For Niccolò Mazzei, whose father Valerio founded the iconic Italian design furniture brand Edra in 1987, innovation rests as much in age-old manual techniques as in technology and the materially unexpected.
Interview by Rosa Bertoli
Having joined in 2007 and progressed to head up international development, can you tell us about growing up with Edra?
Since I was a child, I was very aware that experiencing Edra from the inside was an honour. Every afternoon after school, I’d spend a few hours within the production facilities or in the offices. At the time, I saw it as an extraordinary world and I enjoyed it instinctively.
Did working for the family business happen organically?
The idea of joining the company had always fascinated me.
At 16, I started thinking about it more seriously. I was nearly done with school, and I started thinking about what my future could be like. Then at 18, this idea materialised more prominently. I studied economics and then immediately started working at the company.
What was happening at Edra when you came aboard?
The company was in its 20th year. A few years earlier, in 2004, we presented On The Rocks, a sofa by Francesco Binfaré. For the first time, Binfaré had the idea of separating the seat from the back in a clean, precise way so the backrest could be moved freely. This project involved a major investment by the company in terms of materials and a long development; we started working on it around 1997. For the first four years the sofa was difficult for people to understand, but around 2007 it started to generate more interest. People understood what the project really meant. And so, my early work focused on that: drawing people’s attention to this design.
Is it fair to say your role to this day revolves around communicating the company to the world?
I have always focused on the storytelling surrounding Edra, on talking about our reality. We used to be called strange, extravagant, extraordinary, “for the few”. I didn’t understand this labelling for a company that is instead serious and precise.
From within, what is most important for Edra?
We have always given great attention to creating long-lasting relationships. There are people in the company who have been with us for 35 years. And, of course, with the designers there is a relationship that, over time, has led us to extraordinary projects.
This is a family business, but more like an extended family, right?
It is a somewhat anomalous family business. The family component is important, but we strongly believe in empowering people. One must not [simply] feel part of Edra; one is part of Edra. It is important that each person is an active engine for development, for generating something new. And for this, the social factor is very important. Relationships with designers are crucial because they are the ones who bring us the ideas, the reflections, and the observations of daily life that we might sometimes not be able to see ourselves.
Your pool of designers and resulting collections are extremely varied. The company’s catalogue has only about 45 products, but every single one is completely unique and different from the rest. Who have been the key creative players for Edra?
There are many. The Campana brothers started their design career with us, with the Vermelha Chair, made with 500 metres of hand-knotted rope. We can only make one per week. It’s an artistic masterpiece; there are only two people capable of doing it. It was thanks to projects like the flowers by Masanori Umeda from the ’90s, or the designs by Zaha Hadid—whose first real, three-dimensional project was done in 1987 by Edra—that we are now able to work on complex designs from a scribble, to understand what an idea can be. Through all these treasured collaborative experiences, the company has managed to progress. These collaborations are like books; each page is necessary to move forward.
In addition to a great contemporary design heritage, Edra is also known for its unparalleled push towards innovation. Can you tell us about some of the key discoveries that have defined Edra products?
Despite our limited collection, we use a large amount of materials, from the most obviously spectacular, like Swarovski crystals, to ecological furs, synthetic raffia, and the polyurethanes that we use inside our sofas. Over the years, we have made improvements that have led to extraordinary results. The most important innovation has been the Gellyfoam polyurethane we patented. It is a mix of materials derived from a polyurethane and a gelatin that come from the medical field. We debuted it with the On the Rocks sofa.
What’s the story behind the Gellyfoam?
Edra’s interest has always been to make people sit like [they’re on] a cloud, and this idea finally materialised with Gellyfoam. It all started from a chance meeting.
One evening, a supplier who was visiting Edra got stuck here in a storm. We were killing time chatting, and he briefly mentioned this jelly that was used to make medical prostheses. We looked into it, and it seemed extraordinary to us, so we tried grafting it onto a polyurethane component to see what happened. We studied and developed the formula for years and arrived at this polyurethane with memory. It is not a [conventional] memory foam, which loses density over the years; after years of use the Gellyfoam always remains perfect. It compresses, compacts, squashes; you can sit on it hundreds of thousands of times, it always maintains the same density.
One thing that hasn’t been eliminated by innovation is that of handmaking. Every Edra product is still made by hand, correct?
Yes, everything at Edra is made by hand; we don’t use any industrial machinery to produce our furniture designs. We approach our work like a 17th-century Florentine workshop. Given our Tuscan origins, attention to certain traditions is a key influence. But it’s a complete mix. We are influenced by the medical sector, the aerospace sector. For example, when we use crystals, we apply them to a special high-strength fabric containing Kevlar [a synthetic fibre around five times stronger than steel]; it’s the only material we could find that resists time and wear.
Among Edra’s most distinctive designs are the polycarbonate pieces by Jacopo Foggini, including the A’Mare outdoor furniture collection that appears to be made of water. This collaboration seems a classic example of how Edra is a company of visionaries and the result of encounters with outside-the-box thinkers who are—dare we say—a bit crazy?
If somebody does something innovative within their sphere, they must be a little crazy! Jacopo’s extraordinary artistic ability to work with polycarbonate is truly special. He has the ability to work with an extremely modern material and make it classic with a very simple gesture. To work with 90 metres of hand-cast filament, in a world where there are more and more 3D printers, is a testament to our passion for making things by hand. If we were to lose our manual skills as a company, we wouldn’t have a future.
How would you describe Edra’s recipe for creative collaboration?
For us it was important to have started collaborations with people who hadn’t yet done something specific in our field. Thanks to this formula, each of them gave us a new point of view. That helped us to grow as a company.
In your opinion, is there a single piece that best represents Edra?
Perhaps above all, the Standard sofa (pictured). Aesthetically it may look like a normal sofa, but the most difficult thing to perfect for a sofa company is the sofa itself. Having created a sofa that adapts to the needs of those who use it is an exceptional thing. The difficulty was to build a single cushion that is part of the structure, a cushion that integrates all the qualities of living with a sofa. Thanks to the technology we have invented and collaboration with two leading engineering firms operating in the automotive sector, we reached an efficient mix of materials. After 40 years of use, the cushion mechanism will still be perfect. Creating this object that works dozens of times a day for 40 years and seeing that the result was flawless—these are the experiences that fascinate us.
How would you summarise Edra’s mission?
For a few years now, we have been using three words: comfort, elegance and performance. These values underpin the synthesis of the company; we constantly strive to achieve them. They are the starting point for thinking about design and beyond.
The Edra range is available to view at Space Furniture showrooms in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.