We landed in Florence for three intense days of lighting reviews and in the process I discovered something special about the art of collaboration.
Building a collection can be a very isolating experience. I have often said that the difference between creating interiors and creating furniture is that interiors are guided by the personalities and wishes of the clients while furniture design is a much more intimate experience. For me, furniture design begins with a pen, a piece of paper and an idea that is like a seed planted deep inside my brain. My experiences, my inspirations and my instincts propel the pen to begin the process of design. It is the launch of these ideas that can happen on a plane, at my desk at home or, as has happened a few times, on a napkin in a restaurant. No matter where the mood arises, it is always something that sparks a private dialogue within my head. And, as experienced and confident as I am with designing furniture, there is always that nagging inner voice that second-guesses each new idea, because unlike designing interiors, which allows me to share success with my clients’ direction, designing products falls solely on my creative shoulders. Once my ideas are realized on paper, it takes many talented people to help me bring these ideas into reality.
Of all the many wonderful experiences I had creating my latest collection for Baker, some of my most exciting moments came when working with the small groups of Italian artisans selected to help me fabricate my new lighting collection. While great ideas are important, it takes the skill and experience of special workshops to assist in the development of beautiful product. Over the course of one year I made a number of visits to these special ateliers just outside of Florence. In an age of emails and CAD drawings, nothing replaces the need for human connection and the hands-on experience of working directly within the workshops trying to bring my drawings to life.
We arrived in the late afternoon to our hotel outside Florence, Italy.
After a long flight to Florence and an hour drive outside this magical city we arrived at our hotel situated in close proximity to the three workshops where I would be reviewing my first round of prototypes. Here we would get the chance to enjoy a great dinner and catch up on some much needed sleep before hitting the first workshop in the morning.
It was a very early start, but honestly, I was so anxious to get to the first workshop that I had been up for hours.
My Baker team has organized an intense three-day review that left little time to waste. For all of us this would be the first look at my collection. The success of these three days will be very important given the time it takes to manufacture and get models ready to ship to the U.S. for the Market launch of the collection. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes of product development. I am in Italy to ensure my designs are realized correctly, while my Baker team is there to not only understand my direction, but to monitor development costs and delivery schedules.
We arrived at the first workshop where the prototypes are gathered for my review.
The first day is always the most stress filled. Entering into a studio not knowing exactly how far along each of the pieces is and how well the studio has done in understanding my designs is tough. Since these pieces have already been visualized for months inside my head, it is a challenge for the studio to successfully present so many pieces to me at one time. Once we entered the studio and I began to see each prototype, I was filled with a sense of calm and extreme excitement. The calm comes in knowing that my ideas are being well carried out by the artisans and that while there is still much to do, we are so close to meeting our time goals. The excitement comes from my inner voice reassuring me that this is going to be an outstanding collection.
Each light fixture required time to review and contemplate possible adjustments.
Once we had taken a quick look at each prototype, the Baker team allows me time alone to evaluate each of my designs. These moments are very special to me in that I am able to make any changes I feel are necessary to perfect my vision. It will be a few months before I return for my next review, so it is really important that any changes I make are going to move each piece in the right direction. The next review will be crucial in approving final models for fabrication in time for Market. It adds to the pressure but I enjoy this process so much. There is something so special about the luxury of being able to create from one’s imagination and having the resource of great craftsmen who are there to fabricate under your direction.
The first day was long, but a great start. I spent most of the afternoon reviewing each piece and making notes that I would share with the artisans in the morning during our group review. Everyone was hungry so we headed out for a light dinner at a local restaurant before returning back to the hotel.
One of the many perks of visiting the Italian workshops is that you are in Italy, where even the simplest meal is an experience. This was my pizza presented on two plates. I had no problem finishing it.
It was day 2 and we were back in the workroom early. Now I had the opportunity to review each piece with the team and to share my notes and revisions. It was also a time to take what I call a “second look.” This hopefully reinforces my initial thoughts about each piece.
I only have the morning in this studio to finish up before we head to another studio specializing in ceramic arts to review more lighting designs.
Finishes, wiring, lampshade proportions and fabrics must all be finalized before lunch…the clock is ticking.
Before we leave I consult with the artist making the bronze castings for my Moderne Lantern.
The connection between the bronze castings and the wood members of the lantern frame is not as fluid as it should be. The artist invites us to his small metal workshop in Florence to review the molds…this is an unexpected addition to our already demanding schedule but this meeting is so important to me that the Baker team adjusts our itinerary to get me there the next day.
It was late afternoon as we drove to our next workshop. There I was able to work with a fantastic group of ceramic artists that fabricated my new Arcade Table Lamp.
The form of this new design is rather simple, but its refinement was totally dependent on the quality of the artists that would sculpt each arched relief. Here in this studio I was able to watch as they sculpted away the clay model to arrive at just the right look I was imagining. Working with these artists was so inspiring. My mind was filling with new product ideas using ceramics as I watched them perform with such confidence. In most of the studios we visited, the artists did not speak English and I did not speak Italian. It was through the work that we were able to come together and successfully collaborate and understand each other artistically.
Day 3 began extra early as we had to drive into Florence for an unscheduled review with the metal craftsman. His small workroom was hidden along a narrow street just a block off the Arno River in the middle of the city.
Here he specializes in historic restoration and reproduction of Italian metal works from the past. He shared with me many of his most recent commissions, all of which were impressive. He then pulled out a small frame decorated with small glass tiles. I recognized the piece immediately and realized that this was the workroom that fabricates my Bracelet Chandelier and Bracelet Lantern from my 2005 collection. I wondered how many people who live with these light fixtures realize that these pieces were each hand crafted in this very special workroom. With a lot of pointing and the use of pencil and paper, I was able to share with him my direction for the bronze castings needed for theModerne Lantern. It was a meeting that was not planned but the detour was time well spent. As I left his studio I realized that no email, drawing or text could have given me the results of physically being there and sharing one-on-one time with this artist.
A small crystal factory was the last stop of our day.
Our last stop was actually not for me, but the Baker team wanted to take a look at a small crystal workshop for possible future collaborations. I was happy to go and as I toured the small factory my wheels began to turn.
Racks of molds line the factory. We were given a tour of the various stages of producing crystal. Just as in all the previous workshops of this trip you quickly understood the intimate process of crafting within this studio.
The showroom of the factory was filled with pieces of crystal from various projects they had worked on over the years. My eye was taken by a few pieces that were cut in bold large facets.
I pulled out my sketchpad and began to draw a single piece of crystal hanging from a long bronze chain.
I shared my sketch with the owner of the factory and said simply, “It’s a diamond earring.” After someone offered a quick translation the eyes of the owner lit up and he responded, “I got it!” I then pulled out my phone and took a photo of my sketch along with specific dimensions and emailed the photo to my office in DC. The next morning my office would send back to the factory a CAD drawing of my design. It would be a long shot that this factory would be able to produce this fixture on such short notice along with the possibility that I may not be able to return in time to review a prototype.
With day 3 coming to a close and the satisfaction of knowing we had accomplished a great deal in only three days, we treated ourselves to a little gelato and an evening stroll through Florence.
The experience of working one-on-one with talented craftsmen has always been rewarding. Through my eleven years with Baker I have had the pleasure of working with many craftsmen in Baker’s North Carolina factory that build and produce my designs in upholstery and many of the case pieces of my collections. But I have to say that my time spent in Italy working on the lighting collection was amazing. Here I was not able to depend on words to express my ideas and vision. It was a process reliant on artistic understanding, hands and tools. This lighting collection would not have been as successful without those special moments I spent with each artisan in each small studio. My understanding of their artistic strengths informed my design and helped me bond with some extraordinary people without the use of words.
The day before Market opened to debut the new Thomas Pheasant Collection in High Point, a box arrived with four Amanda Pendants. It was my first look at the completed design that had come to me in an unexpected moment of inspiration while touring a crystal factory outside Florence. It was a great example of a designer and a craftsman coming together with a totally unified understanding. It was perfect!