Giovanni Pagnotta attended Parsons School of Design and obtained a Masters of Architecture degree at Yale University, receiving the Eero Saarinen Schlarship for Design Excellence.
His work has been featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami and at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Mr Pagnotta recently introduced his latest product, the Mi (pronunced ‘me’) Chair, a recyclable molded polypropylene chair. Most notably, the Mi chair is comfortable, beautiful, and made in the United States.
Mr. Pagnotta took some time to discuss his chair, his vision, and our country in general. We hope you will enjoy the following interview.
A lot of your previous products are carbon fiber. Are those one-offs or production pieces?
The collection on my website is called Prototype and it was launched in 2002 at an exhibition at Issey Miyake. At the time it was a theoretical collection designed as a one-off collection to open up discussion about what can be accomplished with new materials. Of that collection the Z-chair is in limited production.
The Mi Chair is therefore your first mass production piece?
Yes. The predecessor to the Mi Chair was the Vortex Chair in carbon fiber. The reason I designed the Vortex Chair was to take whatever I learned from the attempt and applying it to a production system. The Chanel boutique in Los Angeles has a table and two Vortex chairs.
The carbon fiber stuff was to test and challenge to determine how far you can go with a material. That is why I work with carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is really, really an incredible material. It is so strong relative to steel that it allows you to do forms and geometries and carry loads that can support many thousands of pounds.
The Mi Chair was to use what I learned with the carbon and make a product that people can afford. The Mi chair is the first chair in a collection that has many of the qualities of the carbon… I’ve always wanted to make product that if people wanted them they could have them and they didn’t need to be rich to get it.
One of the things I thought was notable was that you are an American Designer producing things in America. When I saw this chair…. I didn’t know that we could produce such things in American anymore. This chair is very reasonably priced for the quality. It is beautiful. I am assuming the reason why you made this in America is because you wanted to produce it in America.
Absolutely. From the get-go I wanted to produce this in the United States. I don’t believe that the US can’t do it. Everyone wants to outsource. They do it because the bottom line is profit… and that kills companies. Of course I want to be profitable- but you have to have a long term vision and think about how things affect everything else. What has been happening in the United States over the past 30 years is that we have been systematically strangling ourselves. I wanted to stop it with a minute gesture. We are not a large company. I felt that it could happen here. It wasn’t an easy process. There was a huge learning curve. The chair looking the way it does is based on me trying to get them (the manufacturer) to do things they didn’t want to do. It’s fantastic to hear you reinforce what I thought.�
How did you find the manufacturer?
Random luck. They aren’t furniture manufacturers. They were just fabricators. I had a meeting and I really liked the owner and they were a really good group of people. They were enthusiastic about trying to make it and it just built from there.
The tooling was made in Italy because the outfit who did the tooling is known as the best and I didn’t want to cut any corners.
You are a small company in New York producing in America in the middle of a recession. What do you think about the current situation and how are we going to get over this?
We’re in a recession and it is horrible. But I am optimistic that over the next six months people start to regain confidence. My take on design is that I want to make things that people want. I don’t want to make things that people just consume and toss out. I hate the word ‘consumer.’ I can’t believe people don’t take more offense to the label of ‘consumer.’ I don’t want to be the guy who makes stuff for consumers. I want to make things for people who really care about what is in their environment. My goal is not to propagate stuff. My aspirations are much more humble. I like being the boutique designer and being able to offer a product that when people look at it they say, “Wow, that is something.”
The plan is to make a product that is good. I often say, “the world doesn’t need another chair.” We have a bazillion chairs. But what the world can use is a product that makes you look at a things differently. I wanted it to be super-comfortable, affordable, the geometry to be as efficient as possible, and I wanted it to really embrace the method of fabrication. If you’re not sitting in the chair and you look at it, it is a sculpture. The carbon fiber items I’ve made are precious. They are really expensive because the process is expensive. I wanted to make stuff that was not precious. I wanted people to buy it an not worry about it. You can put the chair around a beautiful table. You can spill spaghetti on it and you don’t have to freak out.
I like the fact that the chair comes with care instructions.
I don’t view it as a disposable item. The person who buys this chair is a person that cares about design. It makes a difference in their life on a day-to-day basis. They want to live with something that they like to look at as much as they like to sit on it.
What would you tell a designer who is coming out of school right now?
The first thing I would say is don’t be a designer.
Why would you say that?
I don’t see myself as a designer. That is probably why I haven’t had more mainstream success. I don’t like the business. I don’t like the promoting. There is a lot of superficial stuff out there that has to happen in this kind of world we are in. I think it is probably similar to Hollywood. I am perfectly happen waking up in the morning… get to work, design.. I like that.
That sounds like an old-school designer to me.
Yes, I think I am completely old school. I probably get that from my parents. I was born in Italy. I’m Italian. My parents came here (to America) when I was a little kid. My father is a stonemason. I grew up working with him. My summers were spent building stone walls, brick walkways, digging ditches. That’s what I did right through grad school. It’s very stoic work. You get out there, do your day’s work and you come home really tired but you accomplish something. You started at A and now you are at X. That’s what gets me going. If you are doing design because you think it is glamorous, don’t do it.
When did you know that you wanted to be -er not be a designer?
From the time I was about four. For as long as I can remember I used to draw. When I was seven or eight years old I wanted to design cars. It was always where I felt most comfortable. The whole process is so fulfilling. The end product is cool, but the whole process getting there is much cooler. The tooling, understanding the physics that are at work, the material. Everything is such a delicate balance. That is really the fun part.
Who do you admire most today?
My father, that’s easy.
What about designers? Is there anyone that has helped you along?
Alan (Heller) is a good guy and he makes himself available. So many people don’t. Verner Panton has an impact. Colombo. Reitveld.
With all of these you can see the influence in your production.
It’s true. I would never deny it. A lot of times when I approach a problem I look at something that is my favorite piece. I think, “How would I change this?” “How would I do anything differently?” The Panton chair is a direct influence on the Mi chair. When you look at the Mi chair you see a history back to the Panton chair.
The only designer that I am somewhat friendly with is Ross Lovegrove. Very generous guy. He has been a great advocate of mine. That was a rare find to find how open and accessible he is. About eight years ago I sent a catalog to him and one day he called me on my mobile. He went out of his way to pick up the phone and call me to tell me that what I was doing was relevant and important and that I needed to keep doing it.
Anything else you want to add?
I’m not going to stop. Humans will forget (about the recession). I don’t know how long people will remember. The problem with Humans is that they forget and then they go do stupid things again. I’m hoping that people come out of this and stop and rethink about what they have been doing for the last ‘X’ number of years and reinvest in this country. Make something. Build something. Brick and Mortar. At the end of the day you have to make something tangible and it has to be good. You have to think about the ramifications- how what you are doing impacts everything else. If you just want to make something and not care- which is what basically Wall Street was doing- Look what happened… I think America will come back. That is one of the great things about America. When push comes to shove and things get tough, America pulls its <stuff> together and understand what needs to be done. I am hoping it does it again. It is important. I hope I am part of the beginning of it.
More information on the Mi Chair may be found here.
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