The things we buy say a lot about how we want others to perceive us. These days, more than ever before, people choose brands that represent their lifestyle choices and project their status. You only need to look at brands like Apple, Porsche to know that in a sense, we are what we buy.
SMEG is a global brand that fits that niche. From its humble origins in post-war Italy, the company has carved out a distinctive reputation for uber-cool design and high-quality production. Think fridges, cookers and a stunning inventory of classy small domestic appliances.
Based at theDesk Sai Ying Pun, Commercial Director, Federico Rossi, spoke with the newsDesk on a recent trip to China.
What’s in a name?
Founded in 1948, SMEG is the only wholly Italian company in the electro-domestic industry. And the longest standing Italian family producer of cooking appliances. In fact, SMEG is now the only business that can genuinely state ‘Made in Italy’ on its products.
In Italian, the company name is an acronym of: ‘Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalla’. In English, that translates as ‘Metal Enamelling Factory based in Guastalla, Emilia’.
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A family affair
SMEG is deeply rooted in its hometown of Guastalla in central northern Italy. “It’s a family business. A typical Italian story,” says Federico Rossi, SMEG’s Commercial Director. We meet at theDesk Sai Ying Pun, where SMEG has its Hong Kong office.
“After the second world war, a lot of small companies began producing appliances for big international brands.” In fact, SMEG’s first product was a range cooker, made for the well-known Whirlpool brand.
“Different from many companies, our owners decided to focus on self-branded products. Not third-party production. The owner introduced a range cooker under the brand name SMEG.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
During the 50s, the company enjoyed early success. And then the son of the founder decided to take a new direction and focus on built-in appliances.
It was a successful strategy. People had started to change their lifestyle from a freestanding kitchen to a built-in kitchen. “At that time, in the seventies, built-in products were a status symbol,” Rossi recalls.
SMEG’s headquarters are in the heart of rural Italy. Rossi says, “During the 50s and 60s local people became more affluent. They didn’t want to be seen as rural anymore. They aspired to own the latest appliances and labour saving products in their home.”
Cooking in style
The economic boom in Italy at that time meant people wanted a wider range of lifestyle products. But Italy being Italy, purely functional design is not an option. It’s the union of style and function that is the essential factor. And what many of us around the world see as the Italian way.
“The company decided to collaborate with the famous architect, Renzo Piano. You can imagine that at that time the possibility of collaborating with him was a risk and an opportunity. It was also the first time he collaborated with a company on mass-produced products.”
The groundbreaking collaboration led to three iconic products: an oven, hobs and a refrigerator. All of them represent milestones in the company’s history.
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‘“SMEG has two core principles,” Rossi explains. “The first is the collaboration between our engineers and technicians and leading industrial designers and architects.”
It is this approach that brings life to their products. Fusing cutting-edge performance with personality and elegance.
The second principle is creating products that express the ‘Made in Italy’ ethos. “It’s about perfectly combining design, performance and attention to detail,” says Rossi.
With its fantastic colours and retro aesthetic, the world-famous SMEG fridge marked yet another significant milestone for the company. “We moved again from built-in home appliances to free-standing items,” Rossi tells me. “I think everyone recognises these designs. In the UK, North America – all around the world – it’s considered a design icon.”
Rossi explains that the design process was a significant step forward for the company. “It was an internal design process. No designer behind it, no architect. It came from the creativity within the company. It’s something amazing.”
The move to free-standing designer appliances was a gamble. “Before that, appliances were white or stainless steel. Not coloured. This changed things,” he says.
Rossi sees these stunning designs as courageous. “When you develop a new product, the investment in tooling, R&D and technical solutions is costly.” For any business, it’s a risk to take such a bold step. For SMEG, the gamble paid off.
Knowing your strengths
SMEG’s family owners believe that the company can’t compete with the big German and Korean brands of today. “Our CEO decided to keep SMEG a medium sized company. It makes management easier. And it enables us to create something truly different. He made the right choice.”
“Regarding market presence, we now have 21 subsidiaries around the world. The most important countries for us are Australia and the UK. And of course, Italy.”
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New products, new possibilities
In recent years, Rossi has been responsible for launching a full range of smaller domestic appliance. “In 2003, we decided to develop breakfast service products. We started with a toaster and a kettle.”
These are aspirational products, in the trademark retro style of SMEG’s famous fridge. “People often purchase standard white and stainless steel appliances. But we know that what many want is to have something with a stunning design. Our customers love products with a story behind them – a famous Italian architect or designer. People like to own something unique.”
And because SMEG’s products are not mass market, they become conversation pieces. “Often people hide their appliances. But with SMEG, you want to display them. When we did this, it was a game changer.”
High couture meets kitchen icon
Working with designer brands is in SMEG’s DNA. Take, for example, the collaboration with Dolce and Gabbana to create a line of unique art fridge designs and other high-end domestic appliances.
“It’s challenging for us because D&G are very exacting regarding design. Our collaboration started three years ago with 100 unique art designs. Each fridge is made by hand in our Italian factory. One by one.”
It’s not everyday that kitchen appliance manufacturers hold launch events in fashion-crazy Milan “We held a big event to introduce the new line.And the work is also in Harrods, London.” In late 2017, the two companies took over Harrod’s famous windows to display these art fridges – a fusion of fashion and technology.
After launching in the UK, Italy and France, the next step is Russia. A major Moscow event is planned for 2018. “These are our first few countries. It’s just the beginning of the business as we increase our production capacity. But so far it’s been fantastic in raising brand awareness and creating buzz.
Collaboration and innovation
With more designer collaborations planned, and a new blender and coffee machine coming out in the coming months, SMEG continues to establish its presence around the world.
But at its heart, this family business remains close to its origins, proudly displaying ‘Made in Italy’ to its discerning customers around the world.