Published July 14, 2007

Poltrona Frau in strong rebound

After a restructuring exercise and an initial public offer, iconic Italian furniture maker is expanding in Asia, reports GEOFFREY EU

WHEN it comes to high-end furniture to die for, not many names have the cachet and pedigree of Poltrona Frau, a symbol of iconic Italian style, design and quality craftsmanship for close to a hundred years. Few are the brand names in designer furniture and fashion that evoke an unmatched sense of classic luxury and comfort, but Poltrona Frau is without doubt a leading member of that very exclusive club.

Rock on: Poltrona Frau caters to the most classical and bourgeois style and is made entirely by hand, using at times high-tech materials

Founded in 1912 by Renzo Frau, a Sardinia-born furniture designer and craftsman, Poltrona Frau remained a small and reputable family company specialising in handcrafted leather products. It fell on some difficult times in the 1990s but has now bounced back into the black, thanks largely to a restructuring exercise and the ambitious plans of its current owners.

In recent years, the private investment group Charme - led by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the chairman of car giant Fiat as well as Ferrari and backed by fellow private investors like Diego Della Valle of shoemaker Tod's - has acquired several other furniture brands in addition to Poltrona Frau. Under a Charme offensive, the group has bagged specialty names including the likes of Cappellini, Cassina, Gebruder Thonet Vienna, Gufram, Alias and Nemo. The group is the furniture equivalent to luxury goods conglomerate LVMH.

Each of the companies in the group still caters to respective niche markets and operates independently, but all fall under the Poltrona Frau blanket. The group launched an initial public offering last year to help raise funds for expansion, while turnover for 2006 was 274 million euros (S$572.4 million). Poltrona Frau and Cassina together account for about 80 per cent of group turnover, according to Giuliano Mosconi, CEO of the Poltrona Frau Group.

Mr Mosconi was in town earlier this week for the launch of a stand-alone Poltrona Frau showroom on Purvis Street, one of several flagship stores in key markets around the world that represent the company's growing visibility and more contemporary corporate image. The commitment to quality craftsmanship hasn't changed, though, with each handcrafted piece - typically in leather - resembling a work of usable art.

While Poltrona Frau furniture has been available here for some years, local distributor Proof, which also recently opened a Cappellini showroom just a few doors away, now offers the products in a mono-brand environment, where timeless classics like the Vanity Fair and Chesterfield armchairs and more recent designs like Jean-Marie Massaud's Kennedee sofa and swivel chairs are displayed in an elegant, contemporary space (which was also designed by Massaud).`

'The history of Poltrona Frau has to be told in these kinds of spaces, where the essence of the brand can be experienced,' says Mr Mosconi, who helped to restructure the company when it was in crisis in the late-1990s. 'In this shop, you can find the history - and mystery - of Poltrona Frau. In every corner, there is a sense of intimacy.' He adds: 'As in everything, we have to evolve without forgetting our origins.'

While the company has a strong customer base in residential furniture, Poltrona Frau also has a long history in contract furniture, working with top architects on a multitude of prestigious projects such as the Disney Concert hall in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The company is also associated with upholstery work for luxury car brands such as Rolls Royce, Maserati and Ferrari, as well as cruise ships and airlines.

'If there is a differentiation between us and others, it is that we are the oldest company in this field,' says Mr Mosconi. 'Poltrona Frau is the part of our group that caters to the most classical and bourgeois style, while Cassina caters to the modern element of industrial design and Cappellini interprets the post-modern requirements of our international customers. These styles - classical, modern and post-modern - account for the three main categories of the high-end consumer market. This is how our group wants to meet the challenges of competition on a global level.'

Despite the rising costs of manufacturing furniture in Italy, Mr Mosconi says, the group will continue to keep production exclusively in the country. 'Keeping the quality level up is one of our priorities. Keeping control of the creative process as well as the production process is one of the keys.'

He adds: 'Poltrona Frau is made completely by hand, so the craftsmanship of the artisans is vital, but this does not mean we are not modern - we now use materials like titanium and carbon-fibre, for example. The real luxury is to be able to use old-fashioned craftsmanship together with new, high-tech materials.'

Mr Mosconi says that the strategy of the Poltrona Frau Group is relatively straightforward. Singapore is just one more cog in the Poltrona Frau wheel - another flagship store opened in Tokyo three weeks ago. 'We understand that the market is changing, and we need to face the market with a multi-brand company. The first step was to create Charme, the next was to go to the stock exchange to raise funds and the new phase is centred on growth in international markets.'

'It's going well so far,' says Mr Mosconi, adding that the group projects 12 per cent growth this year. There are a few perks as well. 'In our job, we get to sit on a lot of nice furniture - if our passion for the brand leads to good business results, then at least we will sit a little more comfortably.'