A self-described “good for nothing at school”, he could have been a scary horse to bet on. But he was no ignoramus. Quite the opposite. His hatred for notions-based learning methodologies was inversely proportional to his passion for open creativity and for the type of culture that doesn’t come from books but, from looking around and talking to interesting people.

When he entered the family company, he was driven not so much by experience but by a belief stemming from the heart: the design industry was a little too stuck-up to thrive in today’s world and it needed a little shake up.

Six years later, Lago Arredamenti moved from a turnover of €5 million to €30 million: despite the economic crisis – that, since 2008, has affected particularly badly companies set in the middle price range, which is where Lago sits – and also despite the fact that their market is still mainly Italy – a country whose consumption is very much down due to the economic uncertainty.

Curve Europe editor Beatrice Feliz recently spoke to Daniele Lago, who explained the secret of his success, as well as the anticipated growth for the company and Italian design as their focus expands to an international market.

What’s your secret?

I brought design into the company. With this I obviously do not mean merely product design but the diffusion of a design-related culture into all company processes, from conception to distribution. I believe in openness rather than closure, whatever the economic, social or political situation. Positive surprises can stem from anyone and from every-where so we insist at Lago in giving everyone the opportunity to be creative: from the administrative staff to the carpenters; the receptionist to the head of production. Not only does it work, it also keeps people happy.

Can you explain your Appartamento concept, where you rent out actual living spaces furnished with Lago products, then the ‘tenants’ open up their ‘homes’ for social and cultural events?

The innovation is not just about products. The Appartamento is a new distribution model and a totally different one from showrooms or stores. We have those too, obviously, but in the Appartamento people can see ‘design in action’. They enter an actual living space, which is most of the time messy, chaotic, with dirty plates piled up in the kitchen sink. It’s refreshing (and certainly not intimidating in the slightest); it’s the opposite of an antiseptic showroom; it’s about life rather than stillness, about reality rather than fiction.

We started in Milan but we have now opened in many other cities in Italy – Turin, Venice, Bologna, Bergamo, Riccione – as well as in Spain, in Barcelona. We like the concept and it works.

It seems, people come to the Appartamento not to buy the furniture but, rather, to enjoy the cultural events that your tenants organise.

But that’s great, that’s what we want. The task of an entrepreneur is to make their company earn money – but you can do it in many ways and the App-artamento is our way to position our brand towards our audience. We don’t do it by shouting names of grand designers or logos but by being present on the territory and merging culture with design. All companies want to establish a dialogue with their public: this is ours. And you’d be surprised about how much it actually works, also commercially: the tenants are responsible for promoting the products and selling them. They just do it in an easygoing, soft-selling sort of way.

Lago, for me, is 50 per cent about profits and 50 per cent about the expansion of a creativity-fuelled culture, which is, in my opinion, what will save us – especially in a moment like this one.

How do you pursue innovation in product development?

We have created Lago Studio, which is basically our R&D department. It’s located in a lovely place – in Villa del Conte near Padova – a beautiful country home three kilometres from the factory.

It’s an odd R&D centre in a way because it’s not only staffed with our own people, but it opens its doors – five times per year for two weeks – to external designers (Italian and not). Basically, in those periods we give free rein to creativity and we brainstorm “what things could be if …”

Lots of people ask me how many products actually came into being using this method and I have to say not a huge amount. But our purpose is to produce innovation, to give ourselves time to think and to confront ourselves with the young generations, to eventually bring valuable human capital into the business. I believe that a nice company is one that motivates its staff by challenging them intellectually, by giving everyone a chance to express themselves. Everyone can attend the creative workshops and the enthusiasm can be easily felt.

Few think of design as a discipline that goes beyond product development – in what way can this discipline have a key role in the evolution of design?

Design is an amazing discipline and it should encompass all domains. If it is pursued with intelligence, it is a natural conveyor of culture. Using it in all processes – marketing, communications, production – can truly bring about amazing changes in a company. Others – people who are certainly more clever than I am – call it ‘design thinking’. I don’t know how to define it personally, but I am sure of the fact that it has to put creation, rather than the creator, at its centre!

What do you believe Italy should do in regard to the evolution of design?

Italy has an extraordinary heritage in terms of culture and intelligence. We certainly had to go through a rather gloomy period – culturally speaking – yet despite this there are still many people with amazing ideas and skills: you cannot delete an extraordinary heritage (that is hundreds of years old) in just a few decades. I can see this extraordinariness in young people – who are often mistreated, looked down upon, considered a lost generation with no future. By talking to them I often have the feeling that they have already figured it all out, that they are not frightened like we are. The fact that the world needs to change is for them so obvious and they are ready for it. They don’t search for certainties but for change. Fuel, basically, is there. And I may sound banal but it would be very helpful if politics could somehow make use of this ...

Saying all this, though, I also want to underline how useless all these self-celebrations of ‘made in Italy’ are: they don’t help. What we need to do is reinvent ourselves and do it with inclusion, by welcoming the rest of the world, by relaunching the idea of ‘Italianity’ and exporting it all over the world, like Slow Food did.

You often talk about culture and entrepreneurship and of the necessity to move them closer together. Why should companies do this, and how could they?

I feel I am the grandson of capitalism. I have been very lucky; my primary needs were satisfied without my having to do anything. So I always felt it was my duty to enhance the business model in which I was operating. I owe a lot to the fact that I introduced design – meant as creative thinking rather than product development only – in the company’s development. Economics are a reflection of actions, projects, choices. Never, ever think it’s the other way around!

Is the average consumer aware of what’s behind a Lago product in terms of company culture and is this awareness behind a lot of purchase decisions?

I would be a liar if I said yes. The truth is, I don’t know. But by embedding creativity in all we do, from administration to product development, I believe it’s the fuel for the company, so I follow this path rather than one that is filled up with statistics and numbers. That is the only certainty I have. And in this case it can easily be supported by numbers, as since we started to design processes and the way we do business, as well as products, the company has grown.

All over the world there is more and more awareness about these issues – a growing interest in how things are done rather than just about what they do and how much they cost. 

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