Leading by example Lorenzo Apicella will feel at home at Pentagram, where design and designers in all disciplines are paramount ; people
It's a good day to interview Lorenzo Apicella. He was broken into the night before, and appears to have found the experience positively cathartic. The burglar was particularly considerate: nothing was messed up, and nothing of sentimental value was stolen. What's more, his stolen briefcase was returned in the morning by a vicar who found it outside his church. It is a measure of Apicella's frame of mind that he sees himself as touched by fortune, rather than as a victim of crime.
Things are going well. Apicella Associates' r&d Centre for Adshel (see pages 10-11) is newly complete, as is Bene's redesigned Clerkenwell showroom. An initial commission to design shops for Connect Austria, Austria's newest mobile-phone operator, has snowballed: seven shops are now open, and the practice is looking at the masterplan of the Vienna hq and has taken on a more general advisory role. 'We're looking at how they present themselves . . . how they make exhibitions when they go to trade fairs . . . we're involved in the design of their uniforms, and we were on the jury which appointed their advertising agency.'
Apicella has never had difficulty finding work. 'People call. It's always a big surprise to me but they do call . . . clients come back.' The all- too-familiar problem is how to develop the practice to meet the available opportunities, without greatly increasing the burden of running it. 'We've always been a design studio, but there's a point at which it becomes so large that you spend your time managing it. I'd rather keep the team small but perfectly formed.'
So the timing seemed absolutely right when Apicella was invited to join Pentagram - the multi-disciplinary international design partnership structured as a confederation of talented individuals heading their own teams. 'I think small practices which do work with any quality are natural prey for big practices,' says Apicella, 'and I've had offers in the past. But this was the first time I was flattered to be asked - Pentagram is very careful about who it chooses as partners.' On 1 October Apicella Associates moved en masse into Pentagram's Notting Hill offices.
Apicella likes the fact that 'you can only be a principal if you are an active designer'. The word designer is used advisedly. Pentagram architects have always been design-orientated - the original architect partner Theo Crosby was joined by Ron Herron of Imagination fame. Apicella, who worked at Imagination before setting up his own practice, feels a certain affinity with Herron. 'He did a lot of work with mobile architecture. We have started on a small scale to build some of the ideas Ron talked about.' He describes himself as 'a designer who designs buildings', but insists that 'the reason they have any quality is that we don't just stop at the buildings'. He has built up a team of like-minded people, all of whom 'have the same fascination with the architecture of the chair as with the architecture of the city'.
This holistic approach to design is central to Pentagram's ethos, and Apicella is particularly looking forward to working with people from sister disciplines - he has already established a close working relationship with Pentagram's other new recruit, graphic designer Angus Hyland (profiled below). He is also excited about the opportunities for working on a large range of schemes: 'Pentagram does have some large international clients, but there are still wonderful small projects which we choose to do. The two inform each other; the bigger projects have the energy that the small projects engender.' Work in the pipeline includes an exhibition for the Natural History Museum in collaboration with graphic designer Why Not, and a zone in the Dome. 'The lesson from the other partners is that you can do the work you want to do.'
Another central tenet of the Pentagram ethos is that 'designers remain designers rather than disappearing under mountains of admin'. Partners take turns to assume financial responsibilities - which sounds like a recipe for disaster but apparently works just fine - and decisions are taken by consensus: 'It's extraordinary how so many strong-willed people who've been used to making their own decisions can come to an agreement.' Crucially, for Apicella, there is no seniority among the partners: 'I was working in my own practice for nine years - I wasn't going to be interested in working for somebody else.'
But, having been used to working with 'people who've been with me since they left college and who were students of mine', he is particularly looking forward to 'the intellectual stimulation of working with people with more experience than me'. And Pentagram is good at keeping its partners on their toes. There are the biannual international meetings where partners present their work - 'you're not going to want to present something you're indifferent about' - and more frequent presentations in the London office. 'It's a big crit. It's what keeps you sharp.' But the biggest spur to success is the air of infectious enthusiasm which permeates the partnership. 'The strongest abiding force,' says Apicella, 'is that everyone is passionate about their work.'