What strikes the visitor entering the B&B Italia site in Novedrate, near Milan, Italy, is its contemporary look. The building that hosts the offices and shields the factory of this world-famous furniture company is, indeed, an amazing view. Its steel tubes and glass walls create an incredible contrast with its surroundings, consisting of a rather anonymous suburbia.
It all seems even more astonishing when one considers that this site – that looks very similar to the Centre Pompidou in Paris – was created in 1972 by the same architect who, one year later, realised the Beaubourg: Renzo Piano.
“Our industrial plant was actually the small-scale
version of the Parisian masterpiece. It was the final test,” explains Giorgio Busnelli, President of B&B Italia. “Nobody wanted to take a risk, at that time, with such a building and Piano and Rogers, who worked together on the project, were extremely pleased with the possibility to try it all out here.”
Together with his brother Emanuele, Giorgio Busnelli
is now the head of the company that their father,
Ambrogio, founded in 1966 and that, for a short period of time, was owned by an investment fund before
being repossessed by the family.
The past and the present melt together at B&B Italia – and go well beyond architecture. B&B Italia is today one of the most important design furniture producers worldwide, providing turnkey solutions for consumers, including large hotel chains.
It owes its success to its very industrial approach that started in the ’60s from an intuition of its founder,
Ambrogio Busnelli. While everyone in the furniture district in Italy was producing everything by hand, leveraging on the skills of local craftsmen, B&B acquired strategic technological knowledge and created manufactured products of extreme high quality, while still being able to contain costs.
At this time, during a trip to London, Busnelli – who
was unhappily working in a chair factory doing what everyone else in the district was (making beautiful
crafted seats) – attended a plastics fair. He saw someone mixing two liquids and putting them into a mould: after a bit he was able to take out a small, soft toy shaped as a duckling. The material that, as in an alchemy, could turn from liquid to soft solid in a few moments was polyurethane. Busnelli decided in an instant that this was the material that would turn his dream
of industrially manufactured upholstery into a reality.
Making up large structures in foamed and cold-moulded polyurethane is not that straightforward
and a lot of research and trial and error attempts were carried out before Busnelli was able to make up the first sofa created with the new foam: the Coronado, introduced to the public in 1966.
But the revolution was accomplished. Ever since then, B&B Italia (at that time it was actually called C&B because the company was owned by Busnelli and Piero Cassina) turned into the brand of reference for design innovation.
Since 1966, new ideas, forms and processes are invented daily in this plant, such as the first upholstered
furniture in cold-foam polyurethane (Coronado), the first modular sofa (Sity), the first self-inflating vacuumed-
packed armchair (Up), and the first chaise inserted into a seating system (Charles). This is also the place where the most memorable advertising campaigns were originated (like the one with topless Donna Jordan for the Bambole in 1972).
In the ’90s, the idea of creating a monobrand store for a furniture company – as it happens with fashion brands – was also born here: the purpose being the proposals of an integrated lifestyle concept rather
than a varied collection of different pieces.
Up to this very day, despite globalisation and the pressure to outsource, B&B Italia produces everything in-house and each one of its pieces starts off by mixing isocyanate and polyol.
Research is one of the most strategic tools in the company’s development: each year, 3 per cent of turnover is re-invested in new processes and tools. So, besides the use of cold-injection moulded plyurethane,
B&B has throughout the years also developed processes to manufacture with impregnated synthetic vitro-resins (together with Bayer), to insert Dacron upholstery (together with Dupont) into furniture, to use
extruded PVC pieces inside the components of wall-mounted systems, to develop an eco-friendly lacquering for furniture.
“Using polyurethane in upholstery is an obvious choice nowadays,” says Giorgio Busnelli. Sitting in his office
in his Beaubourg-looking building, the son of Piero Ambrogio Busnelli shows the enthusiasm of a child.
“When we re-proposed the Up armchairs in 2000, we wanted to have them once again in a vacuum-packed envelope, as they used to be. People would buy them and when they opened the envelope, the chemical reaction would start and the seat would grow in front of them. It turns out, we couldn’t achieve it in the end, because the chemical composition of polyurethane has changed: the component, that damaged the ozone layer, has been taken out and without it this delayed reaction is not possible,” he says.
“We did not easily give up in this one. We tried for two years before we decided it was impossible. All this to say that you can experiment if you do your work in-house, and that even when you know a certain material intimately, it is not so easy to manage it, especially if you think that in order to make up a one-piece sofa we have to use between 28 and 32 kilos of injected polyurethane.”
Why not have it all made by external specialists then? “We were born thanks to this material, and our intimate knowledge and understanding of it is a plus that we do not want to do without. Making it in-house makes it possible for us to guarantee extreme product quality.”
The feet of all furniture pieces, for example, are not added to the structure but are part of the iron frame. They are all foamed and then covered. The last of assembled parts make the furniture much more resistant in time. “We wouldn’t have the flexibility to experiement if we used an external supplier.” A concrete example? Patricia Urquiola’s Bend Sofa. It’s a single block of polyurethane covered in fabric or leather:
32 kg for each model. “Making it in a single injection allowed us to lower the production cost significantly, with positive effects on the final retail price.”
Managing the whole process directly is also a guarantee against copying. “Forms, styles: all this can be
imitated. But in order to make something that is exactly the same as what we do, someone would have to copy the whole process, which is costly and can only be built in time. It is not so convenient. As one of our campaigns used to say, in 1986 – ‘It is not the one who never imitates anyone who should be called original but the one that no-one can imitate’,” Busnelli says proudly.