Q&A: Piero Gandini, CEO, Flos lighting

What makes for a great collaboration between a company and outside designers? We ask a man who has Philippe Starck on speed dial.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

What makes for a great collaboration with outside designers? It's a strategy that numerous companies have followed successfully--namely mass-market American retailer Target. One innovative company that has practiced this approach for decades, Italian lighting manufacturer Flos, has a list of collaborators that reads like a pantheon of hip, forward-thinking product designers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Philippe Starck, Marcel Wanders, Marc Newson, Patricia Urquiola and many others have worked with Flos over the years--and continue to do so.

The joint projects often result not only in eye-catching designs. They also offer the marketing advantage of associating a world-famous designer with the brand. Such collaborations also tend to bring in fresh ideas, which can push the boundaries, in the case of Flos, in products such as lighting and furniture--or incorporate breakthrough materials or engineering concepts that staff may never have conceived without the outside designer's vision.  I recently spoke with the chief executive of Flos, Piero Gandini about the company's ongoing practice of collaboration.

Dig deep into the archives of the company, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and you'll notice a number of iconic designs that have inspired look-alike versions in mass-market stores from IKEA to CB2, from plastic, playful chandeliers to floor lamps with giant, curving arms that reach elegantly across a room or above a dining table. See, for instance, this sketch of the iconic Arco lamp that the brother Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni designed by Flos in 1962. At the time, it was a breakthrough design, as it offered a illumination from above without suspending a light from the ceiling.

A sketch of the classic Arco lamp from the archives of Flos

Half a century later, Flos is still experimenting and helping the lighting industry evolve. It recently announced it is reissuing lamps that were manufactured until now in plastic material, using the new PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoate) bio-polymer, which is 100% naturally biodegradable in water. These include the Piani, by the design-star brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec (see below). Flos is also now using O-LED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology, which uses 100% recyclable sheets of carbon and hydrogen.

The Piani lamp by the Bouroullec brothers for Flos

But it's the adventurous sense of design experimentation that sets Flos apart from other lighting companies. Here's my conversation with Gandini, in which we talked about Flos's philosophies. He offered, well, illuminating insight; while very particular, the strategy of Flos could also offer tips that other corporations and start-ups alike could keep in mind when considering a design collaboration of their own.

SmartPlanet: Can you briefly describe the design strategy of Flos, especially in the context of working with such a wide variety of designers?

Piero Gandini: We are influenced by the experience of light. In any culture, people are influenced by people before them. Us, too, but at the same time, the past is not a direct influence at Flos. When we seek designers to work with, it's not important if they are superstars or unknown. In either case, we push them to create with a certain freedom. We do not give a design brief for a first project with a designer. We don't want them to react to a strong brief. Of course, the company gives lots of support to the designers we work with; in the end, we want to make a product that is functional, not an artwork in a middle of a field that looks nice. But if we need a certain type of product, we offer specific guidance, or if we're working with a designer we've worked with before, they can call us with an idea.

Why is such a key part of your strategy collaboration with outside designers? Obviously, so many other companies follow a similar route--Target, naturally, is the big example. But why is this such a popular approach?

I don't think there is a single way to do things. Life can't be boxed into concepts like "minimalism" or "baroque." If I see somebody who has a very peculiar poetry and talent, I'm interested in working with this designer. Of course, there are risks involved with collaborating with very creative designers. What if we see a very good vase and approach the designer who made it, but it turns out his work for us is more similar to an art installation in a gallery, but not a good lamp--or it's not even close to a standard product for the lighting industry? Still, when we look for designers to work with, we look for a special fire. We want to explore the fire, cook something with it. We want to relate our company with that type of energy.

Can you talk about the financial design of your partnerships--how do Flos and the designers benefit from the collaboration?

The O-LED lamp by Ron Gilad for Flos

Our relationships with designers is based on an idealistic partnership. We pay royalties only, no fee. From an intellectual and idealistic point of view, we are really partners because we share the results. We know it takes time for designers to develop and send us ideas. And it costs the company to produce prototypes and commit to the engineering development. But it's all in good faith. Like everyone does, we make mistakes--that's the typical creative process of human beings! But we don't want to add to much structure, because that can create fear, or set us up for perceived "mistakes" if we follow a structure too closely.

There is a sense of playfulness that characterizes Flos--even in the company's marketing. Why are playfulness and fun so important in the development of original design ideas?

Two reasons: spontaneity and vision. Spontaneity allows us to really have fun. Now, that doesn't mean that we laugh like idiots constantly. If teams share enthusiasm while developing products, and they believe everyone is doing their ultimate work in every moment, then they will enjoy each other, make jokes...and also push each other and challenge each other's ideas. I believe people need that energy, that familiarity, for true joint creativity. If you are always wondering why things can't be done, are serious and a little sad because you are always analyzing limitations, maybe you will avoid mistakes. But you'll lose the enjoyment, and maybe miss opportunities to learn from the mistakes. Fun is really important.

All images: FLOS

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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