Pared down sophistication
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Pared down sophistication

A conversation with architect and designer Piero Lissoni
The Italian multi-award wining inductee to the New York Hall of Fame speaks about everything design – silly, spirited and even stupid.

by Mrinalini Ghadiok Jul 11, 2019

Piero Lisonni is one to break all expectations - the uptight perception of a world-class designer with the sole desire to create unique pieces, abyssal theories and superficial work. Instead, here is - a simple designer with an extraordinary repertoire, an elegant panorama, and discourse that is as sophisticated as honourable.

Piero Lissoni. The name itself invites a simple, elegant sophistication. What else then would a conversation with one of the most illustrious names in the field of design prompt? A far cry from the straitjacketed image of a contemporary Italian minimalist designer, Lissoni is casual, fun and refreshingly honest. Recently returned from his summer recess, he is not too happy about the short 10-day leave. He is tired and already sitting thick in the midst of project work and deadlines.

Yet, there seems to be no sense of urgency to wrap up the conversation and move along, instead, the chat is casual, flavoured with silly jokes and anecdotes of ‘stupidity’. Yes, he uses the word freely to describe himself. “I can be really stupid,” he says, insinuating amusing, witty and naïve, all rolled into one.

Architect and designer Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
Architect and designer Piero Lissoni Image Credit: G. Gastel
It is a bit boring to be called minimalist or modernist. I just like to be simple, sophisticated and elegant. – Piero Lissoni

We begin at the top – the initial tryst with design. Expecting an eye roll or a deep sigh from someone who has been interviewed perhaps over a hundred times and of course been asked this particular question repeatedly, the response is rather earnest, “I don’t know why I wanted to do architecture. Ever since I was a very young boy, I wanted to become an architect. It is strange that at that age I was not thinking of anything fantastical, I did not want to become a Formula 1 racer, or pilot, or astronaut, or fireman. I just wanted to become an architect. What a boring idea, and boring story…but that is what I wanted.” I can quite relate for myself having taken the decision to pursue this field when I was in my early teens.

We come to agree that it is pure passion that drives such distinct moves. “At a young age, it began with small toys, playing with paper…drawing. I started sketching 30 years ago, and never stopped,” he quips. “I used to use normal paper then, now I use every kind of paper in front of me – letters, newspaper, towels, anything!”

Maranello Tower, Modena, Italy| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
Maranello Tower, Modena, Italy Image Credit: Courtesy of Lissoni Associati
I decide to do a project only if I like it. Otherwise, you can kill me and I won’t move a finger. – Piero Lissoni

Sketching is a telling tool – it speaks about the person holding that pen, it illustrates not only their intended thoughts but often also what they do not necessarily desire to expose. I am curious about his handiwork and ask if he has saved any of his early drawings. To my surprise and relief, I am presented with images of sketches made by Lissoni for his thesis project. The professors there too were taken aback, but of course for different reasons. “They were surprised to see a strange quality in my sketches – the drawings were highly precise, and had no superfluous frills. My professors appreciated that, and I continue to use the same attitude in my work and my life till date.”

Lissoni’s humility is humbling, and his passion rather evident. A portfolio that bears witness to buildings, furniture, products, and even graphic design, began assemblage when immediately after graduating from Politecnico di Milano, he was hired as the Art Director of Italian kitchen company, Boffi. Designing graphics, catalogues and photo-shoots soon led to creating kitchens, which eventually opened up a whole new world of designing for various other brands such as Alessi, Living Divani, Flos, Cassina, Cappellini, Kartell and many others.

  • Pinna Coffee Pot for Alessi| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    Pinna Coffee Pot for Alessi Image Credit: Piero Lissoni
  • Private Loft, Monza, Italy| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    Private Loft, Monza, Italy Image Credit: Piero Lissoni
  • Teatro Nazionale, Milan, Italy| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    Teatro Nazionale, Milan, Italy Image Credit: Piero Lissoni

Having worked across the globe, designing products for multifarious companies, and architecture for a plethora of clients, I urge Lissoni to spill some secrets. “When I design interiors, I do not approach my work as a decorator. I design as an architect. I don’t only use my own pieces; I use the works of other designers, of masters like Le Corbusier, Charles Eames, even Jasper Morisson, Antonio Citterio and others. It is not correct to just display my catalogue. It is boring!” I could not agree more, but is it really that easy to deter one from self-proclamation? “As an interior designer, you have to have an open mind. You need to combine antiques with new work, modernism with contemporary styles, artifacts from India with those from Africa, or Scandinavia or America. You have to be open. That is the secret to creating a good interior. And you cannot achieve that with one collection of your own.”

They were surprised to see a strange quality in my sketches – the drawings were highly precise, and had no superfluous frills. My professors appreciated that, and I continue to use the same attitude in my work and my life till date. – Piero Lissoni

Lissoni undoubtedly uses a distinct language but adjusts it to respond to the given parameters of the project. “In Mumbai, I have to think of the kind of light, the colour of the sky, the quality of life in the place. If I design something in Moscow, I, of course, have to adapt myself to that city. New York is in another country with another culture and different technology. I save my language, that is the alphabet used to design, but it changes with the context. In that way, I am so Italian, I like to work in a context, with local people and local culture – like an exquisite cocktail,” he says.

Hotel Mamilla, Jerusalem| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
Hotel Mamilla, Jerusalem Image Credit: Amit Geron

Refusing to identify singular works that have been more memorable, or for that matter, more challenging than others, Lissoni declares, “We will discover them tomorrow morning.” My encouragement to depart from a considerably diplomatic answer is met with plain logic. “I don’t want to be arrogant in saying that one is more challenging, or that the other comes more naturally. I decide to do a project only if I like it. Otherwise, you can kill me and I won’t move a finger,” (insert dramatic Italian accent here).

Lissoni is not one to choose a favourite, so my next move is obvious. I pick mine. The Conservatorium Hotel in Amsterdam is an enthralling piece of architecture that defies all the rules in the book to deliver a glass box in a historical context. A fully glazed atrium intersects with an exposed brick structure to create a pristine lobby. What seems like a sheet of Corten steel holds a sleek staircase that unfolds as it rises upwards. The new building is a bold intervention that does not deny its premise, but neither does it overwhelm it. “When you work in a context like this, you have to understand what happens to the old building. Born in Italy, a country that is filled with historical instances, I have always respected and appreciated this,” says Lissoni.

Conservatorium Hotel, Amsterdam, Netherlands| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
Conservatorium Hotel, Amsterdam, Netherlands Image Credit: Amit Geron

Another stunning work that I feel compelled to mention is the recently completed and absolutely breath-taking Oberoi Resort in Al Zorah, Ajman. A luxury property with waterfront living that includes a hotel, private villas, restaurants, a spa, swimming pools and a private beach; the project lies diametrically opposite to the condensed Dutch hotel, but the Lissoni flavour is apparent still. “The place was naturally beautiful, with the salted lake and sprawling beach. Here, the design was not aggressive,” he says. Located in the Emirates, it was but obvious to address the harsh arid climate, and the architecture was a response to just this. “For 6-7 months, the temperatures are soaring, and the wind comes from the sea-side. The buildings were thus oriented in a manner that could capture this. I designed the architecture not for myself, but for the wind, and the light, which sometimes can be cruel here.”

Even the interiors of the two hotels bear significant characteristics. While the former relies on a very contemporary aesthetic, the latter derives its nuances from a distinct Arabic assertion.

  • The Oberoi Al Zorah Resort, Ajman, UAE| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    The Oberoi Al Zorah Resort, Ajman, UAE Image Credit: Courtesy of Lissoni Associati
  • A luxury property with waterfront living - The Oberoi Al Zorah Resort, Ajman, UAE| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    The Oberoi Al Zorah Resort, Ajman, UAE Image Credit: Courtesy of Lissoni Associati
I save my language, that is the alphabet used to design, but it changes with the context. In that way, I am so Italian, I like to work in a context, with local people and local culture – like an exquisite cocktail. – Piero Lissoni

Perhaps lesser known is Lissoni’s work done closer home. After the tragic Mumbai attacks in 2008, the designer was tasked with the renovation of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As an iconic structure and one of the most prominent contemporary architectural landmarks of the country, this presented its own demands. Recognising the inherent attributes of a compelling location and historical reference, Lissoni’s approach was an attempt to combine the two different attitudes. “We tried to save the local Mumbai culture and its importance as a (functioning) capital of the country. On the other hand, since the Taj Mahal Hotel is a historical iconic building, we wanted to preserve its essence. I did not try to remodel the space to make it modern, but combined historical thoughts with some contemporary parts.”

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai, India| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai, India Image Credit: Courtesy of Lissoni Associati

Lissoni brought classical-modern pieces by eminent European designers such as Le Corbusier and Eames, as well as others from Scandinavia and America, and put them together with more vernacular design elements. Decorative compositions, stonework, woodwork, classical antique furniture such as beds found in Rajasthan were derived and remade by local artisans. “We developed special screens in the space. This was inspired by the Indian tradition of looking through perforated screens, and not necessarily directly face-to-face. Everything is filtered through the screens, and this is an element that has been used here.”

While Lissoni’s experience of working in India with artisans was exhilarating, it was certainly not a practice that enticed him enough to set shop here. He is quick to answer the query, “For particular projects, I work with artisans to create unique pieces. However, at the end of the day, in my attitude and in my work, I am an industrial designer. I like to design for industrial production, creating series of pieces. If I design a chair, the first one has to be the same as 100,000 chairs later.”

  • A sketch of SAKé sofa, B&B Italia| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    A sketch of SAKé sofa, B&B Italia Image Credit: Piero Lissoni
  • SAKé sofa, B&B Italia| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    SAKé sofa, B&B Italia Image Credit: Piero Lissoni
  • SAKé sofa – made up of pieces for seating and sleeping| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    SAKé sofa – made up of pieces for seating and sleeping Image Credit: Courtesy of Lissoni Associati

The approach of an architect who caters to the brief of a client and responds to the specific context of the site is largely different to that of an industrial designer who addresses the demands of the market, without knowing the consumer or end placement of their product. Lissoni seems to have mastered both. While working for brands to create furniture and product lines, he immerses himself in the process of manufacturing, wanting to familiarise with available techniques, technologies, and how to put them to efficient use in his designs.

“I don’t design for memory, I like to work for the contemporary moment,” claims Lissoni as he talks passionately about having designed for powerhouses such as Flos for over 15 years, and on the other hand having launched his first collection, SAKé for B&B Italia this year. It is interesting to note that both brands carry a very distinguished pared-down aesthetic style, popularly termed minimalist. I casually ask Lissoni how he feels about being labelled such, to which he seems reasonably unperturbed and states, “It is a bit boring to be called minimalist or modernist. I just like to be simple, sophisticated and elegant.” That seems rather appropriate for the SAKé sofa, which derives its modernist form from the search for lightness.

Formiche, B&B Italia| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
Formiche, B&B Italia Image Credit: Courtesy of Lissoni Associati

“For me, SAKé is a platform on which to float in peace. But it is also a sofa...” describes the designer. For Flos on the other hand, technology rules the roost. “Lights are eventually machines; they work to give light. One has to respect the purity of their technology. For my collection of technical and architectural lights for Flos, I like to design something that is silent. When you put one lamp on the ceiling, its design should be architecturally beautiful, but invisible.” This perhaps is the tenet for the design of fixtures such as Clara, a bright disk that opens itself to the space, or Camouflage, which when switched on appears like a ring of luminosity, and when off, disappears into oblivion.

For particular projects, I work with artisans to create unique pieces. However, at the end of the day, in my attitude and in my work, I am an industrial designer. I like to design for industrial production, creating series of pieces. – Piero Lissoni

I implore for him to select one, any one light that comes to his mind impulsively. He smiles silently and begins to narrate, “The light (titled, Once) was like a big balloon, made with resin, but had no light inside! Can you imagine the stupidity of the designer?” he says referring to himself. “Mr. Gandini (CEO of Flos) came and said to me, “Piero, I know it is beautiful, like a moon inside the room…but for Pete’s sake, can you please put at least one bulb inside?!” So I had no choice but to eventually put a small LED, which would emit a very faint blue light, mimicking the moon.” Lissoni, in his peculiar manner, pokes fun again at his ‘poetic stupidity’ in identifying the light as a simple aesthetic form, barely giving a thought to its implicit function. He finally admits that this was one of his most interesting projects, “and that too,” he says smirking slyly, “is because it was the light without a light.”

  • Camouflage, Flos Outdoor| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    Camouflage, Flos Outdoor Image Credit: Tommaso Sartori
  • Camouflage, designed by Piero Lissoni for Flos| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    Camouflage, designed by Piero Lissoni for Flos Image Credit: Piero Fasanotto
  • Camouflage – outdoor lighting collection of Flos| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    Camouflage – outdoor lighting collection of Flos Image Credit: Courtesy of Lissoni Associati
  • Clara, Flos Home Collection| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    Clara, Flos Home Collection Image Credit: Germano Borrelli
  • Light Bell, Flos Architectural| Piero Lissoni| Lissoni Associati| STIR
    Light Bell, Flos Architectural Image Credit: Courtesy of Lissoni Associati

If there were ever an adage by which this designer lives, it would undeniably follow ‘simple, elegant and sophisticated’. The only exception to this would be the allure of human complexity. “Simplicity is the public face of complexity. Without this complexity, we are not simple, we are banal, and I don’t like banality.”

(The article was first published in Issue #16 of mondo*arc india journal – an initiative by STIR.)

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About Author

Mrinalini Ghadiok

Mrinalini Ghadiok

Ghadiok is an architect by training, visualizer by heart and writer by passion. Having worked in the fields of architecture, lighting design, historical research and writing for more than a decade, she is driven by her passion for exceptional design and the narrative that choreographs its experience. As the editor of mondo*arc india journal and now STIRworld, she continues her foray in design journalism and publishing.

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