Dezeen Magazine

Claudio Luti

New Salone del Mobile president to tackle issues that "damage Milan"

News: the new president of Milan's Salone Internazionale del Mobile has revealed plans to rebrand the fair, replace its "terrible" website and tackle hotel overpricing and transport chaos that are damaging its image (+ interview).

Claudio Luti (above), who was appointed president of fair organiser Cosmit at the end of last year, also plans to overhaul the layout and navigation of the fair, which is held each spring at the Fiera Milano fairground on the edge of the city.

Responding to criticisms of Milan's infrastructure and the cost of visiting the world's biggest furniture fair, Luti told Dezeen: "If things don't work in the right way, they damage Milan, they damage our future."

He added that the visitors that flood into the city for the fair make the week "more important than Christmas" to the city's economy.

66-year-old Luti, who is also owner and president of Italian furniture brand Kartell, requested a meeting with Dezeen to discuss issues raised in an opinion piece we published last month. The article highlighted the poor experience visitors endure when visiting the city during the fair.

Over lunch in New York last week, Luti told us that he has invited three design agencies to pitch for the redesign of the brand - which he described as "not good" - and streamline its multiple sub-brands, which include the Eurocucina kitchen fair, the Euroluce lighting fair, Salone Worldwide and Salone Satellite. Luti also wants to downplay the Cosmit parent brand, which he feels confuses people.

"The brand is Salone del Mobile," Luti said. "If I go somewhere and say I'm the president of Cosmit, people say: who are you? But if I say I'm the president of the Salone del Mobile, people say: oh, yes!"

Other plans include reorganising the fair itself and improving navigation so people can more easily find the brands they are looking for at the fairground and creating a new website. "We have to make it easier for people to not lose time, to get where they want to be," he said.

Luti agreed that issues such as transport overcrowding, the complexity of the ticketing system on the Metro and the exorbitant rates hotels charge during the week-long fair are damaging to the image of the both city and the fair. He is lobbying the city's mayor, transport chiefs and hoteliers to make changes before poor service starts to drive visitors away.

"For next year we've asked for more trains on the Metro to take people to the fair," he said. "We have to talk to the big hotel association and try to convince them that for all of us, for the future, it's better to make a sacrifice," he said. Milanese hotels regularly more than double their rates during Salone del Mobile.

Last year Lowie Vermeersch, the curator of the Interieur design biennale in Kortrijk, Belgium, complained about the poor experience of visiting Milan. "I sometimes get a bit frustrated coming back from Milan and feeling that even though I travelled a lot, I missed a lot," he told Dezeen. "It's a lot of logistics while you're there, and a lot of planning."

The Salone del Mobile attracts over 300,000 visitors each year, with around half of them coming from abroad.

Luti said Milanese shops, hotels and taxis do more business during Salone del Mobile than any other week of the year and that trade associations regularly ask whether the fair can be held more often. "It's so important for the city," he said. "It's more important than Christmas."

The Salone del Mobile will continue to be the world's most important furniture fair only if Italian brands manage to overcome problems that are partly due to the economic crisis and partly of their own making, Luti added. Companies' failure to invest in marketing and overseas expansion in the past was a "big, big mistake," he said.

Luti, who took over Kartell in 1988 after a decade as managing director of fashion brand Versace, compared the fortunes of Italy's design brands to those of its successful fashion houses. In the 80s the fashion brands "decided to go and sell everywhere in the world," he said. "Even if the companies weren't very big, they did this. But in furniture it was not the same."

Last month Joseph Grima, editor-in-chief of Italian design magazine Domus, said he felt than the great era of Italian design was "drawing to an end".

Below is an edited transcript of the interview with Luti:

Marcus Fairs: Why did you take on the presidency of Salone del Mobile?

Claudio Luti: I think it's very important for Italy to maintain Salone del Mobile at the top. it's part of the capital of each company that participates. It's a moment that I want to share the decision-making for the future. I don't want someone else to make the wrong decision. It's vital that Salone del Mobile remains important.

Marcus Fairs: Are you pleased with this year's fair?

Claudio Luti: Yes. The quality was very high. The companies proposed new things. I was afraid about the crisis but the response was fantastic. And everyone finished the Salone really positive and enthusiastic. A big number of them are going to make an effort to go around the world and sell their projects.

Marcus Fairs: What are your plans for the future?

Claudio Luti: We're promoting Salone del Mobile around the world but the most important thing is to have all the most innovative brands. I would like to have all the best brands there. We want to have all the big brands. We want to give them the best positions we can.

Marcus Fairs: What else needs to improve?

Claudio Luti: The fair must be more concentrated and reward people for the time they spend there. People have no time. They want to get to the point. It's so expensive to come to Milan.

Marcus Fairs: What about the way Salone del Mobile is branded?

Claudio Luti: It is not good. For example in your article you say there's a confusion between Cosmit and Salone del Mobile. I agree 100% with you. The first day I arrived I said to everyone the brand is Salone del Mobile. If I go somewhere and say I'm the president of Cosmit, people say who are you? But if I say I'm the president of the Salone del Mobile, people say oh, yes!

Marcus Fairs: Can you change that?

Claudio Luti: Yes I'm trying. I just ordered a competition between three agencies to help me change. I have to change it carefully. I don't know how to do it but my idea is to have Salone del Mobile like a brand.

Marcus Fairs: What about the website?

Claudio Luti: The website is terrible, we have to change it.

Marcus Fairs: Navigating the various halls at the Fiera can be confusing. Are you planning to improve that?

Claudio Luti: Yes, yes. We have to make it easier for people to not lose time, to get where they want to be. When people arrive from Asia etc they want to see the brands. They're not interested in our sophisticated division [the way the fair is organised into different halls].

Marcus Fairs: How important are Salone del Mobile visitors to the city of Milan?

Claudio Luti: For the shops in the city, it's the best shopping week in the year. It's so important for the city. It's more important than Christmas. The taxi drivers, shops and hotels always ask us if we can hold Salone del Mobile twice a year! Everyone asks for this. But that's not possible.

Marcus Fairs: If a visitor has a bad experience in Milan, can it be damaging for Salone del Mobile and the city of Milan?

Claudio Luti: Yes. If something doesn't work well, we are damaged. I hope that everyone involved understands that if things don't work in the right way, they damage Milan, they damage our future. I'm very sorry when I hear that something doesn't work the way it should.

Marcus Fairs: How could the experience of visiting the city be improved?

Claudio Luti: Milan is not normally a difficult city for traffic but of course to have such a number of visitors during Salone del Mobile - 300,00 or 350,000 - is unusual. When you take the Metro, it's at maximum capacity.

We don't control that, but we're trying. I've spoken to the mayor, I've spoken to the president of the transport system. This year we introduced a new transportation ticket [covering both travel around the city centre and access to fairground at the edge of the city where Salone del Mobile takes place]. For next year we've asked for more trains on the Metro to take people to the fair.

The other thing I'd like to try is to reduce the cost of the hotels. The hotels make speculation [by charging higher rates during Salone del Mobile]. A small number of them have already agreed to stop increasing their prices during Salone del Mobile.

Now we have to talk to the big hotel association and try to convince them that for all of us, for the future, it's better to make a sacrifice. In the next year we have three big new hotels opening for the Expo 2015 [when 20 million visitors are expected], so that will help.

Marcus Fairs: People get confused between the Salone del Mobile and the Fuori Salone events around the city. Which came first?

Claudio Luti: Salone del Mobile came first. It was so successful that - I don't know when this was started - many years ago many different events started around town during the Salone del Mobile.

Salone del Mobile has always a waiting list of companies that want to get in and there was no space [at the old fairground in the city centre]. So brands starting exhibiting at spaces like SuperStudio [a huge video and photography studio complex on Via Tortona in Milan] and other brands who had their own showrooms started to do events in the evening.

This became more and more popular but it's not controlled by anyone. Of course now, with the crisis, there is less money, less energy and this is becoming less important.

It's difficult to do business outside the Salone. They don't get professional visitors. They just get people coming to the parties in the evening. It's not attractive for business.

Also I don't like people coming [to Milan] like theme park visitors. It's nice to see a lot of people from around the world, a lot of young people. But if I'm speaking about business… if you go to Via Tortona there are a million people who aren't interested in doing business.

Marcus Fairs: In the past Salone del Mobile has organised exhibitions in the city but this year you held an exhibition on office furniture by Jean Nouvel at the Fiera. Was this a deliberate strategy to tempt people to the fair?

Claudio Luti: Yes, yes. Because the office furniture business is in crisis and it needed a vision. And it worked. Jean Nouvel gave a vision of different offices. It provided an attraction to help make the stands [at SaloneUffici, the office furniture part of Salone del Mobile] profitable. It was a good event.

Marcus Fairs: Should there be better coordination between the Salone del Mobile and the Fuori Salone events in the city?

Claudio Luti: We should try to coordinate all the events we have in Milan but I don't know if I can do anything. I'm not the organiser and the institutions don't want to do it. It's not like New York, where the city decided to coordinate all the design events [under the NYCxDESIGN banner]. Maybe they can change their minds and we can help coordinate. But it's not easy.

There is confusion because many journalists they ask me what we have organised in the city, what they should see in the city so they can spend their time the best way. And I say first you stay at the Salone del Mobile and in the evening you can go to some parties in Fuori Salone.

Marcus Fairs: Could Salone del Mobile lose its position as the world's most important design fair?

Claudio Luti: No, I don't think so. So long as Italian companies remain important, Milan will remain the best. But if tomorrow they go out of business, the Salone del Mobile would be nothing. I hope we can continue to have an Italian furniture system that is strong and attractive to all the designers, and remain the best.

Also if there are companies of quality from outside Italy, I'd like them to come to the Salone del Mobile. I'm very open. If tomorrow there is a quality US company or a Chinese company, why not? I'll open the door. I want the best quality and innovation. I do the same with Kartell and designers. I never ask if they're Italian or Japanese or British. I ask for the best. The same with the Salone del Mobile.

Marcus Fairs: How can Italian brands retain their leading position?

Claudio Luti: I feel that we need to promote Italian creativity around the world. The Italian companies need to remain committed to creativity; they have to continue to be willing to take creative risks. That is the secret. If they do that, we have a future. If they don't, because of the crisis, or because they don't have the right management, we have a disaster. We have to remain in our position.

Marcus Fairs: Many Italian design brands seem to be struggling. Is this because of the crisis or because of the way their are managed?

Claudio Luti: They have perhaps invested too much in innovation and not enough in things like international marketing. In the past, the companies were profitable, and it was enough to sell to markets close to Milan.

But it was a mistake. In the 70s and 80s Italy was fantastic in terms of design. But there were not many companies thinking about how to grow, how to become international. There was a bit of export to Germany, Switzerland, New York, Tokyo, but it was without any strategy. We lost power in that moment.

In fashion it was not the same. I remember in the 80s when Milanese fashion houses started doing prêt-à-porter, we decided to go and sell everywhere in the world. Not just in Italy. Versace, Armani, Ferré, Krizia and so on decided to take a risk and open shops around the world. Even if the companies weren't very big, they did this. But in furniture it was not the same.

Also in Italy you have to realise that the policy was not to push capitalism. It was all about small family companies. They didn't raise capital or list of the stock exchange. There was not this push. On the contrary, it was about staying small. It was a big, big mistake.

Marcus Fairs: How can they change?

Claudio Luti: Now I suggest that when you do a new product you have to sell it to the world. You have to have a strategy. If you want to grow you need time, money, people… you have to invest.