Rumors are swirling that Knoll—makers of such classics as Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Chair, Marcel Breuer's Wassily Chair, and Eero Saarinen's Tulip and Womb Chairs—is ready to buy contemporary Italian furniture line B&B Italia, known for stylishly elegant pieces by the likes of Antonio Citterio, Patricia Urquiola, and Mario Bellini. For its part, B&B Italia issued a denial of the rumors late Friday evening, following a story about the potential sale to Knoll on Italian website Pambianco.com, a go-to news source among Italy's design, lifestyle, and luxury industry professionals. David Bright, a spokesperson for Knoll, provided no further comment other than to say the B&B response speaks for itself.
But should the rumors turn out to be true, this would not be the first time an American furniture giant purchases a luxury Italian brand. Just last year, Holland, Michigan-based Haworth acquired a majority stake in the Poltrona Frau Group—comprising high-end lines Poltrona Frau, Cappellini, Cassina, Alias, and Gebrüder Thonet Vienna—from Charme Investments and Moschini, creating a major global design brand. It also gave Haworth access to a back catalogue of iconic designs by Le Corbusier, Gerrit Rietveld, and Jasper Morrison, among others. A takeover of B&B however, which has annual sales of $200 million, would come just four years after the company regained control of its shares following a 2003 sale of a majority stake to private equity fund Opera. It would also call into question the viability of small, family-owned businesses—long the backbone of Italy's design and manufacturing industries—in an increasingly global market. (That global trend is palpable at Milan's Salone del Mobile, considered by many the most important furniture fair of the year, which has become less and less about Italian design, and more a stage for international players.) Founded in the late 1960s by Pier Ambrogio Busnelli, who died last January, B&B Italia is currently run by his sons Giorgio and Emanuele. Many of its competitors, including Moroso, Molteni, De Padova, and Zanotta, remain family run. Pennsylvania-based Knoll, which has net sales of just over $1 billion annually, acquired Holly Hunt this time last year.