Éminence grise Michele Caniato is the president of Material ConneXion and is responsible for many colossal decisions in the design industry. With locations all over the world, Material ConneXion maintains the world’s largest subscription-based materials library. The Architect’s Newspaper sat down with Caniato to discuss the behind-the-scenes operations of his career and the industry at large.
The Architect’s Newspaper: You have been called “the design world’s number one power broker” for negotiating a deal between Philippe Starck and Target to create consumer products. How did a native Milanese end up in New York promoting good design?
Michele Caniato: I came to New York because of George Beylerian. I studied architecture and design in Milan, and I wanted to learn about more design and the English language (which I’m still learning). My uncle Giulio Castelli, founder of Kartell, introduced me to George—I still remember when he [George] gave me The New York Times and said, “Good luck finding an apartment.” George is and was a mentor: I came to work for him for six months and the six months turned into 25 years.
Sitting in his townhouse on 77th Street, we had the brilliant idea to start Material ConneXion as the material resource library and Culture + Commerce as the design brokering agency; our first client was Philippe Starck.
Twenty-five years ago, design in the United States was only really associated with high fashion like Ferrari, you know, with fashion, jewelry, or luxury cars. My mission with George was to bring design to the everyday person. We were the first ones to bring a designer to Target, and, as you know, Philippe started to design 52 products for important discount stores like Target.
We have several clients in the architecture industry including major architects, but we have seen that, especially for construction materials, innovation is very difficult and it often takes a long time because of the coding issues and approvals in order for safety or for fire coding.
What different design-related businesses are you involved with at the moment?
In 2011, we sold our businesses to Adam Sandow, who is now the CEO. The past four years have been an incredible journey in which Adam and I took the company to the next level. We have over 20 locations for Material ConneXion and over 20 designers that we represent. Our dream is to try to bring as much innovation as possible for materials and processes in industries like architecture or aeronautics.
For those who don’t know about Material ConneXion, can you explain how it works?
Anyone can join our library as a member, and most of our clients work in the design world in some capacity. Members enjoy use of our extensive online database, access to our New York flagship library and six locations around the world, access to material specialists at the library, the option to subscribe to our quarterly box of innovation, ActiveMATTER, and work on longer-term projects with our consulting division, ThinkLAB.
Who besides architects are members of the library?
Our library includes members from across all industries of design. We work with corporations like Nike, Coach, Google, Tesla Motors, and others to provide material solutions. We also
work with universities to build bespoke libraries and offer the largest materials research database in the world for students in architecture, engineering, fashion, and other design fields. We also work a lot in the aeronautic industry. Our goal is to bring new textiles and new processes to them, especially for the interiors of airplanes.
How do products enter into the library?
Products are entered into the library through an internal jury process. Our material experts research and collect material samples, then meet once a month to judge the best and most innovative materials. On a quarterly basis, we hold an external jury where we invite experts from design-related industries to help us choose the 15–20 best materials of the quarter to be included in our ActiveMATTER box of innovation.