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My travel itinerary continues to expand at an alarming rate. Clearly, my suitcase will soon give way and my passport will be filled long before it expires. One of this month's destinations was Dusseldorf for EuroShop where I met people from all corners of the globe, including India, Dubai, The Netherlands, Singapore, Ecuador and many places in-between. If you're not thinking globally today, you're simply not thinking.  What I've learned from my travels is that I have so much more to learn. The complexities of the world notwithstanding, the one constant that seems to be universal for designers, no matter where they're from, is the blurred line between function and aesthetics. 

As long as I was already across the pond, I thought a side trip to Italy was in order. Of course, it's quite impossible to classify Italy merely as a side trip; rather, it's a cornucopia of aesthetic delights.  With that said, I'll leave the reporting on EuroShop to others while I focus on my “side trip.”

Spending time in Italy, whether in Rome or a hilltop medieval town in Tuscany, is akin to a stroll through history. Moreover, any visit to Italy is underscored by the amazing food; all aesthetically presented of course. In addition to absorbing the art and architecture, (I loved sipping wine in Piazza Navona alongside a 15th Century Bernini sculpture), I basically ate my way through Italy; ah, the buffalo mozzarella is not to be believed. One of the main highlights of my trip however, was a visit to Paltrona Frau, a high-end leather furniture manufacturer founded in 1912 in the Marche Region by Renzo Frau.

Over the years, the world renown company has worked with iconic designers including Matteo Thun, Santiago Calatrava, Ferdinand Porche  and Andre Putnam, to name a few. In addition to my tour of the factory, which showcased a perfect blending of handcrafted excellence and state-of-the-art technology, I had the good fortune to tour their new museum.  Opened in 2012, the museum is a celebration of the centennial anniversary of the company. 

Designed by Michele De Lucchi, the museum is laid out in a timeline, documenting Paltrona Frau's accomplishments over the past century. The exhibition space is subdivided by decade, featuring product from each time period. Consistent in the evolution of the brand is incredible attention to quality and detail. Paltrona Frau's commitment to excellence continues today as every piece is meticulously crafted by artisans who marry time-honored handcrafted techniques to cutting-edge technology. Today, skins are meticulously inspected by hand, then cut by space-aged computer-driven lasers. The masters, who have honed their skills over the years, then fold, pleat and stitch the finest leathers. The resultant product is both functional and beautiful.

Louis Sullivan, the iconic twentieth century architect, coined the phrase “Form follows function.” Frank Lloyd Wright took it a step further saying, “Form and function must be spiritually united.” With the sentiments of Sullivan and Wright in mind, I was particularly taken by two words, “aesthetic functionality,” cited by the museum's tour guide when describing the overarching design philosophy of the venerable chair maker. So move over Louis Sullivan. In two words my tour guide from the Marche Region of Italy summed up everything we as store designers, fixture designers and retail designers strive for: “aesthetic functionality.”

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience.  He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Currently, he serves as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York), and was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In addition to being the New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.

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