Ziliani talks about Slamp like a designer does about his work: with openness, sincerity and lots of enthusiasm. It is clear that working, for him, equals having a good time.
Because, in essence, prior to being his source of income, Slamp is above all Ziliani’s dream come true: a means to make quality design depart from its luxury closet and enter the prêt-à-porter world, hence becoming accessible to most.
However powerful a dream is, it is often not enough to provide someone with an income (prior to creating Slamp, Ziliani was a successful interior designer working for fashion brands) who had the courage to ditch it all and take a new direction.
And despite the fascination that Ziliani always had for light and design, what fuelled his dream in a practical way was an unexpected discovery of a new material.
In the early nineties, Ziliani was asked to design standard furnishings for a franchised fashion label. While working with polypropylene in the development of this range, he realised that this cheap and flexible material might gain a lot in performance if it could be a more transparent and UV resistant form that could be used in shop windows.
A curious and determined person, Ziliani teamed up with a chemical engineer and a polypropylene producer. Together they developed a new polymer that they named Opalflex®.
This is a luminous, opalescent material originated from a mix of polymers and specific additives. The result is as attractive as glass yet also as versatile and unbreakable as plastic, and particularly suited for emanating light, for both indoor and outdoor situations – due to its UV resistance.
Inspired by the qualities of Opalflex®, Ziliani designed an adjustable, movable, modular lamp shaped as a tube, which he used as soft furniture in the fashion shops that he had been asked to decorate. “These were the Swatch years,” recalls Ziliani (himself a personal friend of Alessandro Mendini).
“The times in which Ritzenhoff started decorating glasses, and Rosenthal was experimenting with designer decors. It was only natural to think of using the Tube as a perfect surface on which to experiment with interesting graphics.”
The Tube was thus proposed with many different decorations and patterns. Success was instantaneous. “People were entering the shops to ask whether they could buy the lamp!” he recalls.
Moving from such consideration to creating Slamp was only a matter of time. “I understood that what had always worked in the textile industry (where patterns, graphics and materials are all that counts) could also work in a 3D environment. Graphic design was my way to renew and rejuvenate product design.”
Spurred on by the enthusiasm for the Tube, Ziliani created Slamp, originally with a New York partner. It’s impossible not to imagine a direct link between Swatch and Slamp. Ziliani explains: “We created the name from an understanding of what we did not want our products to be.
"They were not to be lamps, they went beyond the realm of lighting. Just like Swatch did with timepieces. Hence the ‘S’ in front of the word lamp.”
The idea of transforming a lighting system into a fashion statement was the basis of the Tube’s success. Just like it happened with Swatch, design entered the world of ‘normal’ people and they just could not get enough of it!
Season after season, the Tube renewed its success through new versions proposed by celebrated and talented designers (and, says Ziliani, through very profitable licensing contracts such as the one with Disney for a children’s range).
But Ziliani is no guy to sit back and enjoy his success. After a few years thoroughly dedicated to innovation through graphics, he started to move his attention to form. In 1996, he proposed other pieces for the Slamp collection but the success and fame of the Tube basically made it difficult for other products to shine.
Despite this, the company was still thriving. In six years (from 1994 to 2000) a turnover of 600 000 Euro quickly grew to six million. Yet Ziliani knew that he could not enjoy this success forever and was strongly motivated to couple graphic design with stronger 3D focused research. He also sensed that something wrong occurred to his company through success.
As often happens when a business is based on a single innovative idea, creativity was the driving force for Slamp. Yet the need to speed up production and keep costs down had forced Ziliani to slowly build a company with a very minimal creative force and quite a heavy one in terms of manufacturing and production priorities.
“Ultimately, I was not happy with that. I had turned into an industrialist and was often busy trying to invent ways to lower costs or enhance production. This is not what I wanted Slamp to be. Yet I was not sure how to get out of it.”
The turning point came with a phone call from Nadia Swarovski in 2001. “Nadia was setting up one of the first editions of the Swarovski Crystal Palace and had asked Nigel Coates to work on one of the projects. Together they had selected Slamp as the supporting company for Nigel’s design.”
As it turned out, this was not a mere glamorous public relations stunt for Slamp but the beginning of a new era. “Nigel designed, Gina, a Swarovski encrusted chandelier made from plastic and therefore also easily marketable, contrary to all other Crystal Palace installations,” recalls Ziliani. “We worked so well with Nigel and liked his hands-on yet visionary approach so much, that I decided to continue working with him on a regular basis.”
Ziliani shared with Coates his doubts about the sustainability of his company’s success. Although the first signs of the economic crisis that afterwards hit the global economic arena were still far off from manifesting themselves, Ziliani already felt the need to continuously innovate and above all to restructure the company in order to position it as a creative hub rather than a mere industrial one.
“I know that is the only way to keep success alive while a traditionally industrial approach is the road to the end because it keeps the focus on lowering costs and massifying production.” The recipe was simple: putting creativity through design and research at the forefront and extending it to the international design community.
“Thanks to Nigel, we got rid of the traditional production machines and started working with laser cutters or computer controlled lathes – machines that are normally used for rapid prototyping. This allowed us to avoid one full phase of the product development process (the design and manufacturing of the tools) and all related investments.
"This easier, leaner production approach also meant that we were suddenly able to experiment a lot more in terms of design, since the costs involved were suddenly minimal.”
Ziliani then started investing in creativity, shifting the personnel weight of the company from production to creation.
“We used to have fifty people, eighty per cent of which were in production and only twenty per cent were white collars – creatives and administrative staff. After the change, sixty per cent of our staff are creatives and the rest white collars and production experts. Slamp has a very large head and a thin body!”
“We basically moved from producing one product with a hundred variations to being able to make a hundred different products, each one with a hundred versions.
"In this way, I am also immune from the 21st century fear of copies – whoever does not like me will not kill me, because I will immediately be able to propose something newer and better, because my wealth is not in the exclusivity of the tooling but in the brains that think up the solutions.
"The flexibility of rapid prototyping machines is immense, and the only fuel that they constantly need is fresh ideas,” says Ziliani.
If you think that such a method can only work because we are talking of low volume, niche production, then think again. Slamp produces and sells approximately 250 000 lamps per year and they have all been manually assembled. Costly, you might say. Yet this is not the case.
“In the design brief one of the constant conditions is ease of assembly,” says Ziliani. The plastic material is cut in eight minutes and manually assembled in four to six minutes, depending on the model. On average each piece is born from nothing to a packaged product in a mere fifteen minutes. Thirty-two lamps are made per operator per day.
“Innovation, for me, is the capacity to take a known way of working, dismantle it and re-assemble it in a new, better way,” concludes Ziliani. “All I did together with Nigel was to get rid of a bit of industrial mentality and add a craftsman’s approach, focusing on the creative part rather than production.”
At Slamp, there is no divide between the people who design the lamps and the ones who assemble them. “Working together is a big part of the new company approach,” explains Ziliani.
“We work with creatives around the world thanks to digital technologies and we also gather together to discuss inspirations, ideas, materials on a weekly basis and Nigel Coats (now creative director of Slamp) joins us once a month. From each workshop, up to six ideas are generated and with-in three to six weeks they become actual products.”
“Sticking to an old fashioned industrial approach is the beginning of the end,” concludes Ziliani, “especially for small companies like Italian design ones. Within five years, China will engulf us as they slowly but surely move upwards on the Maslow scale of needs and put their numerous skills – also the creative ones! – to work.
The only way to survive is to leverage on creativity, on the desire to innovate and explore.” And to never stop doing it.