Italy Takes Shape in New York, from Gaetano Pesce to Poltrona Frau

by Angela Emiliani, Gabriella Grudza, Angela Kovacs, Serena Pederiali, Dariell Vasquez

The Business Italian Style project, in collaboration with the Inserra Chair at Montclair State University, presented a group of undergraduate students in Italian with a unique opportunity to explore the world of design and the role of Made in Italy in New York. Through interviews with Gaetano Pesce, designer and architect, and Federico Materazzi, vice president of Poltrona Frau Americas, we sought to understand what unique aspects Italian creativity lends to the world of design. (Leggi in Italiano)


The uniqueness of Italian design whose roots are buried deep in the tradition of Made in Italy, continues to conquer and remains a significant part of the American market. Innovation, creativity, and craftsmanship are the base of doing business that puts an emphasis on quality and inspiration. From furniture to decorative art, these characteristics are the basis of every creative project making Made in Italy a veritable brand that is respected world-wide.

Students on the Made in Italy trail

Specifically because this section borders on both art and commerce, our group chose design as part of the Business Italian Style project, which was conceived to put students in contact with the reality of Italian business in New York. In exploring cultural and professional elements that characterize the quality of Made in Italy, we as students had the opportunity to step into the business world and – why not? – seek out possible job leads.

Italian design is internationally renown for its capacity to combine functionality and aesthetic. The quality and originality of Italian products is essentially built on Made in Italy; think of the tradition of working with glass or ceramics that dates back to ancient Rome. Starting in the ’60s, the international appeal of Italian design has increased overall, particularly with the introduction of new materials and the support of artisans in the industry. Here Made in Italy was born: a mix of modernity and craftsmanship that captures international business markets. Design revolutionizes furniture and many Italian brands succeed in creating products that satisfy the sense of beauty and functionality of clients all over the world.

Design’s comeback

An analysis by the Chamber of Commerce in Milan and the Chambers of Commerce in Monza and Brianza on ISTAT (International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading) data reports on the first quarter of 2014 that Italian exports in this sector surpass two billion euros, up by 3% from 2013. France and Germany are the main markets, while Russia and Saudi Arabia are the prime importers of Italian products for office and retail furnishings. The United States is the largest market for kitchen cabinets Made in Italy: it seems that the love Americans have for Italian cuisine is more than just food!

To better understand how imagination, talent and tradition are combined to create design capable of creating a market for Americans and to win them over, we went to interview Gaetano Pesce, architect and designer, living in New York since 1983, and Federico Materazzi, Vice President for the Poltrona Frau Group America, an example of Made in Italy excellence. The former is the embodiment of pure creativity, indifferent to business logic while the latter represents business, that entrepreneurial aspect of Made in Italy. Both have told us that design mirrors cultural tradition and Italian history.

Icons in leather – Poltrona Frau


One of the iconic armchairs by Poltrona Frau on display in the New York store. Photo: Emilia D’Albero


Students were able to feel the quality of the material. Photo: Emilia D’Albero

The Poltrona Frau group, and its other brands, Cassina and Cappellini, is a worldwide leader in the furniture industry. It is a brand that is famous internationally and synonymous with elegance and excellence, and dates back to 1912. The quality of the materials and the extensive experience matured over the years, helped spread the concept of Made in Italy all over the world. Their business ranges from the production of their iconic armchairs to the creation of other furniture pieces, to the design of and supply for prestigious places like theaters, airports, and luxury hotels.

Federico Materazzi welcomed us to the Poltrona Frau showroom in Soho with enthusiasm and helpfulness, responding to our questions in a thorough manner, and showing us the current furnishings on display. In the showroom we were able to feel the quality of the leather on the sofas and chairs and appreciate the beautiful combination of colors and lines of the new collections. The expressive strength behind every product, which is designed and produced in its entirety by the company, results from traditional craftsmanship techniques that are handed down from generation to generation.

Understanding America

Quality and innovation are the keys to success. But, also for a brand that has recognizable products like Poltrona Frau, integration into a market like the American one represents a challenge that starts from the fact that consumers are different from country to country. “For example, the American,” Federico Materazzi explained to us, “is a natural traveler, relocating frequently, and moves an average of 11 ½ times in their life, unlike Italians who tend to stay put. And it’s not like Americans move to another part of another city, like Italians do, they move all over America. This means that they are less likely to invest in home furnishings. For an American, a piece of furniture does not symbolize success, like it does in Italy; there are other criteria that affirm their success. Therefore it is important for consumers to understand that furniture also conveys personal success, good taste and the art of living well.”


The students during the interview with Federico Materazzi in the Poltrona Frau Soho showroom.

To educate American clients about furniture lines as an expression of good taste is one of the objectives of Poltrona Frau: Italian design, unlike American design that stands for solidity, is recognized for its light, contemporary lines, and for its attention to detail, and for the combination of high quality materials.

Also thanks to the commitment of companies like Poltrona Frau, even in America Italian furniture is increasingly perceived as an expression of the quality of life that is symbolic of Italy. The Italian experience, also tied to cultural and social factors, ensures that Americans love Italian design: “Americans who travel to Italy and live in that environment want to relive that experience here. And they can also do it through furniture,” Materazzi told us.

In the world of an artist – Gaetano Pesce

The idea that design is a reflection of a cultural and historic Italian tradition, is confirmed by architect and designer Gaetano Pesce. Pesce’s name is linked to a several objects that have entered design history. Uno per tutti: the “Up” series of armchairs created in 1969 for the B&B Italia collection. Living in New York since 1985, Pesce has been inspired by the Big Apple and designed objects that capture Italian talent and New York energy, with a touch of irony that frequently characterizes his work.


Gaetano Pesce’s studio on Broadway. Photo: Emilia D’Albero


Students interview architect Pesce in his studio.

Upon entering Pesce’s studio on Broadway in Soho, we felt as though we were fully immersed in the world of a true artist. There were an incredible variety of objects and works made of every shape and color that covered every part of his studio. In a single room, before our very eyes there was every type of art imaginable: paintings, armchairs, prototype models, and jewelry (he currently has an exhibit in New York on his sculptures for the body, called “For Her”). His studio seemed to be a picture book. Then when we sat down on the armchairs he created and the architect spoke to us while sipping on coffee (regular coffee, to which, he told us, it has taken time to become accustomed), his studio transformed in to a welcoming home.

Creative by Nature

According to Pesce, creativity is innate to Italians, and so he admits he prefers working with Italians: “I work with many Italian artisans,” he told us, “because there isn’t a need to make designs, just by talking they know what I want. It’s very easy to work with people like that. So a lot of my collaborators are Italians”. Matters of personality and culture, according to Pesce: “The cultural formation of people who work with me is important. We Italians take culture in through their bodies: we get it from the streets, from monuments, from things we see while walking through the streets. This way of living culture allows us to treat it in a simple way without creating cultural terrorism that happens in certain museums and institutions. Culture is like water: we have to drink it but it’s not important that we know its chemical formula.”

A necklace designed by Pesce

A necklace designed by Pesce

In the design field, Pesce maintains that the uniqueness of Made in Italy is due to Futurism that “in the beginning of this past century, through the celebration of production, vehicles and industry has highlighted the quality of industrial production and allowed certain traditional artists to become designers.” However, Pesce refuses to think that creativity has to be adapted to the market in which one works: “Here in American a lot of marketing is used, they conduct marketing research to see what people like. And then they all adapt to the market. I’ve never done that because I think that innovative ideas should be followed, and not be too dependent on what people want, because otherwise things will stay the same. Instead, creativity is what we give to others what they don’t already know, but about what they will come to know. This is how people will be able to discover new qualities and a new culture. With marketing, culture is never revealed.”

In different ways, Gaetano Pesce and Poltrona Frau represent craftsmanship and innovation that have made the concept of Made in Italy famous all over the world. Italian design is not limited to the geo-political boundaries of Italy nor is it limited to specific ways of creation and production, but rather a philosophy that produces a profound change world-wide.



The team behind the project Business Italian Style: Enza Antenos-Conforti (Montclair SU), Maurita Cardone (La VOCE), Teresa Fiore (Inserra Chair), Giuseppe Malpasso (ArtMotion), and students Jarrett Strenner and Omar Portilla

This is one of the four-episodes series Business Italian Style, a project by The Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies(Italian Program at Montclair State University), La VOCE di New York, and ArtMotion, developed within the Business Italian class (ITAL321) taught by Enza Antenos, and a Cooperative Education class (ITAL385) taught by Teresa Fiore. Each of the four parts focuses on a different Made-in-Italy sector encompassing Design, Art, Fashion, and Food. The interviews were designed by the Business Italian students, while the filming and editing was done by Omar Portilla and Jarrett Strenner.

Second part: Made in Italy? A Question of Style.

Third part: When Art Speaks Italian.

Fourth part: The Journey of Taste.


Translated from the original Italian by Gabrielle Grudza


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