Francesco Meda: how to work for large companies and remain an independent designer

By Andrea Carloni e Carlotta Ferrati

September 2019

Francesco Meda is a designer from Milan. We would like to emphasise our belonging to this city because as he himself will explain to us during his interview, Milan is still one of the essential references for those involved in design. After his studies in Italy he had the opportunity to work on some important international studies, then he decided to return to his own country to start working with his father Alberto. Various products for important companies originated from this collaboration, among these, the Flap project for Caimi with which they won the Golden Compass. The possibility of working for international brands would have been a goal for many. For Francesco Meda, it was a starting point that led him over the years to practise an increasingly prolific of self-produced activity.

Francesco Meda

You studied in Italy, then you left for a period. Could you tell us about your studies and training?

I graduated from IED in 2007, then went to Sebastian Bergne’s studio in London. It was just Sebastian and his assistant and me. I learned a lot in this intimate dimension. Later I chose a much more structured type of study and went to Ross Lovegrove. Here I realised that changing the study dimensions also changes the approach to the project. In 2009 I decided to go back to Italy and I asked my father, who has a studio in Milan, if I could begin my experience with him. Even my father, like Sebastian Bergne, has a studio that I would like to define as anomalous because he has almost always worked alone. I learned here, where I could see all the phases concerned with the development of a product and among these some aspects, not related to projects, such as the relationship with the customer.

Francesco Meda – Split Chair per Colos – 2016

I imagine this last aspect is very important …

After working five or six years with my father as an assistant, we started designing objects together, which gave me access to direct relationships with companies like Alias and Th.kohl. This was a definite advantage because it is very difficult for a young designer to get in touch with important companies that usually prefer to use established designers. In addition to this activity I felt the need to do something completely mine so I started my own production.

Francesco Meda – Alusion Collection – 2018

I’d like to learn more about your role in self-producing your work. Can you talk about it?

My first piece was a lamp: Bridge. When you self-produce the approach to the project changes and some aspects become very important. In this case the initial investment was very small, I used only laser-cut sheet metal and led strips; this allowed me to have only two suppliers. Once cut, the sheet can be folded by hand, then you just apply the LED strip and the product is finished. These technical solutions that gave me a productive advantage, are partly a consequence of the fact that I knew I was self-producing, and therefore each step had to be well-studied and simplified. The initial idea was to send the sheet of metal to be folded and assembled directly to the customer, then I changed my mind on this last point.

Francesco Meda – Bridge – 2014

Self-production is more than just working on the project…

That’s right, it’s like being a small company. You must deal with relationships with suppliers, logistics and storage, promotion and sales, distribution, shipping etc. Although it took a considerable effort, the lamp was a success at the Salone del Mobile and was widely published. This permitted me to become known and some companies asked us to collaborate with them. The first was Caimi who asked us to design sound-absorbing panels. It was the first project I developed with my father. I thought more about the drawing while he, having an engineering background, dealt mainly with technical and practical solutions. The panels, although functional objects, have a sculptural character and were designed not to be hidden, but rather shown within the space that contains them. This project expanded our visibility giving us the opportunity to win the Golden Compass in 2016.

Francesco Meda – Flap per Caimi – 2016

On your site we find the projects you have completed for various companies and also a “Limited Edition” section. What is that?

As I said before, in practice I am a designer in two distinct worlds. The first is that of classic work where I work with companies, the second is instead self-production and Limited Edition deals with the latter.

Why do many designers today get into self-production?

One reason is certainly the fact that it is possible to receive a consumer’s opinion in a much faster way than the classic production chain through the company. To give you an example, if a customer orders one of my tables, I proceed to design it according to his specifications and after approval he can have it in his home within about a month. On the other hand, a project with the company usually requires more than a year just to develop it, then marketing and sales are needed. So in a few words, it takes a few years to understand how your project will be implemented by the end user.

Francesco Meda – Split round Onyx Tiger marble

For the self-production items, which sales channels do you use?

For some pieces like the Bridge lamp, which is a real object produced in a series and in line with market prices, I work as if I were a company and therefore I use canonical channels. In this project I use the usual production process that a large company would have used, the only difference being that I make many fewer pieces and therefore I settle for lower profit margins. Other designers have a different approach to their projects and sometimes they create their own object, they create pieces that are similar to works of art and are often marketed by art galleries. This approach does not take into consideration the aspect of industrial production at all.

I believe that self-production is also possible thanks to new means of communication…

Yes sure. If it had been ten years ago, I would have made my lamp that you would have published in your hard copy magazine and it would have been seen only a few hundred people. Today, online platforms can easily reach thousands and thousands of people. It must also be said that this has allowed us to have a huge quantity of products that has caused a market saturation.

Francesco Meda – Split round Onyx Tiger marble

What is your relationship with the materials? Do you have a preference?

Actually no. I like the subject for itself. When I work with wood I want to accentuate the value of its characteristics, therefore I prefer not to treat it with products that limit these aspects. When I use brass I like that it can oxidise over time, I also have a similar approach with stone. I prefer that nature takes its course and I don’t like to embalm it. In my projects the materials are often the protagonists and often my design must help to emphasize their beauty and solve many technical aspects. For example, in my tables, knowing that I had used a material like stone, that has a very high specific weight, I created an object that can be easily disassembled and transported thanks to the fact that the top is divided into two pieces. I say all this also to affirm that while self-producing and therefore not being a company the objects are created as if they were.

From this interview I understand that you are very keen on self-production. Is that so?

I care a lot about it because it’s also one of the fun aspects of my work.

Francesco Faccin & Francesco Meda – Samantha for Nilufar Gallery – 2017

When are you asked to start a new project, where do you begin?

I can’t start with the idea of an already finished product in mind, I prefer to embark upon a path that takes into consideration multiple factors. One of the first is that I try to understand the customer’s needs. Another is the choice of materials. Moreover it must be said that the world changes and with it also the objects. Today, if a company called me to design a stone table, I would never design a monolithic object. The fact that it would be heavy and difficult to transport would do little to meet the needs of contemporary living.

Today, thanks to the internet it is very easy to find and see what we want. We can quickly access an enormous amount of information. What relationship do you have with these means?

When I go to the Salone del Mobile I sometimes see so many things that in the end there is almost nothing left. Even if we see only beautiful things we are not able to perceive them all, I believe the information bulimia is negative. Ten years ago I used to follow so many design blogs, now I am much more attracted to what is often being done in totally different fields. I am no longer anxious to know what other designers are doing, I prefer to be influenced by other things that attract me. Sometimes seeing continuously what others do can almost become a design prison, but if we want to try to raise the bar a little and feel free to design, we must learn to detach ourselves from information overload.

Francesco Meda – Split Chair per Colos – 2016

You work with some of the most important Italian companies in their sector. What does it mean to collaborate with these large structures? How is the job set up?

The advantage of working for these big names is that there is a very strong know-how. The project is the result of teamwork. This leads to very high quality results. But it must also be said that when there are too many people involved, the project can make a bit of a struggle to finish. The large companies within the project also involve the people who will have to deal with the object once it has been finished and therefore the designer has to deal with those responsible for marketing and commerce etc.

What does it mean for an Italian designer to live in Milan?

I think it’s fundamental. I say this for some specific reasons and the first is the fact that around Milan there is a manufacturing reality of the highest quality in every field. This gives a designer the opportunity to easily follow all the construction phases of his project by moving within a radius of 20 km from the centre of Milan, which would be impossible if you lived thousands of miles away. Human relations are another important component of Milan, just think that both the Salone del Mobile and the Triennale take place within this one city. Most of the global business related to my trade passes through Milan.

Francesco Meda – Woody stool and chair for Molteni&C – 2018
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