Gabriele Pezzini imposes a philosophy, as opposed to an aesthetic, into the world of luxury goods as Design Director of Hermès. In an exclusive audio tour of his portfolio of work, he explains his unique approach to design.
The personal business card offered by Gabriele Pezzini states his occupation as that of Thinker. It is quickly followed by a second business card, printed on environmentally friendly wafer-thin paper, which states his job title as that of Design Director of Hermès, the French luxury goods house. Rarely does such a short exchange reveal so much about the name on the engraved font type.
“My relationship with Hermès is a connection of thinking with its Artistic Director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas,” Pezzini says by way of explanation. “It’s not a question of style but a question of ethics, of direction and of how to do things”
How Pezzini does things is by undertaking extensive research until he truly understands an object. Whether it is under his own name (80% of his time is spent working for his eponymous studio) or for Hermès (he is involved in the design strategy of the entire house and looks after special projects such as the Hermès Helicopter), Pezzini is interested in making genuine improvements in functionality.
“Innovation is not new materials or ecological design,” he says. “It is the courage to do something that has never been done before.” It is this philosophy that best explains his portfolio of work, which ranges from a stool that looks like a bucket with a handle to the radically shaped Wally Hermès Yacht, which is almost as wide as it is long. A master of functionality, he also understands the nuances of beauty: “The aesthetic quality of a product is all its proportions.”
His approach is that of Slow Design; the one and only chair that he will present at Salone del Mobile in Milan this month has been two years in the making. “I think designers are very close to artists. If I don’t sell, it doesn’t matter,” he comments on the financial consequences of working in this way. “I need to follow my own way rather than being a prostitute to the market.”
Born in Belgium, Pezzini studied at the Institute of Industrial Design in Florence before opening his own studio in Milan in 1999. He is a champion of small, family-run, Italian manufacturers and credits them as key to producing great objects. “If you look at the history of design, it is all about encounters between a designer and an entrepreneur,” he says. “Quality projects come out of this connection.” Nowhere is this more evident than at Hermès, where Pezzini has discovered the ultimate in entrepreneurial spirit.
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Gabriele Pezzini’s definition of luxury?
Do what you want, when you want, with respect for others and for the world.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A knife, an archaic life friend that is a multifunctional object, useful, dangerous, safe, beautiful, and shiny.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
Wist, my photographer friend from California who lives in Paris.
If luxury were a place, where would be it?
“La Piana de Castelluccio” in the center of Italy, a 2000-meter-square plateau in the middle of the mountains with snow in winter and a carpet of flowers in spring.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
After waking up in the morning, that great time when you spend a few more minutes in bed.
You work in a unique way. What is your process of working?
I cannot design many things. For Salone in Milan this year, I have made just one chair. I know people who design a chair every day or every year. For me, one chair is already a lot in two years because it’s a difficult product. If you design one chair every day it means that you are just drawing. But a chair is more than a drawing. I don’t want to make things for the sake of doing new things. New is not only about something that was just created. New is also about offering something to people that they didn’t know before. I want to push what I have already made. I think designers are very close to artists. If I don’t sell, it doesn’t matter. I need to follow my own way rather than being a prostitute to the market.
How would you describe your vision of design?
Design has an element of research. I try to really understand an object. There is only one way to design but everyone can approach this way with a different perspective. There are only a few people who manage to combine both. Eames and Enzi Mare being two examples. Often we get confused between a master and a star. A master can be a star but a star is not always a master.
How would you characterize the relationship between a designer and a manufacturer?
Who you work with makes all the difference. Designers alone do nothing.
A great entrepreneur is someone who is able to choose, who has culture. I think we have lost that with time. I’ve met very few people like that: one in Italy and then also Pierre-Alexis Dumas. If you look at the history of design, it is all about encounters between a designer and an entrepreneur. Quality projects come out of this connection. But Today the support is only for designers and there is no support for companies to help them to understand design and to make creative entrepreneurs.
You work on products made with modern materials using industrial techniques. What would you say is the modern face of craftsmanship?
Craft is just quality. It’s a passion to do things well. If you work in industry like me, it’s just the same. You can find people who work by hand and who make horrible things. At the same time, you can find people who work with industrial processes and make beautiful things. Craft is an attitude to work in this way.
What do you think about green and sustainable design?
Today everybody talks about ecology and the environment but that’s not the point. The point is that we just need to produce less and to produce better. Plastic is as ecological as wood. It is not an issue of material but how you use those materials.
How did your involvement with Hermès begin?
I had started to do exhibitions of my research in Milan using my own money and with the help of family. By chance I met three people from Hermès but we didn’t even exchange business cards. A year later, in 2004, they came to see another of my shows and we became friendly. After three more years, I was in Paris and called them and they invited me to visit the atelier. It was great! At that point I said, “Maybe we can do something together?” I wasn’t pushing because at this point we were friends. I did one bag and Pascale Mussard and Pierre-Alexis Dumas liked it. After that bag there was another and then there was the new department of innovation. I became a research consultant and quickly came the helicopter project.. The helicopter was a great success and they asked me to become Design Director. I work with Pierre-Alexis and am part of the artistic general artistic direction but it’s more of a strategic position rather than designing products.
What values do you share with Hermès?
My relationship with Hermès is a connection of thinking with Pierre-Alexis Dumas. It’s not a question of style but a question of ethics, of direction and of how to do things.
What innovations did you make on the helicopter?
At Hermès we don’t work with a shape but we work with the idea to improve something. With the helicopter, it was not just a case of submitting drawings. Of 55 modifications that we proposed to Eurocopter, they made 50. We modified the landing gear, the space inside, decreased the noise in the cabin by 50%, and made it safer. We improved the quality of the trip. Of course, it’s beautiful and inside there is our leather. But we didn’t use those fabrics just because they’re Hermès fabrics but because we were sure they would remove some of the noise. The landing gear was a big revolution. The engineers said to me that they had been looking for this solution for many years. Everybody was happy with the result. The VP of Eurocopter said to me after that he now understood what design really is.
You also worked on the Hermès Bugatti.
On the Bugatti we also made very strong modifications to the car. The problem was understanding what we could change because at first we were presented with a finished car. We discovered with Bugatti that we are able to surprise even our partners.
Will the Wally Hermès Yacht ever be produced?
When we started with the boat, we didn’t start with a design but rather a list of what we wanted, which included more space. Thanks to Luca Bassani at Wally, we found the right hull that fit exactly with our vision. I’m sure this boat will be in production within 10 years. A new project like this needs a few years of digestion, a few years of development, and a few years for building. This isn’t a bluff. We invested in a scale model to be sure that we managed the space well inside. It’s ready to go into production tomorrow.
How do you reconcile the traditional craftsmanship that is key to Hermès with your desire to innovate?
Innovation has always been intrinsic to Hermès. For example, zips were first put onto clothes and bags by Emile Hermès. He discovered the zip in the US and brought it back to Paris where he put it on Hermès bags and on the clothes of Coco Chanel. Hermès started to make clothes because he learnt to do so working with Coco Chanel. Each generation of Hermès makes important innovations. For example, Pierre-Alexis began partnerships with other companies, something Hermès had never done before. To open the house to the outside is a strong innovation.
Tell us about your new chair that you will present in Milan this week.
Sedia Linea is my new chair for La Palma. I’ve been friends with the two brothers behind La Palma for eight years but we’d never worked together as we’d never found a product that would fit. We did this simple chair for inside or outside in steel and plywood. The technical work came in making the two materials flush at all points. It also comes in aluminium with light wood, which will sell better, but I prefer it in all-black!
Do-Baby for Do Create, 2001
“I have a child and I was thinking about going to the supermarket with my child.”
Monkey Wrench, thanks to DSM Somos, 2003
“In China, because people use chopsticks, they recognize in this object first the monkey wrench and then the fork. In Europe, it is the other way round. Our brain is made up of layers but the layers are in different positions depending on your culture. For me, it’s a monkey wrench!”
Building Step Ladder for Virtuallydesign.com, 2002
“This was a reflection on objects as architecture. The stairs are inside the architecture.”
Water Pot for DRK Group, 2004
“This is very functional. The question was not to design a bathroom but to design something in which to put your bathroom products.”
Drawer Bath Stool for Virtuallydesign.com, 2001
“This was about taking out what is superficial and making something very functional. Of course, I also worked on its proportions. The aesthetic quality of a product is all in the proportion.”
Match Radio for Areaplus, 2001
“The quality of this product comes from the fact that I designed the cover of the battery. Enzo Mari said to me, ‘Gabriele, I tried to use your radio but the buttons are too small.’ And you know, every product has one flaw. I responded to Enzo, ‘Your Box chair takes me a week to clean.’”
Face Collection of Glass Vases for RSVP, 2005
“Rather than invent something, I prefer to transform something with another material. Here, I wanted to take the research and shapes of Brancusi and apply it to glass.”
Moving, Portable Stool by Maxdesign, 2004
“This is what I consider to be my best project. I discovered that the problem with stools is moving them because they are so low. So I knew it needed a handle. And, which is the best handle but a bucket handle?”
Stripe Bench by Maxdesign, 2006
“This is beautiful but is not exactly what I do generally. It was an exercise to see if I could start from the opposite way I usually work, to start with the design. I was testing myself.”
Hector Twins Luggage for Hermès, 2009
“We call this suitcase Hector Twins because you can use just one or both parts. So it becomes either a weekend bag or a suitcase for a longer trip. I don’t work by going to the archive but we discovered afterwards that it is similar to a Hermès model from the 1950s.”
Orion Cabine Luggage by Hermès, 2010
“The concept behind this luggage was to make a very traditional Hermès suitcase that was also very functional. We really worked on the wheels and at the airport its movement is unbelievable. What’s important is that everything is designed and made by Hermès, even the screws. With Hermès there’s a tradition of always being able to repair its luggage and we can do that here. It will last forever.”