It is a company that, in the minds of designers and consumers alike, has become almost a synonym for plastics. It is difficult, even for design addicts, to link Brevetto Pirelli to the Book Worm by Ron Arad, the Componibili by Anna Castelli-Ferrieri or the Nihau Chair by Vico Magistretti.
Yet, there is a red thread that connects all these objects, and that goes beyond the use of plastic as a material.
The whole of the Kartell production line evolves from the happy synergy between design and advanced technology, and each product seems to be there to say that everything is possible with plastics, as long as one is willing to try.
Kartell was born from Giulio Castelli’s belief that plastic could have a future in the home environment. Castelli, an engineer married to an architect involved in the rationalist arena (Anna Castelli-Ferrieri), loved this material with no visual natural identity, a material that starts to exist and to gain a cultural identity through design.
Focusing on plastics thus automatically meant putting design at the centre, making it the core success driver for the development of the business, as well as the language through which to decline all technological innovation.
Initially focused on the design and development of car accessories, Kartell soon moved beyond that sector. Small, innovative houseware products, as well as labware and lighting solutions, started to make their appearance on the market.
In the early 60s, a series of design awards (including five Compasso d’Oro awards and medals at the 12th and 13th Milan Triennial Exhibitions, as well as London’s Interplast Design Award) helped to consolidate Castelli’s vision of the potential of plastics within the world of design and innovation.
Soon enough, Kartell’s unorthodox shapes and bright colours were accepted and cherished by both the design community and consumers and Kartell opened, in 1963, the Habitat Division, focused on the production of interior design products.
The first ever wholly plastic chair soon saw the light (1963, by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper), followed by the first injection-mounded chair (1966, by Joe Colombo).
In the 70s, during the oil crisis, Kartell continued to focus on providing high quality rather than low prices, and to invest in research. For the first time, technologies related to micro-cellular plastic foam were applied in order to produce several chairs designed by Gae Aulenti.
The postmodernist 80s were not easy years for Kartell – a company that grew from the rationalist environment of the 50s and that manufactured products whose functional characteristics were in the foreground. The turning point arrived in 1988, when Claudio Luti, former CEO of Versace, acquired the company.
The company was now in the hands of a very young businessman from the fashion sector who was totally unknown in the design scene.
Thanks to Luti’s entrepreneurial approach, a new era started for Kartell. The new owner and CEO felt that consumers had had enough of plastics, that they no longer associated them with contemporary innovation. He soon decided that a new image was needed, one that would be communicated by a new portfolio of products.
In 1988, Luti met Philippe Starck and together they envisaged the ways in which Kartell could give a twist to its design approach. This twist was clearly visible in the first product that Starck designed for Kartell, the chair Dr Glob (1989).
For the first time a new material – steel – was added to plastic. By using steel in the structure of the chair, the poly-propylene part automatically acquired a new, almost decorative, meaning. And there was a new use of colour.
While all previous Kartell products were in primary colours, Starck introduced a pastel palette and a matt finish – never previously achieved in any plastic products – and a particular velvet-like touch.
It was the breakthrough. Plastic was suddenly more in line with the spirit of the 90s. It could make objects and furniture functional, ergonomic and easy to use. But it could also make them beautiful, gracious, contemporary, playful. In other words, it could very well be, once again, a synonym of industrial quality.
Experimentation with plastic and its potential continued throughout the 90s, with the purpose of achieving unexpected textures, surfaces and aesthetic effects. In 1994, Book Worm by Ron Arad, a bookshelf manufactured in ABS, allowed the user to create different shapes by arranging the modular elements on the wall.
Working with polycarbonate (never previously used in interiors), Kartell then created the first transparent chair, La Marie (1999, by Philippe Starck). In 2004, another Starck-designed chair (Mademoiselle) managed for the first time to merge transparent polycarbonate and a polyurethane foam seat.
The 2006 line, designed by Patricia Urquiola, Patrick Jouin, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Antonio Citterio, Piero Lissoni, Alberto Meda, Marcel Wanders and Philippe Starck, is a carousel of optical and tactile effects like the reflections on the cube Optic (Jouin), obtained thanks to a multifaceted surface, or the irregular texture of Marcel Wanders’ stool Stone and the decorative patterns of Urquiola’s T-Table.
Together with an innovative approach to materials, Luti also pursued an expansion policy that led Kartell to distribute its products in eighty-five countries, in seventy flagships and more than 4000 points of sale all over the world. Thanks to this managerial approach, which happily joined creativity and business, Kartell is now one of the few stand-alone Italian design companies unbound to large investment groups.
The way in which designer Piero Lissoni describes Kartell explains over half a century of success: “Kartell is like plastics; always ready to mould itself in order to bring a new project to life”. The recipe for innovation is, after all, the capacity to welcome change. Just like plastic does. Kartell does it.