Casalgrande Old House: a typical, historic farmhouse in
the Reggio Emilia countryside that was fully restored by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma & Associates in 2011, becoming Casalgrande Padana's historical archive and documentation centre
While en route to the massive Casalgrande Padana factory, we passed two notable roundabouts. One features a long, white, linear object, a kind of perforated geometric structure. The signature style of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was easy to recognise. A few hundred metres further, another displays a huge installation by American architect Daniel Libeskind, recently completed. These works were both commissioned by Casalgrande Padana, a company founded by the Manfredini family that has been producing tiles since 1960.
Architecture in general is an essential tool for the presentation of the company. Stopping at an old country house set in beautifully landscaped surrounds, we met in-house architect Cesare Brizzi. “Kengo Kuma constructed the Cloud piece using our advanced technologies. It was his first realisation using this material. Individual tiles are stacked like a house of cards. It was very difficult to create tiles that have the necessary structural strength”, says Brizzi of the collaboration. The installation is in the middle of the roundabout and despite its static nature, is constantly in visual motion. From every viewpoint, the object looks different. Variously angled tiles reflect the sun’s rays in a changing kaleidoscope of shadow and light.
Vanke pavilion, designed by Daniel Libeskind for EXPO 2015 in Milan / The organic structure is covered in custom-made Casalgrande Padana tiles.
Casalgrande Padana’s cultural centre, Old House, was renovated by Kengo Kuma in 2011; it consisted of remodelling a traditional farmhouse. He retained the original building and implemented new functional elements based on the internal volumes and contrasting materials. The huge factory complex sprawls out behind this building. With its huge stock of kaolin, large ovens, and fully automated assembly-line production, Casalgrande Padana generates tiles by the million. Daniel Libeskind collaborated with the company to develop the special metallic tiles he used to cover his dragon-like pavilion for Chinese property developer Vanke at last year’s Expo in Milan. His three-dimensional form explored innovative methods and experimented with the lat- est generation of ceramic parts. Wrapped in special porcelain stoneware tiles called Fractile (referring to their raised fractal motif), the structure measures 25 metres high, emphasising the verticality of its volumetric projection while evoking an almost hand-sketched feel.
While Casalgrande Padana is a big player in the production of tiles globally, with Mutina it's a different story. Though embedded in the local ceramic tradition, it rather epitomises the essence of the contemporary design scene. In 2005, Massimo Orsini bought the struggling Mutina company and decided to build a high-end ceramic tiles brand. His idea was to connect progressive design with the manufacturing know-how of the region. “Our philosophy of collaboration with designers is a kind of protest against the classic, often tacky production by large manufacturers that don’t really develop the design of their products because they are mainly interested in sales”, says Orsini.
Inspired by graphic designer Milton Glaser’s motto that we can only work with people we love, Orsini and his colleagues started to collaborate with renowned designers whose tastes match their own. “We started with Patricia Urquiola. It was almost impossible to get a hold of her. I phoned every day for a year. But it was worth it. After that, she agreed on a five-minute meeting. We ended-up spending all day with her, after which she designed our first ever collection”, effuses Orsini. Our collaborations with other design heavyweights followed, including Tokujin Yoshioka, the Bouroullec brothers, Inga Sempé, Rodolfo Dordoni, Raw Edges, and Barber & Osgerby. “We try to select designers who do a lot of research, also with diverse materials. Reciprocal feel- ings and friendship are very important to us”, adds Orsini. Mutina delivers its designers endless possibilities, and with its network of collaborators and artisans opens the door to creative experimentation of all kinds. “It takes about two years to develop each collection. That is our way. We need to spend time together with the designers and work on the project in a proper manner”, says Massimo Orsini.
Each designer creates his own-style Mutina tile. The Mutina collection is thus a gallery of contemporary design tendencies, ranging from the poeticism of the Bouroullec brothers to Tokujin Yoshikoka’s structuralism. Applied to a flat ceramic surface. “We have to teach our customers to love design. We want to explain to them the truth of the material. Even ceramic in its simplest and purest form can be beautiful”, proclaims Massimo. This year, the company introduced a new collection of tiles called Rombini, by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and its first collaboration with Konstantin Grcic has resulted in a sophisticated system of geometric reliefs in a contrast of matte and shiny.
The Mutina headquarters is situated in the town of Fiorano, a former warehouse built by Italian modernist Angelo Mangiarotti during the 1970s. Its beautiful concrete and glass structure confirms the company’s discerning aesthetic and intelligence, and its unflagging personal passion for the design and manufacture of ceramic tiles. “We not only want to grow economically, but also intellectually. We spend a lot of time with our designers to create good collaborations, and are interested in art and experiments of all kinds. All this is Mutina”, concludes Massimo Orsini.