Wood and business, art and design, research and sustainability are the passions and values that Maurizio Riva – President of Riva 1920, the company he runs with his brother Davide, his sister Anna and the third generation of children and grandchildren – shares with all his family. Theirs is a typically Italian shop (and adventure), which started in the early Twenties in the centre of Brianza, with his grandfather Nino Romano, and then passed into the hands of his father Mario and then down to the two brothers whose skill, farsightedness and ethics turned it into an internationally renowned wood studio.
A trip to New York by Maurizio in the Nineties, during which he was introduced to the North American culture of timber reforestation, turned out to be fundamentally important. Since then, the company has been producing solid cherry wood furniture inspired by that of the American Amish/Shaker religious communities. This sparked a particular design identity that sees its outlet in top quality and extremely natural products.
A dozen or so years later saw another major departure, as Maurizio opened his doors to a New Zealand importer dealing in Kauri, a new material. This was a rare, dark wood with a honey-coloured grain, over 50,000 years old, which had been covered with water and mud and trapped in a swamp during the last ice age. New Zealanders had found it while carrying out excavations and come across perfectly preserved timber mines. Thus Maurizio Riva formulated his commitment to working with reclaimed wood, which had become extremely sought-after, adding poor timber such as cedar of Lebanon, which the company ennobles and turns into desirable interior furnishing pieces.
Riva 1920 is now a magnet for internationally renowned designers and artists, including Renzo Piano, Pininfarina, Citterio, Cibic and Chipperfield, and what really drives the Riva family is the idea of sustainable manufacturing that can be handed down to future generations, building furniture that will withstand time and is entirely environmentally-friendly.
Almost a century after it was founded, what is Riva 1920 today?
Riva 1920 began as a small family-run artisan business which is now in its third, almost fourth generation, carrying forward all those values that set it apart right from the start and which it wants to hand down. Producing in order to hand down is one of our great objectives. As is our commitment to supporting young people. All this, plus our Wood Museum, which is effectively a journey into the history and evolution of wood and its processes, has been the company’s cultural heritage right from the off, and explains what Riva 1920 is.
Tell us about your personal balance of 4.0 technology, cutting edge design and craftsmanship.
I’ll start with a criticism of us Italians, businesspeople and workers: unfortunately, we are no longer able to sharpen blades or chisels the way our grandparents did! We still have water powered grindstones, but we don’t know how to use them … Luckily there are large companies specialising in technology that have given us cutting edge tools and machines that are real machining centres and help us maintain the balance you were asking me about.
What does working with wood mean these days?
If you want to work with solid wood, you have to source it, prepare it, dry it out because moisture can cause wood to move, you have to be resourceful because wood needs to live in its own latitude: you can’t take a table to Reykjavik because the air is too dry and anyway we can’t venture too far south. There are more than 62,000 varieties of wood that need to be studied. Working with wood is a constant challenge.
How do you tackle the design element at in Riva 1920?
At Riva 1920, our technical office produces the designs internally. We are certainly very fast and we hear every day from lots of designers who would like to work for us. We have taken on so many of them. But that’s not good for the company. What we should really do is choose a small group of designers to which the names of two or three of the contestants in our Design Award could be added. I also believe that it should be the entrepreneur who chooses the designs, gives instructions and carries forward his own ideas in order to be constantly motivated to do better.
Where do you still find inspiration and emotion?
My work inspires me greatly. Also going to speak at universities. The young people who take part in our competitions for ideas. The materials. The people I speak to. The designers I meet.
The jury of the Salone del Mobile.Milano Award presented you personally, as a designer and manager, with a special prize: what did that mean to you?
I am really excited about this award. I should like to thank all those who decided to give it to me. There are certainly a lot of people who deserved it more than me. I hope they will receive one too. Above all, I hope the Salone will always closely support young people and future generations because we need them and they need our guidance and our training.