Things had not been going well for the Italian company, which is located in Modena district, an area where almost everyone seems to be doing exactly the same thing: working on ceramics.

When Orsini took command, he decided to change the course of the company, with the purpose of building a very design-oriented, contemporary image for Mutina, while simultaneously leveraging on its 30 years of tradition and expertise in manufacturing. His goal – a task he shared with four partners – was to allure the high end of the market with attractive, jaw-dropping products, and then use the newly acquired brand awareness to reintroduce their more traditional collections.

Orsini displays a very culturally oriented approach and likes to quote the likes of Mark Rothko and Mies van der Rohe as his guiding lights: “I consider them absolute geniuses for the way they were able to change the perspective on things, the perception of space and the value of materials,” suggesting that his approach is about change and innovation.

But he also appreciates Bruno Munari. “He used to say that art should not be detached from life, divided into beautiful objects to admire and ugly ones meant for practical use.” Dieter Rams and his famous 10 points about Good Design are also part of the Orsini philosophy – he claims to be always referring to them when evaluating a new design.

Call it a high-brow attitude, clever brand positioning or a genuine intellectual approach to life and work. This passion for the great maestros is what, most probably, prevented Mutina, when it decided to bet on design, from launching with a noisy, media campaign, after developing a highly visible collection and a signature that can be recognised even by the man in the street (such as Philippe Starck’s or Karim Rashid’s).

Many newcomers into the world of design fall into such a trap, but Orsini was no fool and he did quite the opposite. He started softy and gently. He bet on quality. He carefully selected people rather than names. Call it masochistic, but Mutina aims to work only with designers who have never worked with ceramics before. This may seem absurd, as working with this material requires experience with specialised industrial processes, but Mutina’s aim is to encourage experimentation.

Injecting a design culture has been the element that has made the difference in Mutina’s recent rise and brought the company into the Olympus of high-end ceramics. When visiting Cersaie, the largest ceramics fair in Europe, skipping the Mutina’s stand would almost be the equivalent of missing the show.

Patricia Urquiola was the first to be approached by Orsini, followed by Tokujin Yoshioka from Raw Edges. This year, they brought on board the likes of Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec and Rodolfo Dordoni. “We like to tackle new challenges, learning to speak new creative languages and obtaining original colour effects and textures, entering in a dialogue with far-off cultures,” explains Orsini.

“Our design partners enjoy the challenge of working with a material that’s new to them, conceiving and modelling it in line with their personal mindset,” he says. “Following the worldwide success of the first project, Mutina has gone down the same path, seeking out new outstanding names from different backgrounds and cultures.”

Indeed, it must have been difficult to work on a collection such as Patricia Urquiola’s Déchirer, which was all based on sign stratification and lightness of decor: a detailed surface work that is more suitable for an arts-and-craft studio than for an industrial production.

Likewise, on Tokujin Yoshioka’s Phenomenon, a series of tiles that expresses textures derived from nature. The designer’s intention was not so much to mimic actual existing patterns, but to awaken the sensations they stir in us when we are confronted with them.

Phenomenon, thus, imbues the ceramic material with virtually microscopic substances and creates a visual effect that provides depth and spaciousness, while at the same time recalling nature through the use of patterns inspired by honeycombs, snow crystals, icicle formations and plant cells. Yet the efforts were worth it and recognition came from both the public and the press: the collection is truly amazing.

Every year, the company suggests new surprises, new products that attempt to break the status quo. Raw Edges’ collection Folded was exactly this: by mimicking paper, the tiles create slightly surreal effects on walls or floors, especially if used in a bathroom environment where paper is normally banned for obvious reasons. This year the Bouroullec brothers came up with the Pico series, monochrome tiles with a decor that recalls pointillism: a technical and engineering challenge for the company.

To suggest it’s too much effort for collections that are for a niche market is utterly mistaken. In the last four years, Mutina – through its newly acquired design approach – has increased its turnover by 700 per cent.

“Alongside the craft-oriented products, we also have purely industrial ones, realised through using the latest technologies,” explains Orsini. “Our strengths lie in being able to mix the best of two worlds.” This is clearly, a strategy that works. 

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