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Jun / Jul 2012
Against the Machine

Writer: Warren Singh-Bartlett

The careers of William Sawaya and Paolo Moroni have been all about sticking it to the Man. Ironic given the duo’s association with some of the design establishment’s biggest names. But their rebellion changed the way an entire industry works. 


London. 1976. William Sawaya, a son of Zahle, graduate of Beirut’s INBA and newly qualified architect, is overseeing a project in the Gulf. Based in Saudi Arabia, he travels frequently to Europe for materials. Running into a logistical snag, he’s pointed to Paolo Moroni, a well-connected son of Milanese merchants and something of a fixer. Unannounced, Sawaya walks into Moroni’s office. Their conversation is brief. William asks Paolo for help. Paolo is intrigued but isn’t sure of William’s credentials. Unwilling to take no for an answer, William hands over a down-payment and leaves. Surprised (and possibly a little flattered) by William’s trust, Paolo takes the job and even comes in under budget.

It sounds like the set-up for some 1950s Buddy movie but this is how one of the most enduring design partnerships was born. Close to 40 years later, it’s still going strong. Described in Hollywood terms, it’s more Matthau and Lemmon than Frankie and Deano, for Sawaya and Moroni not only finish each other’s sentences, they bicker. Constantly. It’s good-natured but minds are spoken.

As double-acts go, theirs is engaging - both possess sharp wit - and instructive. Though obviously sharing much – a love of books, art and design, to begin with – it’s clear that Paolo keeps William’s feet on the ground and that William values Paolo’s critical practicality. Opposites, as they say.

In 1978, they moved to Milan and set up their architectural bureau. As they made a name for themselves, William’s mind turned in a different direction. In 1984, he announced he wanted to start designing furniture and household products. “My diploma project included a Plexiglas chair. It was always my dream to invent things,” he says, as I sit facing them in the meeting room of their showroom on Milan’s now fashionable Via Manzoni. “Paolo was against the whole thing, you know.”

“William,” Paolo says, turning to face his partner and interrupting, “that’s not true.” He turns back to me. “When William wanted to start designing objects, I realised I’d be forced to take on a role I didn’t want; being an industrialist.” Sensing that William is about to speak, Paolo ploughs onwards. “I’m a philologist by training and I’ve always been more literary by inclination. I didn’t want to make things and anyway, I had no idea how to be a manufacturer. That’s why I didn’t really want to go in this direction.”

And so in a sense, they didn’t. With no interest in the way furniture and objects were then being made, they decided to make theirs differently. “The [furniture] industry was based on quantity. First you made the design, then you made the machine to make the design and then you made hundreds and thousands of pieces,” explains William. “We didn’t want to be limited to the machines’ restrictions and performance and we weren’t interested in being structured or industrialised. We wanted to enhance the uniqueness of a concept and the excellence of its making.”

While they could not have known it at the time, Sawaya and Moroni had just redefined an entire industry. Milan’s first reaction, however, was puzzlement and mockery. The logic of the times called for one company to do everything from design to production and was so well entrenched, no one could imagine it being different. “We betrayed the rules from the beginning,” Paolo adds, stepping in. “We had no allegiance to the sector, so we felt free to abandon the way it did things.”

So they bypassed the system entirely. Instead of assembling the capacity to do everything themselves, they looked for craftsmen, specialists who could do one part of the job and put their objects together bit by bit. Though more labour intensive, this gave them the flexibility to produce as many - or as few - of each piece as they wanted, which in turn gave them the freedom to take chances and explore both extreme and contradictory choices.

“If there is no obsolete structure, you can organise as you see fit. This is what everyone does now. Twenty-six years ago, if you said this, it was as if you were saying a rude word in public, everyone turned against you,” William begins before Paolo continues. “What we did was pure blasphemy. We were speaking a new language. We declared that we were editors not manufacturers.”

The usage is commonplace today, when almost everyone is either an editor or a curator but in 1984, editors edited books, not furniture. With time, as the concept sank in, more and more people began to follow suit. By freeing design from manufacturers, William and Paolo opened the doors to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people, who would not have been able to turn their ideas into reality under the previous system.

Today, it is fair to say that the duo is most closely associated with their ever-evolving collection of chairs, tables, tableware and lighting marketed under the Sawaya & Moroni label. Pieces like Sawaya’s Maxima, a slinky moulded plastic chair, Zaha Hadid’s abstract sensual sofa, Moraine or Jean Nouvel’s Milana chair, which have become modern classics.

Designed by William with the occasional participation of Paolo and by ‘guests’ who are not always big names, the collection is always slightly ahead of its time, which explains why if it has been critically successful from the start – and it has – it hasn’t always been commercially successful. But then William and Paolo have the luxury of treating the collection as a passion, an opportunity to play with ideas, one which doesn’t have to pay the bills.

That’s done by their Design Office. As it always has, architecture and interior design takes up most of William and Paolo’s time. Much in demand, the office’s new clients must be prepared to join a waiting list, currently around 1 to 2 years.

If this side of William and Paolo’s career is less well known than their collections, it’s because it is much less publicised. Most of their residential clients are high profile and so prefer to avoid publicity.

The two halves of the business are symbiotic. Without the Design Office, the Sawaya & Moroni collection might not have the funding to start up. Without the collection, the Design Office might not enjoy the same profile. More importantly, while their architecture and interior design can sometimes be constrained by client desires, the collection gives them free reign, the opportunity to champion those who have caught their eye and to take risks. “The key word is experimentation,” William says, of the collection. “We love to travel the less usual road. We don’t get excited by things that come easily.”

“Design has become a much abused word. Today anyone who makes an object is a ‘designer’ but that’s simply not true,” he continues. “Most of the proposals we receive look good (on the surface) but when you look closely, you can see they’re homogenised. You get the same shapes and ideas, again and again. And nearly all of them have been done before, anyway.”

Blaming computers in part for this development and adding that young designers need to “dig a bit more deeply” into the history of design, Paolo continues. “People are less daring. Before, you could differentiate between ‘garbage’ and ‘garbage with an idea’ but today,” he says, fingering the professional finish that rendering software like 3D gives even the most insubstantial concept, “you get optimised dreck.”

It’s a perfect storm. Manufacturing has been taken away from manufacturers, slick software has taken the craft (and possibly the thought) out of sketching, 3-D printers are about to enable everyone to make whatever they want at any time. Warhol was right. In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. “With the globalisation of everything,” William adds, “there’s no more differentiation or identity. Take fashion, for example. Go anywhere in the world and you get the same shopfronts.”

In other words, Gucci is Gucci is Gucci. In Milan. In Shanghai. In Kinshasa. Moroni thinks this ubiquity is affecting not only the way people think but also the way they desire. “The problem of large concentrations of luxury [brands] is that they develop the capacity to impose, to shape,” he says, warming to what I sense may be a much-discussed topic chez Sawaya and Moroni. “Their power creates a kind of tabula rasa, where in the name of greater availability, you actually end up with less choice. This is colonialism.” It also sounds like another Machine to break, another Man to stick it to. It wouldn’t be their first time. Round Two?

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