As we celebrate the importance of lighting throughout the winter months, The Conran Shop sits down with Astep founder Alessandro Sarfatti ahead of his panel appearance for our Dark Is the Night event, to discuss the launch of the Astep collection at The Conran Shop, and his design philosophy.
1. Welcome to The Conran Shop, Alessandro! Please tell us a little about Astep and your story.
I am the third generation of my family to enter the lighting business, after my father and grandfather. My grandfather Gino Sarfatti founded Arteluce in 1939, and then my father founded Luceplan in 1978. I started working for Luceplan in 1996 and stayed there until 2013. I met a Danish woman and moved to Denmark, and it was here in Copenhagen that I started the third lighting company from a Sarfatti, which is Astep.
Astep is all about blending past and future, Denmark and Italy, digital and analogue. It is a company of its time, and I'm proud to represent the Astep philosophy.
2. What are the founding principles of Astep, and how does the brand embody them?
From the very beginning, I had a clear vision to build a company around three pillars: design, accessible technology and sustainability. The motivation for design is the most obvious, championing the legacy that came before me, bringing back products from my grandfather and the architects that worked with Arteluce at that time, among which was Vittoriano Viganò.
Accessible technology was an idea I found interest in almost ten years ago. For the first time, modern technology is within reach of us all, and these technologies are allowing designers and creative people to make a lot of new products. I have a great interest in new technologies, however, this world lacks an aesthetic dimension, and more broadly, a business dimension.
I wanted to bring that energy into Astep together with my design legacy, whilst always prioritising sustainability. I believe sustainable production is mandatory in our time, to create a business that is respectful of our planet and our people. It is challenging to do it properly, but always possible, and the achievement is well worthwhile.
3. As a third-generation design entrepreneur, how important is it to you to preserve the history of classic design?
I think that preserving history is always important, not just as a third-generation design entrepreneur, but in every circumstance and every field. There is always a lot to learn from the past, as long as you maintain the drive to move forward, which Astep has. We re-introduce lighting from my grandfather's time, but it is essential to learn from these designs and move forward. I want to preserve the history, but also keep the process and technology relevant.
4. How do you balance this belief with your focus on innovation and new technologies?
I aim to take the recipe that made both Arteluce (my grandfather's company) and Luceplan (my father's company) successful. Their time was quite different from today, but the ingredients are the same.
Not many people know this, but my grandfather was quite innovative in his time, mainly with the use of materials. He started to use methacrylate before anybody else, and also experimented with different light sources. The Model 607 is the first product using a halogen lamp in the history of lighting.
The ambition to continually find new materials, ways of manufacturing or an unusual light source and bring it into lighting design is one of the most important ingredients that I saw in the work of both Gino Sarfatti and Riccardo Sarfatti. I aim to do the same with Astep. There could appear to be a contrast between our new products and our re-editions, but to me, they all use the same language: innovation and functionality. That is the thread that connects the three generations of Sarfatti.
5. Who are your greatest design influences?
I have so many design inspirations. I have always loved Charles and Ray Eames, even as a child. Back then, they were not as well known as they are today, but we had their chairs in my family home. In the 1970s, when I was a young child, the Eames chairs were manufactured using glass fibre, and I remember at that time I hated it, because if you sat on it with bare skin it was itchy! So I suppose my first interaction with the Eameses was not so great, but as I got older, I began to appreciate the exceptional nature of their design, and of course, the materials available for manufacture improved.
Today's design can be too close to fashion, where the designer's name is the focus, and even the product's shape becomes trend-led. Designers like the Eameses and Dieter Rams, for example, made pieces that were functional, timeless and beautiful. My favourite Eames quote is, "We want to make the best for the most for the least." Of course, everything is relative, but that is the attitude I aim for.
I would also like to quote my grandfather and father as key inspirations, and Alberto Meda and Paolo Rizzatto, the co-founders of Luceplan. I worked with them a lot in the late 90s, and they taught me so much about design. Today, my brainstorming and exchanges on vision happen with three people; two are my business partner Nicholas Zambetti and my wife Yasmin Edgecombe, and one is the designer and a close friend Francisco Gomez Paz.
6. Among The Conran Shop's Astep edit are pieces designed by your grandfather, Gino Sarfatti; how have they informed your craft, if at all?
It is quite interesting to manufacture today in our time, a product conceived in the 1950s; I can almost feel and see the Italian way of manufacturing at that time. In the original designs by my grandfather, I can see the skills of artisanal jobs like welding, which was a big industry back then. Today is difficult to find highly skilled welders, and it's much more expensive also.
The rules and regulations for manufacture were also very different back then, so this has informed some subtle changes in the design. Also, packaging back then was not a factor because most of my grandfather's products were sold in-store in Milan and people would take them home in their cars. Some products are very complicated to pack, especially when you are trying to reduce your plastic volume and remain eco-conscious. So it can be challenging to manage the manufacturing process for these pieces, but it is so satisfying when we get it right.
7. On that note, we are honoured to offer an exclusive take on your grandfather's Model 548 Lamp; can you tell us more about it?
This lamp is iconic, for both its shape and its unique use of materials. You cannot directly see the light source of the 548 Lamp, which was bold for the time; it uses a diffused, indirect light instead. My grandfather also chose to use polycarbonate, which is common today, but in 1951 it was very new. The shape of the 548 would not have been possible with a traditional glass structure, as it would have been too heavy to achieve the perfect balance.
The yellow version has quite a lot of personal meaning to me, as it is the lamp that sits in our family home on Lake Como. My grandfather bought the house in 1958; I grew up with this lamp, and we still go there today. I am very happy to bring back the yellow 548 Lamp with The Conran Shop because it reminds me of this place that I love.
8. We are becoming increasingly aware of new ways to reduce our environmental impact and design sustainable, long-lasting products; how does Astep champion this?
Astep's strategy was always to be a sustainable company. In the first five years of its life, Astep showed more development in its first two pillars, designs and technology. Sustainability was always a key driver in all of our business decisions, but to talk about sustainability, we need to be concrete to avoid greenwashing.
We are as sustainable as possible, but we need to learn how to navigate this complex part of the business because the big elephant in the room is that if you produce, you do pollute, by definition. Our decision, therefore, is to become a B-corporation, which is a new kind of business that balances purpose with profit. B-corporations are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on the world, their customers, buyers, the community and the environment. Our goal is to become a B-corporation in 2022. It takes time, but when we achieve this, we will also be proud to say we are sustainable because we are certified and held accountable.
9. Why is optimised lighting so crucial as we enter the darker, more intimate months?
Astep is a Danish company with an Italian heart, so there is a great Danish cultural influence on the brand, especially as my wife is Danish. Everyone has probably already heard of the hygge concept, which is complex but interesting and useful. They use it here in Denmark as a verb, an adjective, a noun; it is a central philosophy in Danish culture, and the right lighting is key to the concept. The colour temperature of lighting here has to be warm so that it is not too shockingly bright when you move from outside to inside, whereas cold light is preferred in Italy because of the sun. Our surroundings greatly influence our lighting choices, and of course, as we enter the dark winter here, we are all thinking much more about how to keep our homes cosy and hygge.
10. Lastly, what most excites you about the future of Astep?
I was talking with Luis de Oliviera from De La Espada recently, who will be joining the Dark Is the Night event on Thursday. He suggested to me the idea that a company's lifespan is divided into clusters of five years. We just finished our first five years and are entering the second, and I have broadly explained that I am keen on making Astep a seriously sustainable company.
This is exciting to me because, in the design industry, fashion, and every other industry, it's important to question: 'do we really need another lamp?' And this question is always very tricky. I think we do need another lamp if the lamp is meaningful and it makes sense. For an object to make sense, of course, it has to be beautiful, functional and have all the characteristics that make a good product, but nowadays it also has to be sustainable, repairable, recyclable, and do the best that it can to reduce impact. The aim to make a company that is recognised for these values is exciting to me, and this is what drives me forward.