Earlier this month, we travelled to Milan to attend the Salone del Mobile (Milan’s Furniture Fair) and to visit one of our furniture partners, a family-run workshop called VILLA, who we’ve worked with since Plyroom’s beginning. We love working with family businesses, and this one is extra special. The VILLA workshop is below the family’s office and home, and today it is run by Luca Villa. In a small town on the outskirts of Milan, we walk past the vegetable garden at the front and up to the office, where we are greeted by Luca’s mother Anna, who manages the accounts. Luca’s father, Renzo, is also an important presence in the business and despite being in his 80s, regularly spends his time in the office.
We spent a day with Luca in the workshop—watching the artisans at work and admiring their skill and process—and wanted to share our conversation, in which he offers some of his design inspiration and shares the interesting history of VILLA.
Can you tell us a little about the history of the business?
The Company saw its first light towards the end of the 1920’s through the work of Antonio Villa, and in this period, the correct description should be “artistic workshop”, suggesting a small-scale business producing high-quality items direct to customer. At this time, the Company specialised in the creation of classical furniture made from solid Italian walnut.
The second generation Villa entered the Company during the post-war period, bringing new ideas and new energy – in addition to the collection of classical furniture, this period saw the beginning of experiments with a new technology to bend wood with the scope of creating a product which, while combining strength and lightness, would be suitable for the production of percussion instruments. This turned out to be a difficult task, requiring combined efforts from both musician and craftsman to find new ways to treat raw materials and new technologies to arrive at the desired final product. Through this study of percussion sonority, we obtained wooden cylinders, curved along the fibres – a technology that we believe is unique to our Company, and that results in objects combining robustness with extreme lightness, ready to be transformed into drums of every size.
How did the business transition from making percussion instruments into crafting fine furniture?
The following phase included the transformation of these cylinders into hat boxes, destined to contain and protect precious hats from the most famous maestri of the trade in Italy. When I entered into the Company towards the end of the 1980’s, I strongly wanted to retain the know-how – the very knowledge and dexterity of my father and grandfather, which I believe represents an important artistic treasure, but I also want to seek new roads, and to use modern technology in order to stay at the forefront of development and to respond to market needs. I was very fascinated by the way Scandinavian artists and designers had always worked with wood, with great attention and respect for nature creating objects, chairs, cabinets and furniture always perfectly integrated in the various environments. So I decided to attend Furniture design courses at Capellagården, the famous school founded by Carl Malmstein in Öland. There I had the opportunity to meet qualified teachers, designers and students with whom I had a fruitful exchange of skills and experiences.
What did you take away from studying Design in Sweden?
My studies in Sweden strengthened my passion for the simple and clean lines so typical of Nordic Design. In my opinion, Scandinavian interior design can be described as a light, functional style with elements of nature and clean lines. Its philosophy is deeply rooted in the notion that great design is made for everybody. Scandinavian interior design isn’t just about a beautifully curated home – it’s about combining design, functional living and designs that stand the test of time. Furthermore, I love the idea - born during the 1950s and new for the time - of “democratic design”, that is, interior design for all classes of society and all kinds of homes. Scandinavian interior design developed to fill a function and was to be a beautifully crafted design that everyone could afford. Even today, Scandinavian design is still based on the idea that function and design are not mutually exclusive.
What is it like working with European Beech? Are there any particular qualities of the material that you admire?
Being a hardwood, beech is often used for manufacturing musical instruments, such as drums and guitar bodies. Due to its fine and straight grain, it gives a uniform texture. Like all woods, the colour can change and, over time and exposure to sunlight, becomes golden. I really like this because the characteristic of wood is to be a living material.
Due to its medium density and hardness, it does not easily scratch. Its grain holds the varnish well and gives a finished look. It can be easily bended with our technology.
Last but not least, European Beech is widely available across and is not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The pieces you make are the perfect balance of traditional craftsmanship with modern technology. What can you tell us about the proprietary wood-bending technology you use?
All our objects have a distinctive curved feature, achieved through our unique technology of bending the wood along the direction of the fibres. In fact, our quest for objects of exceptional lightness and strict formality stems from our understanding of the acoustics and experience in production of precious musical instruments, driving design free from excessive ornaments, but for that one elegant detail. I am very proud of the history of my company, but I have always wanted to look forward, trying to combine our artistic tradition with my curiosity for other cultures and for technical innovation, through the introduction of modern numerical control machinery and technology. We have achieved this thanks to the contributions of architects and designers from the most diverse experiences and cultures. It was a meeting of very different skills and intuitions that has allowed us to experiment with completely new and cutting-edge solutions.
What is the timeline like for crafting one of your pieces, for example, the Bellantonio Rotating Drawers?
To develop a piece of furniture - from the initial idea, to the project, to the prototype, to the final product - it can take even a year. However, the Bellantonio was made in a few months because I borrowed the idea from an old piece of furniture that my grandfather had designed as a container of working tools in his workshop. As a matter of fact my grandfather’s name was Antonio, while "Il Bell'Antonio" is the title of an Italian novel written by Vitaliano Brancati in 1949 from which a famous film was made.
Is there anything inspiring your design process at the moment?
In recent years I have also found a natural affinity in Japanese minimalism, craftsmanship and love for natural materials. Of this style, I appreciate the light colours, the natural wood furniture, with few decorative objects that help to create a serene and airy atmosphere. Similarly to Scandinavian design, Japanese furniture combines an understated aesthetic with function and fine craftsmanship.
What does it mean to you to be working in a family business?
The family business - typical of the industrial system of the north of Italy - could be considered limiting in terms of financial expansion plans, on the other hand it is also important to preserve an artistic tradition and value that makes the product unique and recognisable. VILLA is certainly the typical traditional Italian family business: we are small, creative, authentic and rooted in tradition and impeccable craftsmanship.
Pictured: Renzo Villa and Luca Villa