By  on July 24, 2009

MILAN — Four years into its new ownership and management, La Rinascente unveiled a floor for design products at its Duomo flagship here on Thursday.

The new floor is the latest step in the renovation of the famed department store flagship, where each floor has been overhauled one at a time without the store ever closing. Although well aware the economy is curbing consumers’ shopping, Vittorio Radice, who joined Italy’s main department store chain as chief executive officer in May 2005, said “people always respond to new, innovative projects,” and pointed to the lack of such concepts in the country.

Designed by architect Claudio Silvestrin, Giorgio Armani’s longtime collaborator, the new 21,600-square-foot “Design Supermarket” carries more than 200 brands ranging from Artemide, Flos and Driade to Gaia & Gino and Venini, with pieces designed by Ron Arad, Zaha Hadid and Marc Newson, among others. Nespresso, Kartell, Alessi and Georg Jensen shop-in-shops stand next to Italy’s first The Conran Shop.

Fashion director Tiziana Cardini, who is in charge of brand selection and assortment, has also singled out items under the Northern Design Objects category from the likes of Boda Nova, Muuto and Royal Copenhagen, and pieces fromdesigners such as Pols Potten, Arik Levy and Tord Boontje.

“Everything is accessible; we don’t want to have a museumlike space, and there is nothing elitist about this concept,” said Cardini.

A variety of diverse items, from pens, frames and vases to lights and coffee cups are displayed on rows of white shelves. A high-end luggage and travel section is marked by wooden walls and separated from the all-white design area. A bar with bright lavender seats and ornamental metallic structures designed by Martino Berghinz offers a break from shopping. A Sony corner is expected to open soon. The “Design Supermarket” replaces a more traditional kitchen, tableware and china floor.

Radice said the investment in the new design floor, which took more than a year to complete, totaled 3 million euros, or $4.2 million at current exchange. “Before this, there was nothing that expressed the fact that Milan is the capital of design,” said Radice. “It was a huge gap. And we wanted this space to be accessible to those visitors that had only seen design pieces in magazine pages. They can touch and feel the objects without this being a huge undertaking for them.”

Attracting 14 million visitors a year, La Rinascente Duomo reported sales of 220 million euros, or $323.4 million at average exchange, in 2008, up 24 percent compared with 2007.

Owner Maurizio Borletti said La Rinascente embraced the challenge of entering the design arena — a difficult one for department stores, which he believes have rarely found the right formula. “We are breaking traditional schemes, with a selection of products rather than brands, leveraging on Milan as the capital of design,” said Borletti.

The entrepreneur said the project also harkens back to the store’s history. “La Rinascente had a tradition in design, with collections of pieces designed by Giò Ponti back in the Thirties and Forties,” said Borletti, also chairman of Printemps Holding.

La Rinascente, which dates to 1865, was acquired in 2005 by Tamerice Srl, a consortium led by the Borletti family.

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