January 3, 2012

Flos opens SF store inside DZINE showroom

Beth Hughes, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, December 25, 2011

Flos, the Italian lighting company, prides itself on working with the luminaries of design for 50 years - Achille Castiglioni, Gino Sarfatti and Patricia Urquiola, to name a few.

The company started in 1962 with the idea of producing "modern lighting" and "developing new lighting concepts," according to its official history. In 1964, Sergio Gandini joined the outfit.

"It was a small company, but in the minds of the people, it could be built up consistently," says Piero Gandini, who has been the CEO since 1999.

Which is what happened.

The first Flos retail store opened in Milan in 1968. The first foreign subsidiary opened in Germany in 1971.

"In a way, to do something so new, it was practically exotic," says Gandini. "Fifty years later, (the company) is still growing, still keeping the free, crazy vision. I think we're a little bit crazy, yes, I think that's the trick."

Their collaborative efforts are well known. Often designers go to the company with ideas, saying "I have a dream, but I know it is impossible," says Gandini. "We say, 'Why is it impossible?' We believe in the creative mind, and so before we say, 'No, it is not possible,' we like to explore it. We like to see the energy, and if we realize there is something strong from the emotional point of view, from the functional point of view, from the lighting point of view, we really like to get there. Normally, we win the battle."

Flos opened its latest retail venture late last month, a store within the DZine showroom on Utah Street. "It's a city that has always been sensitive to design and creativity," says Gandini. "It's a beautiful city, astonishingly beautiful, so this ... was a natural decision."

The company with products priced from just over $100 to $16,000, opened a New York stand-alone store in 2010, and a Los Angeles store in June, according to Jan Vingerhoets, CEO of Flos North America.

He said that some Flos customers "are affected by the economy; some are not. We have quite a lot of young people who want a nice task light. They are really keen on beautiful design and willing to spend the extra money on it. ... We also have a fair amount of the people who do well and are able to afford our lamps without thinking much about it."

He points out that like shopping locally and buying clothes fashioned to last, "one of the greenest things is to buy good quality, so things don't end up in landfill. Beautiful design, good technology, it's rare when it breaks down, and good brands have the replacement items so you can get it to work again. We think there are many people who are starting to appreciate that."

Indeed, Flos carries lighting from its earliest collections. "Every time we do a new lamp, we think it may be the ultimate lamp," says Gandini, "but many old products are still very good sellers. In some cases, when they're no longer good sellers, we keep them in the catalog because (we) want to show a cross-section ... and to show what we were and what we are."

At DZine, along with noted designs such as the Glo-Ball line from mini to maxi ($120 to $700), the company introduced designer Ron Gilad's piece "Wallpiercing," which is tiny light-emitting diodes (LEDs) positioned inside lightweight hoops with the diameter of a large dinner plate. Calling the piece a light fixture is like calling a Maserati GranTurismo a ride. The design is part of Soft Architecture, a Flos line designed for minimal environmental impact during production and after sale.

"Wallpiercing" is already part of the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. It is a plus for the design driven, and the design curious, that Cardenio Petrucci, who owns DZine, likes people "to come in and see the showroom. It's almost like a museum. Design students, they take advantage of us, and I love it. ... We try to be more of a community than store."

Gilad embarked on the project by learning the technology behind LEDs and coming to understand the quality of light they emit. A precise minimalist, he attached each hoop to a tile at a 45-degree angle. Each tile is embedded in a wall. There are no visible wires.

It is, if nothing else, a lesson in why Gandini suggests that property owners should figure out lighting design early in the building or remodeling process. "Try to think of the lighting from the beginning, not at the end. Then it is too late for many solutions and possibilities."

He has another tip for lighting your home: Rather than following magazines or the trends or "a famous guy somewhere," look into yourself. "People have to push themselves but, at the same time, they must choose the lights that match their style of life. There is no one solution. ... Do it in a way that makes sense."

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