All my sofar are islands

Piero Lissoni casts a critical eye over the lavish array of pillows spreading out behind him at the store “Neue Werkstätten” in Munich. He declines to take a seat to start with. It’s pretty uncomfortable, he says of his own “Extrasoft” Sofa with an ironic smile, unbuttons his blue tweed jacket and then sits down, half lying, on the soft leather upholstery. For the Italian architect and designer, reservation and understatement are not just a question of design, but also of character. Comfort is not the all-deciding factor, he claims. After all, we are talking about more than just sofas here. Piero Lissoni is looking for beauty, and he sees “bellezza” as a form of humanism, which the design world easily loses sight of. Sandra Hofmeister caught up with Piero Lissoni in Munich.

Sandra Hofmeister: The more the kitchen area gains importance as a living zone, the more marginal the sofa becomes in our homes. Do you agree?
Piero Lissoni: To be honest, I cannot speak for others and I never discuss their designs or their way of life with my colleagues. I just work on simple ideas. Thus in my eyes, a sofa is a sofa, it has to be. At the same time it is a kind of island, it doesn’t matter whether big or small. When you are sitting “in” a sofa – not “on” but “in” – you experience it as an island for reading, listening to music, talking or eating. In my opinion, the quality of sofas is connected to this idea of an island.

You have designed so many sofas that you are a recognized specialist…
Lissoni: I have also designed a lot of different kitchens, tables and chairs.

But more sofas, I guess. I tried counting your Living Divani Sofas, failed several times and gave up in the end…
Lissoni: That’s true. You have to think about the fact that sofas are much more expensive than other pieces of furniture. They are probably the best products in the world in terms of royalties. That’s why I have designed a lot of sofas (laughs).

How is designing a sofa challenging in your opinion?
Lissoni: I like to design natural and normal things, I like to use special measurements, I like to use my personal idea of proportions, and I like the idea of islands I mentioned earlier. All my sofas are islands with the best quality inside.

What makes the best quality: the upholstery, the leather or the proportions?
Lissoni: Real quality is not visible outside, it is inside. It is a special hardware that is complemented by the software, for example the fabrics. The core of the sofa consists of the cushions that are made using a very complex technology. The sofa I am sitting in, for example, is very soft and smooth. To achieve this, you have to study a great deal and test many different materials. And last but not least, you have to keep costs low. When I design a sofa, I try to put something special inside every time, but only a little. After all, I’m not an artist, I never do sculptures. That’s another point of view.

Do you think a sofa has a personality? Or does it show the personality of the user?
Lissoni: With all those details, a sofa can definitely have a personality. Sometimes at first glance it seems superficial, but in the end it turns out to be a really understated personality. It is this idea of understatement that I try to incorporate into my designs.

Because it is not your style to be loud and show off your designs with glamorous gestures.
Lissoni: Not at all, and I think that is quite a problem in the design world. After all, design is not a religion! Unlike some of my colleagues, my intention is never to design something for the future nor to create icons. My future is tomorrow, and I don’t know what will happen after that. Designers who do their job in a very noisy way and with loud gestures for the future are going about it completely the wrong way.

For many people, a sofa is a kind of once-in-a-lifetime acquisition, like a car or a house. Does this influence your design?
Lissoni: Normally I try to design timeless furniture, on the basis of durability alone. The real issue for sustainability is durability. At least good-quality, durable furniture enables users to decide whether they want to replace it every year or keep it.

What about beauty, is it important for furniture?
Lissoni: Nobody buys something that looks bad, so beauty is of course a factor. If I had a choice, I would never buy something as ugly as a car. I don’t know who designs cars, but for me, cars are a nightmare. They look the same all over the world and have exactly the same horrible design.

You mean a design that has degenerated into mere style?
Lissoni: Design is a question of culture. I was born in the 20th century, but actually I am a humanist and a Renaissance man looking for beauty. Unfortunately there is this disastrous connection between beauty and function. This is your German doing; nobody had considered the link between “Form” and “Funktion” before the Bauhaus, and I think it is still pretty overrated today. Anyway, I would choose beauty with no function over a function with horrible aesthetics every time. German Mephisto shoes, for example, are surely good for your bones and your posture. But you look like a refugee in them. I prefer to wear uncomfortable but elegant footwear.

We Germans like those things: Our idea of beauty is often related to practical value. Maybe it is because we did not have Botticelli or Michelangelo…
Lissoni: Talking of beauty, we have to examine our own behavior. We open up to other people and make choices based on first impressions. Beauty is a factor here. Beauty can refer to movements, or the sound of a voice. Sometimes it goes back to intelligence, a culture or other aspects. But before you recognize all those factors, it is just beauty. I think we really have to think about how we came by beauty and how many mistakes we made.

Beauty even has a spatial element. It gives proportions and a rhythm to spaces. Is that important for you during the design process?
Lissoni: Hmm. Before I design anything, whether it is a sofa or something else, I think about rituality. The rest is formalism.

You mean every day rituals like needs or habits?
Lissoni: There are a lot of things we have not needed for maybe 100 years. Sofas are not on that list, because they have changed. Sitting on them, we watch TV or work on the computer, we talk on the phone or sleep. 100 years ago, in contrast, the sofa was a formal place for sitting in front of somebody, someone more important.

So, the rituals of life have changed the typology of sofas?
Lissoni: For sure. The proportions have adapted the use. If you like to sleep on it and stay inside, using it not in a formal but in your own personal way, that will really change the proportions.

There are so many different types of sofas – modular and non-modular, with high or low backrests, with or without armrests, with smooth leather or flashy textiles. Do you have a personal favorite?
Lissoni: My favorite is Le Corbusier’s “LC3”. It is probably the most uncomfortable sofa in the world. But it is beautiful. Every day when I get home, I look at it and I am happy. Of course, every time I sit in the “LC3”, I understand the whole dimension of discomfort. Nevertheless, the “LC3” is perfect for me. I travel quite a lot and I feel at home in many places, but I bought a sofa by Le Corbusier for each apartment. It’s a sort of icon for me, together with my private collection of original Scandinavian pieces. I would like you to try the chairs by Poul Kjaerholm or Arne Jacobsen – the original ones. Believe me, functionality was at the very bottom of the list. But the beauty they created is fantastic.

For whom do you design – do you take yourself as a starting point?
Lissoni: I design for people who are comfortable with my pieces. I choose them and they choose me – that’s it. I do not seek to change quality of life. I find this aim quite arrogant for a designer. Some of my colleagues think that good design can change quality of life, but they couldn’t be more wrong. There are people like Silvio Berlusconi who may own beautiful furniture. But that does not improve him or make him right. In contrast, culture can change the quality of life, the awareness of something, respect, or new drugs can as well. Those are the crucial aspects. However, one stupid sofa or kitchen or bed or chair does not change anything. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

Interview: Sandra Hofmeister

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