He is probably the Italian designer who has been best able to combine the expressive, figurative vein with the commercial, with one eye on keeping the bar high in terms of quality, and another on sniffing out and anticipating the market. Known to the public for his many much-copied design icons (from the Alessi Girotondo with their paper doll motifs to the Magis Bombo) and popular with companies for his charismatic personality, in recent years he has established himself as a leading designer in east Asia too, where he has identified a partner country on both the manufacturing and business levels. This year, finally, after many years of dialogue, debate and – we might say – disagreements with design manufacturers, Stefano Giovannoni has launched his own brand, Qeeboo, which is presenting its first large collection at the Salone del Mobile – a total of around 25 objects created with Marcel Wanders, Nika Zupanc, Andrea Branzi, Richard Hutten and The Front…
Chiara Alessi: You describe Qeeboo with the enthusiasm and passion of a new and engrossing adventure, but it seems that you are referring to a new business model entirely rather than just a company. What do you mean?
Stefano Giovannoni: It is very important to pay attention to the global level, to understand the direction in which the world is moving. For instance, it is fascinating to interconnect the west and the east – in other words, our expertise with the manufacturing capacity in some emerging economies. I think that the economic model in our industry too is changing. In my view, in the last twenty years, the strongest, most interesting and most successful operations have been Marcel Wanders with Mooi and Tom Dixon with his own brand. I moved in this direction precisely because I was convinced that, as normally happens in the fashion world, a creative could take the role of a brand’s director. I am convinced that the internet allows this to happen more easily too in the world of industrial design. Today all the laborious functions that were carried out within the old companies can be managed via outsourcing – think of the warehousing, the shipping, and the distribution network. I have built an extremely light company, with just a few people and very low costs. Everything, even the commercial side, is delegated externally. It is not difficult now to find on the internet the right structures that can perform all the functions that traditionally had to be part of a company.
Chiara Alessi: So what has the company become?
Stefano Giovannoni: The company has become the nucleus, the basis of the operation. Of course, it includes the artistic direction in direct contact with engineering and production, as well as a purchasing department and an accounts department. The process has been greatly simplified. In this sense, Qeeboo is very innovative, because with a very limited level of investment – we are talking about a little under one million euros – we have managed to create a family of 25 products, pairing the best of Italian manufacturing capacity with the best of the capacity in emerging economies. I believe that in the end, and from an entrepreneurial point of view too, it is an operation to watch carefully, because an analogous result could probably have been achieved by a structured company with 50 people working on the project. We have done it by spending less than a fifth of the investment that you would need in that case, allowing us to focus the decisions, optimise costs and reduce waste. Think too that the final decision to launch the project was taken last October, so only six months ago.
Chiara Alessi: When for a normal company the reaction times are usually up to two years. So do you think that this model could replace the one used by traditional companies?
Stefano Giovannoni: The important contest will be played out in terms of distribution. There is definitely a marked conflict between retail and the companies. The companies have always needed to sell at discounted prices on the internet or through other channels, and this has often created a conflict with the world of traditional distribution. The products that all design companies sell on the internet are often listed at prices that are lower than those at which the shop has bought the products, so there is a situation that is becoming ever more unsustainable. Up to a few years ago, efforts were made not to cross these limits, but today the situation is almost savage – it can’t continue for much longer…
Chiara Alessi: So in the case of Qeeboo you will be selling mainly online?
Stefano Giovannoni: Yes, we will be operating mainly online, though we are not ruling out retail distribution. But what’s innovative is that we are starting from the online concept and using traditional distribution in some cases as a compensation valve, the opposite of what traditional companies do. This applies to the prices we have set too: they have to take account of the behaviour of people shopping online – they are looking for a bargain, knock-down prices… It’s a completely different strategy and also affects the choice of the multiplier to use.
Chiara Alessi: Can you tell us how you had the idea for Qeeboo? There’s a private anecdote that your wife told me – a chair placed on an online sales site that sold around 2,000 pieces in a single weekend?
Stefano Giovannoni: For a few years I had felt the need to design a new generation company. I had started with a design-fashion project, but then the company I was taking it forward with decided to postpone it because the financial crisis had worsened in the meantime. But I still wanted to create something that went beyond what had up to then been my role as a designer for companies. So when I had the chance and had met an investor from Hong Kong who offered to support the venture financially – though I retain a majority of the shares – I decided to launch the new company. We have acted very fast because we made all the products by moulding, in almost all cases injection moulding. In the meantime, as well as Qeeboo, I have been busy with the art direction for another company, Ghidini, which is preparing to become a leader in the brass design sector. So in six months we have developed two companies with more than 60 products, and it’s been hugely satisfying.
Chiara Alessi: How did it feel to be on the manufacturing side?
Stefano Giovannoni: I liked it very much. Making choices and deciding on strategies is, for me, definitely much more satisfying and interesting. A designer must put up with endless corporate decisions that he often does not share. In my view, developing a company, for a designer, is the highest and most evolved work process from the professional point of view.
Chiara Alessi: I was wondering how you managed with thornier matters, like those connected to certification or administration, which are normally the responsibility of a company.
Stefano Giovannoni: There is an important first crux for plastic products, and that’s the engineering. For this you have to have a very high level of specific technical expertise within the company, because some designers that we worked with sometimes did not have the technical ability to design a product in 3D that could be produced with a mould. This is true for chairs above all – it’s a rare designer who is able to design a plastic chair through to the final version. Because of this, our studio had to work for months, even at weekends, on projects by other designers. But we did this with the awareness that in the end the most important thing is the final result.
Chiara Alessi: Then you chose as well a family of designers who are friends of yours, so it must have been enjoyable working together… But I was wondering, in terms of a subject that I know is important to you – the royalties system – how did you arrange matters with the designers working for Qeeboo?
Stefano Giovannoni: Without a doubt, the royalties system needs to be preserved. I have always believed that the system is deeply connected to the business model of Italian companies; it has been responsible for the success of Italian design. The designers working for my company do so with royalties contracts. It’s a model that works, if it’s applied in the right way. Making the designer feel present and involved even on the economic level and recognising him as the creator of the product is very helpful in helping him be economically effective and engaged.
Chiara Alessi: It was my impression that you had recently called this system into question.
Stefano Giovannoni: No, I have never done so. There were a whole series of young designers and journalists who produced a series of articles and manifestos in which they criticised it, but – speaking for myself – I have always been a firm supporter of the approach to paying designers by means of royalties. They are the best way to create long-terms synergies between the designer and the company.
Chiara Alessi: Returning to the team of designers who you chose for this first collection, aside from the friendship and the mutual respect you mentioned earlier, were there “poetic” criteria guiding their involvement too?
Stefano Giovannoni: I chose designers who I felt close to, not so much in terms of design language but rather narrative potential. I was interested in working with designers who could go beyond the object, developing their own vision of the world. I discovered certain characteristics shared by the Qeeboo designers on later reflection: the common denominator is that they have all worked on the figurative side of design, from Andrea Branzi to The Front, from Marcel to Richard and Nika. All these designers have developed their own strongly individual figurative and narrative design languages. I am interested in these individuals more than in others who are bound to a compositional style, and who are closer to the traditional context of design. This is a time when there is large-scale homogenisation of products, so the construction of a strong design poetics and a unique style is much more engaging for the public than the petty bourgeois approach of the many “design-oriented” firms – it offers a media approach stronger and more accessible in terms of communication.
Chiara Alessi: In terms of cost too?
Stefano Giovannoni: Yes, because clearly on the internet you can cut down the stages, as I was saying. We are relying mainly on other platforms. We already have an agreement with one of these, and have delegated the whole commercial side to them, at least for the first phase of launching this collection.
Chiara Alessi: On the typological level too there is space for a very large range of different directions in Qeeboo…
Stefano Giovannoni: Yes, the strategy is precisely to diversify as much as possible in this phase, and then recap and try to understand what the market trends are that can sustain themselves best.
Chiara Alessi: In your view, what are the keys aspects of Qeeboo’s brand identity, as compared to existing firms or to self-production and groups of individual designers?
Stefano Giovannoni: Well, without a doubt Qeeboo already has strongly iconic products. The “Rabbit Chair”, the “Daisy” lamp, and Branzi’s “Corallo” create a strong brand identity – the commercial firms have never ventured to bring out this type of object. Though there are “easier” products and though we have tried to cover this area too of the diverse market, these products are our flag in a way.
Chiara Alessi: Do you have any ideas about likely sales?
Stefano Giovannoni: If you are making a plastic product, you need to sell almost 20,000 pieces a year in order to amortise the costs of the mould. So when we are operating at full speed, I hope that the results will be in that range. In any case, most of the products are being made by injection, but there are also rotational pieces where the investment costs are lower but where the objects themselves cost more. However, with the awareness of this, we have been able to assemble a strong line of products which, within their homogeneity, range widely in typological, manufacturing and economic terms. In my view, this variety is a key feature when you launch a wide-ranging family of products.
Chiara Alessi: In the future will Qeeboo be open to unprompted applications by other designers or will it always be you making an independent selection?
Stefano Giovannoni: Once as the company has settled down, we will not preclude external designers, even if there remains a group of key designers that best express the brand’s identity. Let’s not forget that when I designed the “Girotondo” I was an unknown, and that tray has broken all the sales records – so I am certainly not going to close the doors to any young emerging talent, but that young designer needs to have matured their vision and to have a strong identity.
Chiara Alessi: Since you are passionate about music too, do you see any similarity between the design sector and the music industry in terms of the changing contemporary scene?
Stefano Giovannoni: There’s no doubt that the two fields are going through a difficult period in the sense that royalties for a designer or a musician were something that, if a product was successful in the past, could surpass almost any financial threshold – but today it is increasingly difficult to survive on this income. The markets are saturated both with objects and music tracks. This historical period lacks that evolutionary process that marked the glorious avant-garde period. Once bands lasted for years – now they last for the space of a CD. Musicians get together and split up very quickly. But the advanced technical post-production tools allow for an ever-higher standard and access is definitely easier. Launching a CD once required a large economic investment, but today the investment needed to produce a CD is within everyone’s reach – you can put it on Facebook and make millions of people aware of it. This has definitely changed the rules of the game. As a result, we’re today living through a fascinating period – a period of widespread creativity. We’ve realised a kind of utopia in which the web has become the setting for excellence that every young person refers to.