If design was engineering, B&B Italia would be the Nasa. So I was obviously excited and curious when I got to the production site of the historical Italian brand in Novedrate, North of Milan. Looking at its futuristic structures it’s odd to find out that all this started off with an plastic inflatable duck…
Since 1966, new ideas, forms and processes are invented daily in this plant, located in the very heart of the furniture district Brianza, in Novedrate. Such as the first upholstered furniture in cold-foam polyurethane (Coronado), the first modular sofa (Sity), the first vacuumed, self-inflating armchair (Up), the first chaise longue inserted in a system of seating (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 Nineties, 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.
The most amazing thing is that all this started off with a plastic duck. In the Sixties, while he was in London, Piero Ambrogio Busnelli 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. Ever since then, all Busnelli wanted to do was to use that process, that looks so simple, to make upholstered furniture and to turn a business that in the Brianza had always been hand-crafted, into an actual industry.
Making up large structures in foamed and cold-moulded polyurethane is not actually that straight-forward and quite a lot of research and trials and error attempts were carried out before Businelli was able to make up the first sofa created with the new foam: the Coronado, introduced to the large 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 Business and Piero Cassina) becomes the brand of reference for design innovation. Up to this very day, despite globalization and the pressure to outsource, B&B Italia produces everything in-house. Each piece starts off by mixing isocyanate and polyol. 466 people work in B&B Italia today.
«Using polyurethane in upholstery is an obvious choice today», tells me Giorgio Busnelli. Sitting in his office in his Beaubourg-looking building (it was indeed designed by Renzo Piano but before the Centre Pompidou!), the son of Piero Ambrogio Busnelli shows the enthusiasm of a kid. «When we re-proposed the Up armchairs in 2000, we wanted to have them once again in a vacuumed envelop, as they used to be. People would buy them and when they opened the envelop the chemical reaction would start and the seat would grow in front of them. Actually, we could not do it in the end because today polyurethane has changed, a component (that damaged the ozone layer) has been taken out and without it this possibility of a delayed reaction is not possible. You see, we do not easily give up. We have been trying for two years before we decided it was impossible. All this to say that you can experiment if you do you 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 having it all made by external specialists then? «We were born thanks to this material and its intimate knowledge and understanding 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 pieces, for instance, are not added to the structure but part of the iron frame: they were all foamed and then covered. The last of assembled parts make the furniture much more resistant in time. «Experimentation would also not be as flexible 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 kilos 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 the phenomenon of copies. «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”».