Pushing The Limits of Design

For those who think choosing a refrigerator is all about deciding whether the freezer should be on the top or the bottom, Lapo Elkann would like to have a minute of your time. Last month the Italian designer and entrepreneur, the scion of the Agnelli family that controls Italian carmaker Fiat, introduced the world to the first refrigerator completely covered in denim. Yes, denim, but without the pockets or the zipper and specially treated to make it easily cleanable and resistant to stains.

The refrigerator is just the latest on a long list of products to come out of Italia Independent, the design company Elkann founded in 2007 that specializes in reinterpreting classic icons in the world of appliances, clothing, home decor, cars and other consumer goods.

“I am extremely turned on by innovation,” says the 34-year-old style icon and notorious playboy, a scheduled speaker at DLD Moscow, a conference that takes place May 27th-May 29th. “But I am not interested in innovation just for innovation’s sake. It must be something that is fresh and brings something new because of its ability to be different. It needs to be useful to the world, the industry you are working with and the vision you are creating for the company. It also needs to be interesting for the market and it needs to be clever and intelligent.”

That’s no small order for Elkann and his team who in their efforts to continually push the limits of design have worked on a myriad of products that run the gamut from the humble BIC lighter to Ferraris.

“I can be working on a lighter that costs one euro or a plane that costs many millions of euros and I always want to deliver the best,” says Elkann. “It’s not a question of price, but of taste and energy.”

Elkann, born in New York city, spent his childhood in England, Brazil, the French Alps and ultimately Paris for high school, before crossing the English Channel to attend London Guildhall University (now part of the London Metropolitan University). All the early jet-setting stamped Elkann’s very Italian core with an international imprinting.

With a declared mission of “exporting Italian style to the world.” Elkann and his designers say they take inspiration from Italy’s past and present as well as new technologies and new materials, such as the nanotechnology-based coating that covers the denim refrigerator.

“Design and technological innovation are one world, they co-exist,” says Elkann. “The objectives are the same, to make the world less complicated and better to live in. I could not reach my goals with my team without the technology. Technology facilitates the life of individuals like me so they are able to best deploy their ideas, projects and strategic visions.”

Other Italia Independent creations include designs for clothing, helmets, phones and sunglasses. In May the company introduced a line of sunglasses to celebrate the victory of the Juventus club in Italy’s top soccer league. For 147 euros fans of Juventus, which is owned by Elkann’s family and whose president, Andrea Agnelli, is Elkann’s cousin, can have sunglasses in the team’s signature black and white to complement the usual jerseys, hats and scarves in the team colors.

Elkann was at the stadium in Turin, where Juventus is based, for the final game of the season to celebrate the victory. As his characteristic flamboyance at all his public outings demonstrates, Elkann clearly relishes his status as a combination Italian playboy, bad boy and style trend-setter. Vanity Fair put him in its Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 2009. The Spanish and German editions of GQ voted him Man of the Year in 2007 and the U.S. edition of the magazine in 2010 placed him among the 25 sexist men in the world.

Eric Wright, the menswear designer who oversees Italia Independent’s clothing line, compares Elkann, who is perpetually being linked to sleek cars and even sleeker women, with movie actor Steve McQueen. Elkann “loves cars, beautiful women and his outfits always reflect a certain style, with silhouettes that hardly change, thus becoming classics,” Wright has been quoted as saying.“Lapo has been a constant source of inspiration for Eric, and with him, the world around him: his wardrobe, his friends, his colleagues, his family, his cars,” according to the company.

The main colors of Italia Independent’s 2012 Spring-Summer clothing collection — military green, Bugatti blue,red, burgundy, blue black, yellow and sky blue — were inspired by a day that Wright andElkann spent at Ferrari’s Centro Stile in Maranello, according to the company.

Italia Independent collaborates with Borsalino for hats, Arfango for footwear, Orciani for bracelets and with Schedoni — a leather goods manufacturer fromModena which works with Ferrari, Rolls Royce and Maserati – to create carbon-finished fiberglass handbags.

The eclectic collection emulates Elkann’s diverse experiences and influences. Just out of university Elkann, the stepson of a Russian count, worked as the personal assistant to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before moving a year later to Fiat where he eventually became the head of brand promotion. In that position he played a key role in re-launching several Fiat models including the iconic 500. Though he left Fiat in 2006 following a nearly lethal overdose of cocaine, heroin and alcohol that landed him in a Turin hospital, Elkann still owns a controlling stake in the company together with his brother John (who is Fiat’s chairman) and sister Ginevra.

In addition to Italia Independent, Elkann co-founded LA Holding, which incubates new ideas and does strategic consulting to help re-launch brands. He also runs Independent Ideas, an advertising agency that most recently powered the Juventus Museum launch, conceiving naming, logo, brand identity, advertising campaign and banners, the launch event and a limited edition “J Book” catalogue.

While Elkann is the undisputed face of Italia Independent and all the ventures connected to LA Holding, he insists that it all comes down to teamwork.

“What is key is to be able to put your ego aside as often as possible by working in a team,” says Elkann. “Whenever I work on a project, whether it be for me or for somebody else, I always work in a team. I never work alone.”

Elkann, who travels eight months a year and has as his main base Milan and Maranello, the small town near Bologna where Ferrari is based, says a designer must have the humility to step back and realize that the market may not yet be ready for a particular product.

“You have to avoid the arrogance that might get you to push a product onto the market too early,” says Elkann. “We want to build things that last. My products are not a one night stand. I don’t take them to bed and then leave the next morning.”

Oh, on the denim-clad refrigerator, Italian appliance manufacturer Smeg made only 500, so you may already be too late. Not to worry: Elkann has some other surprises that he promises will dazzle.

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