19 June 2015
The light in the photograph is warm and soft. It was taken by Fabio Novembre, who has posted it on his Instagram profile. In the picture we see, standing next to Stefano Seletti, Charley Vezza with a few weeks’ worth of sparse beard and wearing a dark Borsalino fedora and an unbuttoned floral shirt. He has a hint of shadow under the eyes and the pale complexion of someone who prefers to be awake at night: “Believe me when I tell you that these two are the future of design entrepreneurship in Italy,” comments Novembre. At the age of 27 Charley Vezza is in fact in charge of Gufram, a historic Piedmontese company founded in 1966 by the Gugliermetto brothers that immediately became a creative workshop, turning out some icons of Italian design: the Bocca couch of 1970, the Pratone chair of 1971 and the famous Cactus of 1972. From the outset, Gufram presented itself as a brand willing to experiment with forms, materials (especially polyurethane) and collaborations with exponents of pop art and the avant-garde movements of the seventies. In 2009 the company, formerly owned by Poltrona Frau Group, was sold to Cassina. And then in 2012, the brand was bought by the Piedmontese entrepreneur Sandra Vezza, who has entrusted it to her only child, Charley, i.e. to the future of enterprise in Italian design according to Fabio Novembre: “The great thing is that Fabio really believes it,” says Vezza, laughing. “And he means it in a rather Lombrosian sense, because he believes a lot in what people’s faces tell him. As for me, I’m trying.”
It all started with your mother who, despite already running a leading manufacturer of industrial gels, three years ago fulfilled a dream and acquired Gufram. What kind of relationship does one have with an entrepreneurial mom?
She’s my best friend, she’s never had the classic mother’s role. I truly believe she’s a genius, a woman of exceptional intelligence. And then she is tireless. She really does everything by herself, she doesn’t even have a secretary. She is vital, energetic and extraordinary, but completely mad. I’m always asking myself if it’s possible for there to be two people off their heads in the same family.
Madness is hereditary, didn’t you know that? But what’s wrong with you? Let’s start with a confession.
I have my own failings, but of the opposite kind. We are totally different. Let’s say that we’ve always agreed about everything, except work. About that we’ve had differences for years, but now that we no longer live together things have changed.
Don’t you share the same passion for design?
In reality, I’ve always had a passion for beauty, I would call myself an aesthete. Design, on the other hand is a passion of my mother’s, which she has involved me in whether I like it or not. Indeed, to be honest, it’s not that my mother has a passion for design, it’s that she has always just had a passion for Gufram. She’s never been interested in Scandinavian design or the Italian masters. Gufram has been her only love, a genuine obsession.
What effect has this mania had on you?
Her passion for Gufram started when I was twelve. Before she had bought individual pieces, like the Cactus, without ever having the time to really devote herself to it.
What did you think the first time you saw the Cactus?
Who doesn’t like the Cactus? It’s such a simple object that even a child can appreciate it. Then as you grow up you understand that it’s a phallic symbol. Anyway, when I saw it for the first time in my mother’s office I immediately saw it was a perfect coat stand.
And over time her passion for the objects turned into an interest in the company.
For years I thought that something of this kind was not normal, that this obsession concealed a sort of fetishism. The takeover of Gufram happened three years ago, but it was for ten years that my mother had been trying.
What did you think when she did it?
Buying Gufram was the most fetishistic and egoistic act in history. It was simply a question of a collector so in love with a company that she succeeded in buying it.
How did she take it the first time her attempt to buy it failed?
In reality, they never said no to her. The fact is that she had lots of other things to do, it wasn’t the priority in her life. If you ask her about it now she’ll tell you: “I knew it would be mine one day.” But when it was taken over by the Poltrona Frau group, it seemed the possibility had gone.
She says of you that you’re growing before her very eyes.
I’ve always been a quick learner, except at school. There I was terrible. I hated it right from first grade, in part because I had attention deficit disorder and couldn’t follow a whole lesson. So I always tried to spend as little time there as possible. I kept track of the number of obligatory days and didn’t do a single one more.
And what did you do instead of going to school?
I went to the company, but my mother told that me if I didn’t go to school I wouldn’t be able to go there either. And so every so often I had to go.
What does a child do in a company manufacturing industrial gels?
I liked to hang out with the mechanics. I followed the maintenance workers and the builders around, rode on the forklift truck. That was where the oldest workers were, the ones who’d been there for twenty years. It was wonderful.
But did you take your schoolbag to the company too?
For me it was a huge adventure playground. I liked it because I could ask about a lot of things. At school it was the opposite. You had to pay attention and only afterward could you ask questions. In fact, I got much of my education on the internet. Between the ages of 14 and 20 I surfed at least six hours a day, reading Wikipedia, ending up on the blogs. At that time I was passionately fond of design and technology and devoted myself to them with great intensity: you know, I have Asperger’s syndrome, a sort of autism that you get over as you grow up, but that means you have little empathy, obsessive interests, a different mode of behavior.
You told me that you and your mother are opposites, yet the obsession remains.
Let’s say it is a question of attitude. She pursues her aims by herself, I like to surround myself with people I trust. While I delegate, she takes care of every detail personally. If she asks me to talk to somebody, she tells me exactly what words I have to use. At times she’s insufferable.
How did you end up in charge of Gufram?
My mother’s first desire has always been to come up with new products and express her creativity. But she needed a hand.
At the time I was living in New York, where basically I was doing nothing, apart from having fun and learning English. Then my mother called me and told me: “Charley, I bought Gufram.”
My mother calls me when she buys a packet of detersive on offer. You’re lucky.
I know. She goes on: “I bought Gufram and I need you, come back to Italy.” From New York I had two words for her: “No way.” And with all the calm in this world she says to me: “Then from tomorrow you’re paying for the apartment.”
And you proudly answered…
Mom, when’s the next flight for Italy? [laughs]. Obviously she told me I was free to what I wanted, but from that moment I would have had to find a job.
What do you think of your work?
I have the best job in the world, in part because Gufram is a company that straddles design and art. It takes the best of both worlds, but doesn’t deal with the boring part of the architecture, of the furniture, and it’s not tied to the world of galleries.
What is design?
That’s a complicated question, but if you’re asking me it in connection with our company I’ll tell you straightaway that Gufram doesn’t do design.
Real design is when you perfect something and improve people’s lives. Design is changing the function of a table and the way of life of the person who uses it. In essence it’s being innovative. Whereas Gufram from a certain point of view is anti-design. We deal with objects in which functionality has already been fully achieved. It could be said that we make things that are of no use to anyone, but it’s not so. There is a but.
We would be useless if beauty were not important, but beauty is everything. It should be taught in schools along with civics.
What are your tastes?
I’m always embarrassed when I’m asked this question, because in design and in fashion I like a bit of everything. Let me explain: I like it when something works from A to Z, when I sense a certain coherence, when someone tells a story in a forceful way. I believe a lot in clothing. I like the coherent brands, like Rick Owens. I can’t wear any of it and it’s not even to my taste, but I admire it a great deal.
Give me some other examples of coherence.
I like Cappellini a lot, a brand that proposes many different things and finds its coherence in the most extreme approach to design. I’m interested in its identity, its desire to take research into material to an extreme. It produces collections that are very different from one another, but all perfectly coherent. It’s the only company that is able to do it, the others have never pulled it off.
And the incoherent ones?
It’s not good to speak ill of others.
You’re not always thinking about design. Let’s talk about politics. Who do you vote for?
I have to tell you the truth, it’s ten years that I haven’t voted. I voted the first time at the age of eighteen and not since.
You should vote. Justify yourself.
Entrepreneurs do something political every day. I don’t vote because I don’t identify with anyone and I don’t have much faith in the profession of the politician as it is commonly understood. And then I’m not a great fan of democracy.
Charley, the tyrant.
I believe democracy is the best way to govern a country, but sometimes I’d like to see a government of enlightened people, of better people. It’s a very delicate subject and I don’t want to seem like an aspiring dictator, but I think that to be able to vote you ought to pass a test. I might be the first to fail it, let’s be clear. But the point is that to vote you ought to be firmly convinced you’re giving your vote to someone better than you, able to administer public affairs better than others and with honesty.
Other things to declare?
I used to be a male chauvinist and believe in the superiority of men. But I’ve changed my mind.
Excuse me, but with a woman like your mother, who raised you by herself while running a big company, how on earth did you come to believe something like that?
Quite apart from my mother, I see it in the people I work with. The professional level of women is growing incredibly. In a couple of centuries we’ll be fulltime fathers and you’ll replace us in every field. But if I can give women a piece of advice: Be stupid! Sometimes you get more by concealing your superiority.
Let’s change the subject. Alongside her company and Gufram, your mother also makes wine in Barolo.
The wine is an interesting story, chiefly because my mother doesn’t drink. She comes from the upper Langhe, an area known for its hazelnuts, but the only place she wants to be in the world is Barolo. She loathes New York, she loathes Venice, she loathes everywhere and out of her love of this place she has become a convert to the world of wine.
The monomanias you talked to me about before. And what role do you have in the company?
I’m the Global Creative Orchestrator, a definition found on an online random generator of job titles. In reality I do everything, the company is small and you have to know how to do anything. I’m very curious, I like to load and unload the vans, talk to the designers. I’m a great believer in the flat organization model. Then at a certain point my capacities and my strategies come into play, but you have to be where things are done.
And your mother?
She remains the boss, the one who telephones once a week, but has no practical role. At first we made the stylistic choices together, now I surprise her.
The New York Times has spoken of the cactus that went around Venice at the opening of the Biennale.
It’s a product on which we’ve bet a great deal, because it’s an icon and I want to get people to recognize the company. My most successful projects are the ones in which the identity of Gufram, pop, colorful, soft and fun, is fused with that of a particular designer.
The people at Studio Job are fantastic. They’re kitsch, they’re deco, they work with fine woods, brass, engravings. Together we have produced Globe, the cabinet with a polyurethane map of the world.
Any advance information?
The collaboration with André Saraiva, a half Swedish and half Portuguese street artist who lives in Paris, known as Monsieur A. It’s the first time that Gufram has taken its inspiration from street art, the movement in art that I feel closest to and that we are going to fuse with pop art. In the coming months a soft and curious seat will come out of this collaboration.
In the meantime you’ve just got back from New York.
We were invited to the third Collective Design Fair in SoHo, which is part of NYCxDESIGN week. They assigned us a white, clean, perfectly finished space in which we presented the fetish-pop project in which we take the idea of the fetish to an extreme, even from the sexual viewpoint. Our sexiest objects were on show, and so the Bocca Dark Lady sofa, Nerocactus and a series of artworks with references to sex.
From the great classics to novelties, how many spirits does Gufram have?
Gufram is made up of two different parts. One is the Limited Edition side that comprises the many icons that are now part of a common cultural heritage and are on display in the greatest museums in the world: from the MoMA to the Pompidou, passing through the Triennale and the Vitra Design Museum. They are genuine sculptures in painted polyurethane that Signor Giacomo has been modeling by hand for fifty years.
And then there is your pop spirit.
There is the line that I call Pop for Everyone, that is to say a series of objects that are colorful and amusing but have a precise functionality: a chair that is a chair, a couch that is a couch. They’re products you can use to furnish a place or an event. Again in New York we presented Karim Rashid’s Bounce chair at the WantedDesign event, in different colors and made out of the XL Extralight® expanded material.
To sum up, are you glad to be back?
At the beginning I enjoyed going around with Fabio Novembre or designing and chatting with Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari of Toiletpaper. Now I’ve realized that it’s necessary to be more concrete, that the secret is doing. This is also why I never speak badly of anyone, because I have a lot of faith in people who do things. The process of learning-by-doing is fundamental: people who do things make the world go round. They create jobs, bring investment and make the country grow.
You see that in the end this is politics too. Next time you’ll go and vote, promise me.
Okay, we’ll see.