This year, I had the honor of meeting the CEO of Donghia and Co-CEO of Rubelli, Andrea Rubelli, during the Decorative Center’s Spring Market in Houston, TX. While having lunch with him, the conversation turned to the importance of good design. During this discussion, we both came to the conclusion that many people outside of our industry have not been properly educated on the importance of good design and all that it entails. Because of this circumstance, the value of hiring an interior designer, as opposed to an interior decorator, is becoming unknown.
Many potential clients and buyers believe that interior designers are decorators who only make purchases and work with soft finishes. The days of the educated designer who knows the historical eras of design, the importance of international design, the past and current industry leaders, and the difference between quality products versus reproductions are slowly fading. Unfortunately, this has furthered the miseducation of what makes great design.
At the end of our conversation, it occurred to me that there needed to be an open discussion. As a result, I wanted to start a new series on my blog that shares industry insider’s perspective on the importance of good design. The series will ask these insiders to share their take on the difference between interior designers versus interior decorators , and why so many clients are misinformed about the difference between the two. And what better way to kick off the series than interviewing the man himself. It is a pleasure and honor to feature Mr. Rubelli as the first insider for my new series. I hope you enjoy reading into this fascinating topic as much as I enjoyed conducting this interview.
NM: How would you describe the difference between good design and bad design?
AR: Designing interiors is like cooking: almost anyone can do a good job cooking a few ingredients at the time according to existing recipes; much harder when you have to pick a big number of ingredients and invent a brand new recipe. A good Interior Designer – like a master chef – can do magic selecting and mixing a variety of products starting from an empty room. Just like great food, the judgement about good design is very subjective: my favorite design is when elements that are very different by nature and style come together in a perfectly balanced way, providing a sense of harmony and uniqueness; also, the result must match the owner’s lifestyle and personality. It doesn’t have to look perfect, and I actually find it warmer and more inviting when it doesn’t; nevertheless the result – whether formal or informal – has to show a certain elegance.
NM: What factors do you believe are blurring the lines between what is an interior designer vs. an interior decorator?
AR: I’d use an Interior Designer to turn an empty room into a fully functional and beautiful space, and an Interior Decorator to periodically update and improve it, to bring it alive. My favorite designers are very good at both.
NM: In your opinion, what publications are at the forefront of showcasing the best design in the industry and why?
AR: I have different favorites whether looking at product design, interior design and/or lifestyle. I see new publications emerging and offering very interesting content, also exploring and exploiting the new frontiers of digital content. Although – I have to say – the charm of quality paper is irreplaceable, so I need a mix of both.
NM: How can we bring more good design to the forefront of our industry?
AR: I think there is a lot of good design out there. What may be lacking is a diffused culture of Interior Design: there are many appealing “design it yourself” temptations out there, but rarely the result is comparable with the magic that a professional designer can do to an interior. I think we need to educate consumers about the difference between professional Interior Design and… everything else. Publications are key to this training effort, but not enough. There is a big debate going on in our industry about this, and if all parties end up agreeing to join efforts on education, it will make a difference.
“I think we need to educate consumers about the difference between professional Interior Design and… everything else.”
NM: Previously, we had discussed how many individuals are not well informed on our industry. How do you think this will affect design professional businesses in the long-run?
AR: This ties with what I was just saying. In addition, the way our Interior Design industry functions is quite intricate, and mysterious to many individuals. Between design centers, trade showrooms, interior designers, there are lots of layers that are quite hard to understand if you are not familiar with our world. Whether a consumer comes to us with their designer, or just because they are interested in our product that they saw somewhere, our goal is to make their life easier in getting our product into their homes.
NM: What areas of growth do you see occurring in our market? Areas declining? Opportunities?
AR: Business “on the road” and/or generated on-line is growing, meaning that clients expect service at their homes or offices. On the other hand, foot traffic in design centers is slowly declining: business used to come to us, whereas today we have to hunt for it. Websites and technology offer the opportunity of “being there” when the client needs you, faster and 24/7. However, after the initial contact, our fabrics need to be touched and the comfort of our furniture deserves to be tested by the client. I think the opportunity is in finding the best balance between digital/remote service, road presence and brick & mortar presence.
NM: Do you think our industry is becoming over saturated with showcasing the same designers, styles and information? If yes, how can we all contribute to fixing this?
AR: If we look at the trade industry, I think there is more product offer than demand out there. The risk of saturating the market and being repetitive is definitely high. The trick is to understand your brand identity and ask yourself every day “why is my brand needed?”. We went through the effort of deeply analyzing the identity of the Donghia brand a couple of years ago, with the guidance of a professional branding expert: we created a “brand book” – a sort of bible of our brand – and our tagline “Live a well tailored life” that summarizes it. Since then, ever decision I make – whether new product, service, hiring or anything – I ask to myself: does if help with allowing our clients to live a well tailored life?
“The trick is to understand your brand identity and ask yourself every day “why is my brand needed?”
NM: What specifics are people misinformed on the most when it comes to the design industry?
AR: The world of textiles seems the most interesting case of misinformation: while textiles constitute a universe to the lucky few who know and love them, they are just seen as a component of a finished product (or – even worse – a “pantone” color) by everyone else. However, I never found a single person who didn’t fall in love with textiles after a 30’ good training. Textile knowledge definitely generates textile love!
NM: With such a profound background as your own, and having traveled the globe, do you see a specific design style leading the new generation of designers? New styles evolving? Trends that are here to stay?
AR: In Europe we used to say “Americans love any color as long as it is beige”; well, I’m happy to report that it isn’t the case any longer: American clients today respond to color with enthusiasm! The world is definitely smaller and trends are running much faster across borders. On the other hand, while trends are getting global, designers are paying more attention to local roots: in hospitality, for example, today a hotel in New York makes you feel more New Yorker, and a hotel in Venice more Venetian. That, to me, is a very good thing!
NM: As one of the top design insiders out there, what factors do you evaluate before introducing new collections into our market?
AR: Is it beautiful? Is it functional? Does the market already have one? Is it coherent with our brand? We ask ourselves lots of rational questions… although the final decision most times comes by instinct.
NM: If you could debunk one myth about our industry, what would it be and why?
AR: Good design is for wealthy few only? No: a touch of good design will make a big difference even in a student’s home, with just a moderate investment.
NM: Without giving all of your top secrets away, what is your method to making sure Donghia stays successful and sets itself apart from other brands?
AR: “Live a well tailored life” says it all. For as long as we’ll allow our clients (or the clients of our clients) to live a better life, we will be successful.
“Live a well tailored life”
NM: What are some of the best ways to reinterpret historical eras of design?
AR: Look at historical styles, get inspired, but then walk away and possibly start from a blank sheet. Classic elements may exist in our designs as long as they are not invasive.
NM: Do you think that clients or designers are not putting enough value and emphasis on good design?
AR: For as much as we can worry about the increasing “do it yourself” design offer, we must never forget that the U.S. are the area of the world where the Interior Design profession is most developed. It is a huge opportunity!
Get to know Andrea Rubelli:
NM: How would you describe your style?
AR: My personal style and that of Rubelli, the Venetian textile company that is with my family since 5 generations, are strictly interconnected. Rubelli is a weaver and – to use a woven fabric comparison – the warp is Rubelli’s endless tradition while the weft is innovation, technology, new ideas, new colors, resulting in brand new weaves every day. You can always recognize Rubelli’s tradition in its fabrics, but they are always innovative. A perfect example is the fabric that we are showcasing within an Italian art exhibit at the EXPO show in Milan in these very months: the pattern is traditional/Venetian, the warp is silk… but the weft is fiber optics powered by LEDs that illuminate the whole textile in the most innovative way. I am a big fan of technology and technical innovation.
NM: How is design different in Italy versus the United States?
AR: Italian art and tradition is in our bones. Nevertheless Milanese furniture designers – for example –have done an amazing job in cleaning it to the extreme, creating the world of Italian contemporary design, which is so successful worldwide. Yet there is another specificity of Italy that is critical to good design: not just good product designers, but also an incredible level of craftsmanship and a large number of small size companies – each very specialized in something – networked in local districts made of hundreds of them within a few miles distance. They are absolutely a key element in achieving great design.
NM: What is your favorite design magazine?
AR: I have many favorites, yet I enjoy lifestyle magazines most because they bring life to design – and/or design to life.
NM: Where do you find inspiration?
AR: Potentially from everywhere. Then I need some quiet time – possibly surrounded by nature – to pull these inputs out, organize and turn them in to a plan.
NM: What is the most rewarding part of being the CEO of Donghia?
AR: When we acquired Donghia 10 years ago, its management warned us: the “Donghia virus” hit us all. Now I know exactly what the “Donghia virus” is. I am lucky to lead an incredible brand and to work with very talented and passionate people: it’s impossible not to fall in love with this company!
NM: What is a typical workday like for you?
AR: That largely depends on the time zone I’m in, as I commute between Venice and New York every other week. I can tell you what my ideal week looks like: Monday to Thursday in New York, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Venice, getting the best of these two amazing worlds.
NM: Best advice you’ve ever received?
AR: Move to the United States! That was 5 years ago.
NM: Advice to interior design professionals looking for longevity in our industry?
AR: Reinvent yourself, every Monday morning.
NM: What’s next for Donghia? New products, collaborations, projects we can look forward to?
AR: We have recently acquired Hinson, another iconic American brand, less formal than Donghia. It is a perfect complement to our existing American and European brands. The last months we spent in studying its roots, rebuilding inventory, sales tools, etc, after the company had gone through some unfortunate times. Now we have full control of it and we are about to re-launch and bring it back to its original glory!
Amazing! Thank you for so much insightful information here. I hope you enjoyed reading my first Design Insider feature as much as I did interviewing Mr. Rubelli. Have questions you want me to ask the next Design Insider? Share them in the comments.
Photo Source: Donghia