19 February 2015
Stefano Seletti, forty-four years old, with two daughters, a wife, a family, a company. And an Emilian accent. The boss of Seletti, which has gone from milk pans and carpet beaters sold in the local markets of Rome to the shelves of the MoMA Design Store in New York, is in reality the entrepreneur next door, cheerful and well-mannered, with his feet on the ground and that accent which is able to convey even better the authenticity, depth and beauty of the company. Together with his sister Miria, Stefano runs one of the enterprises that have shaped the history of design and furnishing in Italy. Two official overseas branches, Seletti North America and Seletti China, hundreds of stores all over the world, trade fairs everywhere and an in-house creative laboratory—the Selab—that turns out popular products with a markedly artistic character. A boundless universe: the milk jugs and bottles of Estetico Quotidiano, the cups and plates of the Hybrid Collection, the neon letters of Vegaz and the alphabet of Neon Art, Pantone boxes and humidifiers, Wire metal closets, Egg of Columbus lamps made of recycled paper, plastic tablecloths with Toiletpaper, the space-age candlesticks of Cosmic Diner produced in collaboration with Diesel. A wonderful story that began in 1964 with his father Romano, who right from the start developed commercial ties in China, Thailand, India and the whole of the East, thanks in part to the support of Luigi Goglio, an expert in international business relations. Today, with the second generation at the helm, the company has a new strategy and is working with Italian and foreign designers, with artists, former artists or “retired” artists—like Maurizio Cattelan for the Toiletpaper collection. And yet, in spite of its global market, social status and success, Seletti has kept its heart and base of operations at Viadana, in the province of Mantua, where it has over seven thousand square meters of showrooms on the banks of the Po Rover. These are places still able to generate a feeling of belonging: “Ours is a distinctive accent, different from the Mantuan one, different from that of Reggio Emilia, from that of Parma. As for the landscape, it’s that of the lower stretches of the Po Valley, with poplar groves, levees, mist and all the rest.”
Where is home for Stefano Seletti?
We live in Viadana, on the great river that separates two regions: Lombardy on one side, Emilia Romagna on the other. Not far away is Brescello, the town where the Don Camillo movies were made. It’s as if we were everywhere, but no place in particular. That’s Viadana, a bit in the middle of nowhere.
And so in the end Viadana does not exist.
It’s a crossroads. On one side you’re in the province of Mantua, on the other in province of Cremona. Crossing the Po, turn right and you go to Parma, turn left and you go to Reggio. In short, we straddle four different provinces.
And are you a simple provincial boy?
The provinces are my refuge, as well as the place I was born. My office is fifty meters from my house: a highly innovative structure, which has just been renovated, whereas my home is a typical rural house, with a poetic vine growing in front of the door. It’s a place where I’m always able to get away from it all.
Working in the provinces is not like working anywhere else. I still have ties with my family that I would like to maintain; every so often my father comes by, sometimes my mother drops in. Let’s say that it’s the only place that lets me keep my feet on the ground. Here, very few people know about the Seletti brand, you’re not famous.
Where is Seletti most famous?
Milan is the city where we sell most in the world, and it was the first to recognize our brand. It’s a really interesting place and I’m always very happy to come here. There’s always something different to do. I arrive with my nice suitcase and I stay at the Ostello Bello.
You could afford five-star hotels, but you prefer a hostel. Why?
It’s my favorite place in Milan. I like to come back there in the evening and find young people having a quiet drink, likeable people from all over the globe having breakfast in the morning. I think it’s one of the most cosmopolitan environments in Milan, you find the rest of the world there.
So let’s talk about the rest of the world. Starting with China, where you Selettis, like second Marco Polos, began your adventure.
My first time was in 1987: a completely different China from today’s. I went when I was 17 years old and today I’m 44, but that first trip has stayed in my memory: I remember getting my bag down from the plane and that the airport was as big as this room, twenty square meters. They put up a sign saying “Arrivals” when a plane landed and changed it to “Departures” when one took off. I must have counted fifty cars in all, and then all those bicycles loaded down with goods, people eating at any time of the day and night, squatting on the ground. Finally, the ugliness and drabness of the Chinese provincial cities, with those coal-fired power plants darkening the sky.
China yesterday and today, spot the differences.
In the beginning production was based almost exclusively on the arts & crafts, on the handmade. Today it’s become industrial and obviously less romantic. Initially my father imported tin cups, plastic tablecloths, bamboo penholders, the straw coasters that everyone had at home. I bet your mother had them too. My father imported them and sold them in the markets. In practice, the distribution went like this: there was the importer, the wholesaler and then the product reached the public and was sold in the street markets of Rome, Naples and Turin.
Then at a certain point you arrived.
When I joined the company, at the age of seventeen, it was the time when large-scale retail trade was beginning to make an impact. There was the first Auchan in Turin, then the first Coop hypermarket in Bologna. We were the first to put a barcode on these products and the first to provide a service linked to the packaging of the product.
What did it feel like to be seventeen and going to work in the family company?
My father was very smart, he always got me to make decisions without burdening me with too many responsibilities, and without making a big thing of the mistakes I surely must have made in the choice of products, in the conception of the packaging. In essence, he always gave me plenty of rope, while guiding me.
Yes, but usually someone that age is out demonstrating in the streets. You instead were working in the company with your dad.
Yes, but I’m not at all a typical figure of an entrepreneur. We are of humble origin, mine is a working-class family.
But did you go on demonstrations?
The demonstrations didn’t get as far as Viadana, it was all countryside. I recall just one strike because they wanted to build a nuclear plant. But at the age of seventeen I was already going on trips with my father for twenty, twenty-five days at a time, plus ten days or so that we kept free to get to know the places. I used to rent a bicycle or a moped and take a look at the world. I remember my first journey to Mumbai, landing there at two in the morning. I got off the plane and was faced with an incredible situation: huge crowds of people, swarms of children that you couldn’t tell whether they were alive or dead, cows in the airport, and then smells and colors of every kind. I was so shocked that I broke into tears.
Too many contrasts?
I came from a place that was dominated by the gray of the mist, of the fall. I’d never been outside Europe, and suddenly I found myself in India, China, Thailand, Vietnam. They are journeys that have an enormous impact, that turn you upside down.
If you could change something about the way you grew up, what would it be?
I’d have liked to learn better English. And I missed a lot of things that my friends used to do. For example, I never went on a study trip.
You did something better than spending a summer with a family in Wales.
Yes, of course. But mine were working trips. Don’t forget that my father had a very modest education, he didn’t get past the third year of elementary school. He came from a family with eight children. My grandmother died giving birth to the youngest, and my grandfather worked as a nurse at the lunatic asylum. Just to give you an idea, my father was someone who ate chicken just once a year, and he started work at the age of eight.
Is there a quality you lack?
I’d have liked to have been better with my hands, to have learnt some manual skill, perhaps to have become a carpenter or to have been able to do electric wiring. To have learnt old skills that have been lost.
A story written by Asimov over fifty years ago speaks of the great blackout of an electronic civilization in which the only person in the world who still knows the multiplication tables is hired by the Pentagon to win a war. No one, today, can work out what 6 x 6 is without a calculator. A strange prophecy: we are more technological, but we have lost ancient knowledge. Even if there seems to be an effort to oppose the trend.
I think the world of work is changing. Today a good carpenter or an excellent tailor is more sought after than an architect or engineer.
What school did you attend?
I studied accountancy, at the Istituto Tecnico Ettore Sanfelice, the only high school in Viadana. But I hated mathematics, I only liked the humanities.
So no multiplication tables for you either. 6 x 6?
(Laughs) To tell the truth, I didn’t even like grammar.
So I’ll spare you the long series of questions on Italian grammar. Shall we go straight to the ones on politics?
No, I’ve never been interested in politics. I admit that I’ve never done anything for my country, for my community. Perhaps I’ve been selfish, or perhaps I’ve not been a great activist, but—and I’m not trying to wriggle out of it—I’m trying to be one today with what I do: democratic design, affordable prices.
The important thing is to do something political, not to have done it, someone said. And so we come to the Seletti philosophy.
My philosophy is summed up perfectly by the Toiletpaper concept. Maurizio Cattelan, who has made pieces worth a million euros, now does the opposite: a million pieces for a euro. In this too we feel we are applying a genuinely contemporary logic. I wouldn’t claim that what we’re doing in commercial terms is political, but it really does seem to me to be one of the most farsighted applications of design that there is.
Seletti also cultivates a certain relationship with art, as well as with design.
Seletti is not a design company. That is to say, putting graphics on a pan is not design.
There’s honesty for you. So what is it?
It’s a company with a very long memory, not just mine, given that in the seventies my father was importing objects that everyone remembers. We of the second generation have promoted some very contemporary, innovative ideas, derived from two wonderful artists, Pierpaolo Ferrari and Maurizio Cattelan, produced by a cool brand and sold in the world’s most important stores: from Colette in Paris to the MoMA Design Store in New York, passing through 10 Corso Como in Milan. In short, we’re hip.
How did the epiphany of Cattelan come about?
(Laughs) I was out riding my motorbike with friends when Victoria Cabello called me and told me she was in Parma for a concert by Morgan. Then she said: “I’m with my fiancé, Maurizio Cattelan.” Who had ever heard of Maurizio Cattelan? In Viadana? So I got on the bike and went home, and the first thing that appeared before my eyes, when I open the gate, was my two little girls running away with Maurizio chasing them on a bicycle.
Kubrick in reverse, in short. Then you started to work together?
For a while our paths didn’t really coincide, we just ran into each other occasionally. But it was clear he was interested, asking a lot of questions. Then we started to talk, to think things over together, to make plans, and “Seletti wears Toiletpaper” was born. It was more or less the same with Diesel. I met the company’s creative director Andrea Rosso four years before we started to work together.
As well as Diesel and Toiletpaper, now there is the whole series linked to lighting.
It’s the driving sector in terms of turnover. In fact Seletti’s bestsellers are the neon letters, precisely because it’s not just a matter of decoration, but also of illumination. The same with Estetico Quotidiano, which you could get with points on your loyalty card at the Esselunga supermarket. We have made a revolution, putting the “r” in brackets: (r)evolution. From revolution to evolution: I believe this is the way to go.
Talking about the future is the thing I like best. You’ll never see me looking at photos of when I was a kid.
But weren’t we just talking about the milk pan?
But with products it’s different. I have a relationship with the recent past that becomes reinterpretation. Otherwise I never look back.
So I’ll ask you a question. Or perhaps I won’t, as it’s in rather poor taste, a bit kitsch, a bit Cattelan, a bit Toiletpaper.
Okay. How do you imagine your death?
As a loss for society.
I mean how it might actually happen.
I see myself being bitten by a poisonous snake. I’m not frightened by the idea of death, because I’m satisfied with my life. I don’t have any great ambitions, I don’t need to travel in business class, or buy a new car every year, still less to possess more than what I have.
Between having and being?
Everything I’ve got I’ve always reinvested in the company, to carry out projects that would be focused on the future. Like the Experimental Shop we have set up here in Milan: a challenge that looks forward, not a temporary store.
They say you’re the Fornasetti of the new millennium.
I saw Barnaba yesterday evening. It’s a great compliment. I’ve been inspired by his style and his elegance. And by Maurizio. I’ve stolen from everyone. I’ve copied in the past and now I’m being copied in turn.
Well, Confucius said it too. There are three ways of learning wisdom, the easiest is imitation.
In Japan too a lot of buildings are demolished after I don’t know how many years and reconstructed just how they were before. True art lies in making them exactly the same, a bit like the Plastic discotheque.
You’ve traveled and still travel a lot. Is there somewhere in the world where you’d like to live? Perhaps in the North.
I don’t envy the countries of Northern Europe. I like Scandinavian design, but I find it a little boring. Too perfect, too linear, with no mistakes. At the moment, I’m developing a great respect for imperfection.
I’ve fished around and I get ideas on a daily basis from everyone. Taking someone as a guide would mean following closely in their footsteps, and not having a deep knowledge of design, I can’t say. I take inspiration from my little girls, who are seven and ten, and from my nieces. I observe them and they give me ideas. This is the research into the future I like to do. Imagining how they will live in the future.
And influences from the movies, seeing that there products in the catalogue like Inception and Memento.
Merit of the designer. I don’t know much about cinema, but I will tell you this. I have a house in Bahia, where I’ve just come back from, and the director Héctor Babenco lives there too. In the evening we show films on the beach. Imagine: the stars, the sound of the waves, a piece of cloth as the screen and the projector, mind-blowing. Once Héctor brought what he thought was going to win the Oscar for the best foreign-language film: the Argentinian Wild Tales. Then we watched Iñárritu’s Birdman too. Fantastic.
Okay, now let’s hear about your plans for the Salone del Mobile.
Fireworks, definitely. As always we’ll be in Piazza Affari, where we are preparing really interesting things for Souvenir Milano 2015.
But like that you’re not telling me anything.
I’ll give you a foretaste. We’re preparing a project with Studio Job, a Belgian-Dutch duo that I’ve always liked. Fabio Novembre knows them well and helped me get in touch with them. I was a bit hesitant as I didn’t think they’d be interested in a brand like Seletti. After exactly ten minutes, they called me: “Let’s do it.” For me it’s a dream come true: do you know how many doors have been slammed in our face? The name Seletti used never to be enough.