In Conversation: Paola Lenti

by Marco Velardi

More than twenty years ago, Italian-based designer and entrepreneur Paola Lenti, inspired by felt and its incredible technical properties, set out on a revolutionary journey to rethink designing outdoor furniture using textiles. Today Paola is still a visionary, and on the eve of a new collaboration with Maharam—just previewed at NeoCon in Chicago—we got together to look back at her extensive career and talk about how she finds inspiration in our fast-paced world.

Marco Velardi: Paola, when did you first come into contact with the world of design?

Paola Lenti: My first experience was after high school, when I began studying graphic design at the Scuola Politecnica di Design in Milan, founded by Nino di Salvatore. You could say I had a full immersion in design there, with professors of the highest caliber like Walter Balmer, Bruno Munari, Heinz Waibl, and Augusto Garau. 

MV: It was an inspirational journey . . .

PL: Yes, exactly. You could say the only time I studied a lot was for Garau, because I really liked colors, even back then. So this was one of my best experiences. Afterward, I began working as a graphic designer, learning the ropes. I started out alone and opened a small studio in Meda, outside of Milan. Over the years, I did some really nice work, which I liked. But after a while, I didn’t really feel this was right for me anymore, because I was always obliged to do what others wanted. In a way, two-dimensional points of view have never really been my thing.

MV: So were you interested in the three-dimensional world of furnishings even back then?

PL: I’d work a lot on fashion installations, and since I didn’t like using furniture made by other companies, I’d create my own environments, my rugs, my accessories. And I’d have furniture made for me. Back then I started designing a collection of Limoges porcelain objects. I would have these made and then sell them directly. Designing installations led me to felt. This was an important moment in my life. I didn’t even know what felt was, but I found some in a warehouse, behind a shelf. With felt, I started out on a journey that continues even today. 

MV: When did this take place?

PL: Today my company is twenty-one years old, so you could say that in 1994 I made my first installation as Paola Lenti—all on my own without being hosted by anyone, as my own brand. I began with rugs in felt, which had something in common with Limoges porcelain: both could be worked on in bas-relief. From there I simply began following this dream. Slowly, things began to fall into place. I met the right people, especially Francesco Rota, who followed and supported me as my brand evolved. And then my sister Anna, who was a nuclear engineer, decided to leave her job and share my adventure and grow.

MV: Did you design everything yourself at first?

PL: I started with rugs, along with a study of materials and textile development. But as far as actual furniture design goes I developed this with Francesco, since I’ve never claimed to be a designer. We were both young when we met, and we clicked right away. Our first work together was in 1997 and our collaboration continues today.

MV: It was a natural process . . .

PL: A natural evolution. I’m not a closed-minded type of person, and if you have this kind of attitude, things probably come much more easily. When we started making outdoor furniture, fabric wasn’t used, only wood or fiberglass or steel. Maybe it was instinct, or maybe I just understood things, but I realized there was something missing in the market. So I began imagining outdoor textiles. But the leap from imagining something to actually creating it is quite complex. Working with some university researchers, who knew things I didn’t, began a process of textile research and development that gave life to our fibers. Today it’s what I jokingly call a “small dress,” even though before this “small dress” there has to be something very solid as a support.

MV: What are the collections for this “small dress”? 

PL: A collection for the outdoors is what we approached initially. It’s what we studied the most and what we’re known for. We’ve created a market that has recognized our ability and our intellectual integrity with regard to our products. Because when you have to invent things, not all is rosy, right? Maybe you make mistakes. Or have to turn back and start over. As for the indoors collection that started with rugs and felt—a material we’ve always worked with—when our clients realized people liked our outdoor products they asked for indoor products too. 

MV: So it was a natural transition, also thanks to your skillful use of colors.

PL: Colors are my legacy. I’ve always wondered how musicians understand notes. It’s a gift. So how do I remember colors? That, too, is a gift. It doesn’t depend on me. It depends on how my mind was made. I just have to be thankful for being given this ability of knowing how to interpret color. 

MV: Where do you find inspiration?

PL: For me, colors are instinctual. There are many references to nature, even with the most outrageous colors. Think about walking along the banks of a river in the winter. You see branches and find reds, purples, sandy colors, powder blue . . . you need to know how to see. Even though, in the end, I think inspiration comes from everything, not only nature. Come to think about it, I like lots of things. Obviously, each thing is right or wrong, depending on the context you put it in, and therefore the fact of having a simple design leaves us more open to other elements. In the end, color always plays a big role.

MV: Speaking about simplicity, if I observe your way of presenting a product, such as the colors, I notice many references to different cultures, like Scandinavian or Japanese.

PL: Generally, I like simple things, be they inspired by Scandinavia or Japan or Africa. I like things that are timeless. Actually, my greatest effort lies in subtraction. 

MV: Is it easy to express this outlook to the people you work with?

PL: Yes, it’s easy, because the people who work with me have, in the first place, learned to decode my language. Secondly, I try to carry my own ideas forth in all ways possible, but not in ways that are detrimental to the ideas of others. What I mean is that if something is wrong or inappropriate at this moment, I can always turn back. What we have is a tried-and-tested team of people, each with his or her own expertise. Having different points of view helps things evolve.

MV: Do you find time to travel?

PL: Not a lot. I don’t like traveling, because for me, traveling is like leaving something behind. Real journeys take place in the mind, in my opinion.

MV: So you feed upon images, books, art . . . ? 

PL: I follow my instinct. I must admit I know very little in many fields. But at the same time, I have a talent for being instinctive, and my instinct often leads me to the right place. That’s why I travel with my mind. I think a lot, and I like to dwell upon images, because seeing how others view the world is interesting to me.

MV: Are you always able to remember everything?

PL: At times I can remember, while at others I can’t, but memories are always impressed upon my mind. There are things I saw twenty years ago—ideas from twenty years ago—that have come true today, because back then I didn’t know how to approach them. And I like this because it means there’s a certain sense of coherence.

Marco Velardi is a Milan/Berlin-based creative consultant, working within the realms of branding, publishing, and design strategy. He is a partner and editor-in-chief of Apartamento magazine.

Maharam will introduce Feltro Uno, Feltro Due, and Feltro Tre by Paola Lenti in October, 2015.