The start of this company goes back half a century to 1955, when a forwardlooking 17-year-old with countless hours already clocked in as a cabinetmaker with his father, inherited a problem:
the loss of the family's wood furniture factory. Francisco Andreu converted this problem into a motivation for starting all over again. “We started from scratch. But I had already known the factory since I was 10. And I liked it.”
There were years that were “very tough for the economy, but much easier for businessmen. The market was waiting to be served, and competition was scarce. Today, it would be much more difficult to start a company from scratch and launch it onto a highly competitive market,” says Francisco Andreu, a businessman who grew up in his factories, and is therefore familiar with each and every one of the manufacturing processes for chairs, from locating lumber in the forest, selecting the wood, sawing the trunks, all the way through to sanding, varnishing and upholstering seats. It was in the family home in Alacuás, a satellite town of Valencia, with no power supply, where they started to manufacture components in bentwood, assembling and varnishing chairs following historic models.
It was the early 1950s, and most of the work was done outside normal working hours, being outsourced to small artisan workshops loaned to them by altruistic friends. The chairs were transported in carts and sold in local furniture shops, and through a few travelling salesmen. The beginnings were hard; work never stopped. Growth was the only solution. After a few years of precarious subsistence, the company began to grow. Electricity arrived, and with it came saws, a polisher, a drill and a few other tools, all in a new 32m2 workshop. At the age of 23, Francisco Andreu had already evaluated the potential of the business, come to agreements with salesmen, and opened what was to become the third headquarters for the growing company: a 200m2 factory bay, still located at the back of the family home. The factory grew and the chair trade started to look more stable. Models 72 (1957) and 123 (1963) evoked the simplicity of the Nordic style so popular in the 1950s, which Andreu got to know well on visits to the Milan trade fair and by tuning into public tastes. “Travelling at that time was not easy. You had to get bank guarantees, and sleep in a van, but leaving Spain opened up my eyes. I had dreamed about manufacturing avant-garde models.” One decade later, with the arrival of the 60s, this ambition bore fruit, but only thanks to another major setback. An accident in the machinery area of the factory caused the destruction of the entire bay. A neighbour from the workers’ cooperative offered them an 800m2 factory nearby. They looked at the figures and decided to go ahead. And that was how Curvados Andreu was born.
Curvados Andreu quickly became a medium-sized company with 40 workers undertaking the complete production and upholstering process, creating a series of chairs with turned, rounded legs, and imposing, solemn shapes. The company continued to grow, and colonised nearby workshops. The sales network was already being set up. They sold chairs throughout Spain and production continued to increase. “It was a period in which we worked without catalogues, with people loading chairs into their cars, and production levels were the mainstay of the company. We needed to increase them, and this need took us back to raw material requirements, beechwood supplies.” Beechwood. And security and reliability in terms of raw material was another of the keynotes in the slow but sure development of this company. “I believed that beechwood was vulgar. At least until I tried to improve the wood in our chairs, and after visiting Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil, where I saw that not only was it not vulgar, but in fact it was the best kind of wood. The other woods could not be bent in the same way, tropical woods had pores that were too open, and among domestic woods, oak didn't bend properly, it broke, and mahogany wrinkled. Beech was compact, hard but elastic; it had closed pores and a good price. For us it was the best kind of wood.” Francisco Andreu didn't learn about wood from books, but rather by working with it, testing it, challenging it. And it was precisely the wood that sparked off the next step forward in the development of the company. After locating a good beechwood forest in Navarre, they set up a sawmill to supply the factory in Valencia. One year later, they built another factory in Eulate, next to the sawmill, which they called Andreu Nort. This new name, with its geographical connotations, served to rename the old factory in Alacuás, which after remodelling and extension, became Andreu Est.
In the 70s design came to Andreu World. Industrial designers arrived, and graphic designers as well, to update the company’s corporate identity and communications. Curvados Andreu became Andreu World, whose current logo was commissioned to the prestigious graphic designer, Mario Eskenazi, winner of the National Design Award. The pictogram came from a combination of various symbols, among them the Compasso d’Oro. The 50th anniversary commemorative version of the logo is the work of designer Antonio Solaz.
But once again it was travel that would decide the destiny of the company. Machinery was as important as raw material, and wood became as fundamental as design. In 1972, the company imported sophisticated machinery for warehousing and merchandise dispatch of the kind he had seen at the Hannover and Basel fairs, and it is machinery of this kind that is still used to organise the company's main warehouse. “When we started we had a list of priorities that we eventually began to tick off and fulfil. When we had achieved them all, we sat down to draw up the new list of objectives, even if they weren’t such a priority. They were more like bids.” It was at that time, with priorities mostly covered, when design made its debut at the firm. Or perhaps the firm in the world of design. It was a double challenge. “A personal decision: all the companies that inspired admiration in me had made design their main factor.” And a corporate solution: they needed to grow. After analysis and discussion with the sales department, the conclusion was reached that “we should draw up two catalogues. Maintain our old customers and conceive of a new production line”. For the chairs they wanted to make they needed new customers, and to achieve these they needed a new voice. A different presence on the market. A different catalogue. And this is when Iberchair and Slae were founded – two sale lines emphasizing design and export capabilities. And then a long list of distinguished regional product designers began to parade into the company´s factory located in the town of Alacuás. Ximo Roca was one of the pioneers, together with Vicente Soto and Angel Martí. “But companies are not just numbers or designers, or even products. They are combinations of many factors that all count.” Thanks to all the people who worked at the company, a rebirth was made with the founding of Andreu World, the company that was redubbed at the start of its export history, fully dedicated to designer furniture. This was the objective and the new challenge. It was at the end of the 80s and in the early 90s when designers like Lluscá, Quod, Pensi, Pete Sans, Josep Mora, Nancy Robbins, Bernal and Isern, Pedro Miralles and Alberto Lievore started contributing to a catalogue of international stature.
A star chair, the Andrea model by National Award winner Josep Lluscà, marked the start of a new age, announcing a new kind of sophistication. It was a fashion parade piece – a chair much more likely to enter the annals of design history than to sit unnoticed in dining rooms throughout the world. But it was a precision move. It arrived at the Eulate factory (Navarre) after being rejected by another company. It was not a commercial model. That was obvious.
But Andreu intuited the power it would have. It was painstakingly designed and mathematically conceived. And this is why it brought a whole new world to Andreu World, which willingly embraced the new name. All in all, the founder of the company remembers the early 80s as a time of opportunity more than a period of absolutely right ideas. “The exchange rate was in our favour,” he laconically affirmed, “We achieved very high export figures. We worked night and day, and exported a lot to only a few customers. But the dollar exchange rate went down, and so did our exports. We wound up with no American customers, so we had to enlarge the national market.” That job was not easy. “We invested in models, in design, in improving and differentiating our products. But our customers were reluctant to pay more for them. Until we communicated our new designs through catalogues, in advertising campaigns, and until we had renewed our corporate image, our customers did not want to pay for new chairs.”
“It sounds easy, but when a firm hardly breaks even, it is difficult to make the decision to continue investing large amounts of money in catalogues and corporate identity programs. To do so, you really have to believe in design.” And believing in design helped them to achieve various years of zero profits. But this new negative experience actually helped them. And when eventually the balance sheet started to look brighter, Andreu World had already become a prestigious trademark. “We learned to diversify our customers and products, we learned to communicate these changes, in addition to just making them, and we started to sell throughout the world.” Today Andreu World exports 60% of its production, and the United States is becoming one of its major markets.
But you don't gain the world just with exports and factories. Today Andreu World aims to play in design’s first division. Even lawsuit awards seem to prove Andreu World’s popularity, with a plethora of falsified models reflecting the fact that the real models are temptingly subject to imitation. But at Andreu World, the corporate philosophy of promoting individual initiative, adaptability, self-criticism and employee autonomy shows that to reach the heights, you always need to lay the right foundations first. Initiatives include the Andreu World International Design Competition, staged since 2001, proving that the firm is always searching for new ideas and talents, regardless of frontiers, age groups or reputations.
And if identity is important for a company, graphic communication is no less so. It’s little use having a great, but unknown, product. Catalogues are key to communication actions, and advertising is recommendable if not essential. There are also graphic elements that satisfy both functions. In the 90s, Alberto Lievore designed a series of large-format brochures that were published for five consecutive years. The copywriting would serve as course material at schools. Lievore also designed advertising pages for trade publications.
In recent years, Antonio Solaz has continued the job of creating advertising layouts, with a new, more polished but equally effective style, backed by outstanding photography.
“There comes a time in life, after achieving your objectives and watching the death of companies that had been your reference models, when you ask yourself where you should stake the next peg towards continued growth, and then, once again, you’re doubtful.” And the doubts that have tormented the nonconformist Francisco Andreu for over 50 years, wound up rendering him the driving force of the present-day company. “Looking back, I always have the sensation that I haven't achieved anything extraordinary. I think that maybe the best is yet to come,” he says, never to be daunted. “Overall, it is more and more difficult to launch a new product, design it. It's much easier to manufacture it, and much, much harder to create it.” His son Melchor, on the team that will govern the destiny of the company in the future, agrees with his father and shares in the same spirit. “The best is always yet to come.” Dissatisfaction, as mentioned before, seems to have been the authentic driving force of this company. “I don't know if it's a defect or a virtue, but I never feel satisfied. I thought life would never end and a long time ago I started to prepare for the transition from father to son. Life has been short for me. I have learned that a lot is just a question of working. And that challenges inspire, but they also weigh heavily on you. I'm satisfied, but not enough to feel really proud.” For the founder of the company, this is the bottom line. As for a chair, the only thing Francisco Andreu asks is that “it justifies its investment. That it is unique, and if possible, not too costly.”
A design has to be justified: it has to seduce, you have to feel identified with it – that is the condition now being added for new products by the third generation of Andreu, by Francisco’s son Melchor. Time and experience have taught them to stay ahead of the times: “I think in 15 years globalisation will reach the saturation point. China, then India, will stop being cheap. The same will happen as in Japan – from cheap it has now become the most expensive country in the world. And after Africa, then what? What will happen? Companies relocating will also have to redefine themselves.
I believe that a balance will then be found, in profitability and costs, and products will become local again. And so factories we have in Ukraine will produce for Ukraine, and a factory in the United States will serve that country. Local consumption will return, and with it, equilibrium.” Until the future comes, until those 15 years transpire, filling Francisco Andreu with renewed doubts, the company places the emphasis on up-to-date, elegant, intelligent, subtle design, from start to finish, plus all the cumulative experience and skills of the people working at Andreu, who all demonstrate that special kind of love and dedication that results in added value for every design appearing under the Andreu World trademark. The radical chair by the Argentine designer Alberto Lievore has become a kind of new standard of what the company can produce, and new designs by Lievore, Altherr Molina, William Sawaya and Mario Bellini are yet further examples of how a small-scale cabinetmaker can become a world company.