue. “We want them to understand that we can help an architect create a signature look within the developer’s budget, that we can shout when it’s appropriate—and at work sites, it’s always appropriate. We bring skills and balls to the project.”

Poliform Contract, the department that focuses on turn-key projects, is also able to leverage its design and material capabilities with clients. “They come to us because they know our brand,” says Laura Anzani, the CEO of Poliform USA. “They also know that we can support them in almost any location on the planet.” Established in the 1990s, the contract group has expanded every year since and currently employs 25 people full-time, along with dozens of contractors on sites around the world; it accounts for 15 percent of total company revenue. From the outset, most clients understood that dealing with a single entity would streamline the design and construction process. “One danger is when you design something and then try to build it right away,” says Alberto Zontone, the CEO of Studio Urquiola (the Milan-based design firm has collaborated on interior projects with several Italian contract divisions). “Many design studios and developers make the mistake of producing too many drawings up front, only to throw them into bins hoping that the contractors have the expertise they are looking for. It’s more productive when you design and improve, build and improve at the same time. It sounds more complicated, but in the end it’s faster, cheaper, and more effective.”

Along with its design acumen, B&B Italia’s logistic experience proved invaluable during its work with Studio Urquiola at the W Hotel in Vieques, Puerto Rico. “We were in the middle of the Caribbean, coordinating sources from all over the world, dealing with labor issues, materials, deadlines,” Zontone says. “They pulled all these things together.”

While contract services are increasingly profitable for these Italian companies, few American firms seem eager to follow suit. Haworth partners with design firms to create its raised flooring and panels, but tends to produce interior solutions that can adapt over time. “Our American clients are interested in flexibility,” explains Haworth CEO Bianchi, whose Holland, Michigan, company recently signed a North American distribution deal with the Poltrona Frau Group. “Most premium turnkey projects are specialized and not flexible. They tend to look beautiful on delivery. But if that hotel or theater has to be transformed into an office, you’ll have to gut and rebuild.”

Psychology and business culture also play a part in discouraging American manufacturers from venturing into the turnkey market. “Design is more pervasive across Italian culture than it is in the U.S.,” says Brad Powell, the editor of the contract-furniture industry newsletter Officeinsight. “As a result, you see Italian manufacturers doing things that you might not expect a U.S. manufacturer to do. Here, the roles of the A&D community and the manufacturers are more prescriptive, with unwritten borders that both groups feel they need to respect.”

Turnkey interiors may be limited to the upper strata of hotel design. But for architects and developers working at that level, partnerships with manufacturers have already produced spectacular results, and expanded the role of the contractor. “They bring an extra dimension in terms of developing our drawings into fully detailed solutions,” says Giles Robinson, a partner at Foster + Partners, which collaborated with B&B Italia at the Hotel Silken Puerta América in Madrid and the ME Hotel in London. “We provide preliminary sketches. They get into detail on how to integrate the components and reduce the dimensions. Remember, these companies have considerable experience in putting these things together, probably more than most architects.”

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