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Interview: Ambra Medda of L'ArcoBaleno

The industrious young entrepreneur on branching out into the online world and seeking new design talent in unlikely places

by Hans Aschim in Design on 18 July 2013

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The name Ambra Medda is synonymous with success in the design world. After co-founding and directing the acclaimed fair Design Miami—which led to its sister show Design Miami/Basel in Switzerland—Medda has made her mark globally. Medda is now stepping out of the physical curating space and entering the online sphere with the recently launched L'ArcoBaleno. An online design marketplace as well as a rich source of editorial content, L'ArcoBaleno was co-founded by Medda and former eBay executive Oliver Weyergraf. With offices in New York City and Berlin, Medda is always on the go. We caught up with the jet-setting design expert on her way to Milan to discuss her entry into the digital world, curating, collaborating and finding new talent.

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You've had tremendous success with Design Miami. Why switch to an online business?

First of all, I took time to think about what I wanted to do. I asked myself, "When I wake up in the morning, what is it I want to be doing?" So, to start, I looked into getting a space in New York. I wanted a place for exhibitions, a showroom, a physical place. Then I realized, of all the things I wanted to do, continuing to research and discover new talent is what I really wanted. In that sense, tying things to a physical space seemed limiting. For example, if I find a new designer in Texas or India, I'm limited to a space in New York. So I would have to bring them here or transport their work. I started to realize that online was the best place.

My natural approach is to go find a physical space, then go from there. Going online was a big challenge for me, but I recognized how much potential was there. I could reach a global audience and not be limited to a space—geographically or physically. Being online presented itself as a natural extension to what I did with the design fairs. Given the way consumer culture, both commercially and for editorial content, has changed with the internet, it felt very natural.

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Your inventory suggests a mix of iconic classics and innovative new design work. How do you select products?

A lot of it is based on instinct and feelings—things that I'm drawn to. I try to find things that I think are exciting, new and important. I look for worthy items that people should know about. I love the challenge of curating and editing. Whatever it is, I'm always looking for quality. Either there is a great story behind something or the process is interesting. Everything we carry and feature has to be extraordinary or somehow valuable. Right now you see a presentation of things that are relatively expensive, next we are integrating things that are more accessible. We wanted to start with a strong, quality foundation, then add to it. Our collection is strong and balanced. With modern and classic pieces, a wide price range and a diverse group of designers, we are trying to keep things balanced and diverse.

What are some of the challenges of the online marketplace for such design pieces?

I can only speak from my limited experience. I'm trying everything for the first time and learning a lot. One of the challenges is a complex logistical structure to support the sales and transport of these pieces. Transport is a big challenge for larger and more fragile items. If we can make the experience of purchasing design seamless, easy and safe, we are happy. Ultimately the piece should get to your house intact, with safe and easy payment.

Being online also has customer engagement challenges. With design you want to fall in love with what you are buying. You need to be there in person, to touch it and feel it. It's a challenge to speak to people online and convey the design—to illustrate the texture and feel of a piece. So we're trying to integrate a lot of video and photography. We're especially focused on taking a piece on its own, capturing it and then integrating it into an environment to show customers how a piece might fit into their life.

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Your committee is a very inter-disciplinary group. What is the role of this committee and how do their various background shape L'ArcoBaleno?

That was exactly what I was aiming for; I wanted people that represented all of the different constituencies from various creative and business fields. The committee basically acts as a group of advisors. It's not so much that we have group meetings, but I like to really work with them one-on-one. So I'll call Pharrell [Williams] or Patrick [Li] and ask them, "What do you think of this?" or ask for some feedback from someone I respect. Or it might be the case where someone discovers a new talent. For example, David [Adjaye] gets back from Africa and has met a new architect he wants me to meet. The committee offers either advice or content—even collaborations. It varies a lot, but they're all special people that I have a relationship with that make a contribution.

Aside from being a design marketplace, L'ArcoBaleno has a wealth of editorial content. Why the combination?

We care a lot about the editorial content. We're very driven by that part of our work. We're very motivated by telling stories and documenting what's happening in the world of design. From the get-go it's always been about a marriage of content and sales. The two must go hand-in-hand and support each other.

A lot of energy is spent getting images and doing interviews. It's wonderful work and we have so many ideas and things happening at the office, but it always ties back to the merchandise. We're always trying to get at what's most important. In creating editorial content, you really start to look at things differently. By working so much with images, I'm seeing a new perspective on things. It's very fun, very interesting and very intense. At L'ArcoBaleno we love the culture of design and everything that goes into it.

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You've made an effort to focus on more than just design from a traditional perspective by incorporating fashion, food and other endeavors. What is the significance of incorporating different mediums of creativity?

The idea is to present design in its whole spectrum. That's the idea behind our name, L'ArcoBaleno; "rainbow" in Italian. Design is such a broad subject matter. There are exciting things happening in food, technology, fashion, science and film. Design sort of creeps into all of these different worlds. It's all about relationships, fields cross into one another frequently. It could be a basket or a conversation or a couch—it all ties back to design. It's interesting to open up to other fields, to approach things from different perspectives. On our site for example, if you're a high-design collector looking for a Verner Panton, you may stumble upon a story about a photography exhibit in India. All of the content is related, with design as a common thread.

What is the future direction for L'ArcoBaleno?

I'm excited about the site; we're off to a good start. I'm antsy to make all of the improvements on our list and delve into the special projects and events. I'm hoping we can grow with our audience.

I would really like to present things and artists that haven't really been recognized. I'm traveling to Poland and the Philippines and I'm looking forward to exploring new talents. We would like to push the conversations a bit further outside of New York, Milan and Paris and find really valuable new pieces and subjects.

Visit L'ArcoBaleno for the latest design content and curated pieces. Images courtesy of L'ArcoBaleno.

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