The Gross family in America and the de Majo family of Italy have shared a unique and special bond for generations and continues today.
By Linda Longo
Bernard Gross’ foray into lighting began when he answered a Classified Ad in The New York Times placed by Lightolier. The manufacturer was looking for “young management personnel to supplement the aging team of lighting experts,” Bernie recalls. At the time, he was employed by luxury retailer Bloomingdales at its flagship New York City location and wanting to make a change.
Bernie learned the innerworkings of the lighting industry during his tenure at Lightolier and became acquainted with many European suppliers. An opportunity arose to start a company from scratch with a partner with a similar background, Dick Godnick.
Drawing upon his prior experience at both Bloomingdales and Lightolier, Bernie was well-acquainted with the consumer luxury and lighting categories. He understood the types of beautiful and well-made products people desired and what the market was missing. The business they created in 1971 was Illuminating Experiences (IE), which became renowned for bringing uniquely decorative European lighting to American shores. Unfortunately, Dick suffered a fatal heart attack in 1980, leaving Bernie to soldier on in the business alone.
“Although I had knowledge of many European suppliers during my years with Lightolier, my primary method of meeting new suppliers for Illuminating Experiences was at European trade fairs like Euroluce [in Milan],” Bernie recounts. “There, I could evaluate the relevancy of their products for our market and meet the principals of those companies.”
If prominent Italian lighting manufacturers had any reservations about selling their lines in the U.S. through a new, unproven company as a distributor, they gave no indication. “If there ever were any concerns about selling to an American importer, I did not hear about them,” Bernie comments. “I chose to do one simple thing, which my competition did not, and that was to learn and speak Italian. It gave me instant credibility with unknown manufacturers and cemented trust and confidence and durability with all of our Italian suppliers.”
The relationships forged between esteemed European lighting companies and the American-based Illuminating Experiences were long-lasting and built on respect. One of those manufacturers was De Majo Illuminazione, a family-owned lighting manufacturer in Italy.
De Majo IIluminazione was founded at the end of World War II by Naples native Guido de Majo, who established his glassworks in 1947 on the island of Murano and began producing beautiful, handblown lighting fixtures and receiving acclaim for his exquisite designs. Guido’s son, Lucio, joined the business in 1969. After Guido passed away unexpectedly in 1979, Lucio continued to honor his father’s legacy, developing new glassblowing techniques and expanding distribution. Lucio’s younger brother, Federico, also became intrigued by the glassmaking process at a young age. He enjoyed working at the factory, eventually serving as the company’s in-house designer and later focusing on creating artistic, handblown glasses for tableware.
“When Bernard decided to start buying our products, and subsequently becoming our distributor in the United States, we had known each other for a few years,” Federico recalls. “He was consistently interested in our products and his company kept growing. In 1980, he placed his first order. He was already working with other important producers in Italy and Spain, and we slowly built a relationship of mutual trust.”
In 2001, Federico started his own company – Zafferano – making wine glasses inspired by Murano techniques. Since then, his expert knowledge of glass-shaping has allowed him to innovate and revolutionize the traditional high-end tableware designs of Italy as well as lamps and lighting fixtures.
Glass designs and porcelain tableware by Federico de Majo for Zafferano
Meanwhile in America, Bernie’s son, Barrett, had grown up without any particular interest in the lighting industry — until a trip overseas with his father changed his mind.
“In the spring of 1985, I was about to graduate from college and begin work as a video editor. Bernie surprised me with an invitation to take a two-week, all-expense-paid trip to Spain and Italy,” Barrett comments. “He asked me to rent a professional video rig on the premise that images from factories he bought from in Italy and Spain would provide good promotional footage for IE. How could I refuse? The trip was incredible, and all of the people we met at the factories were enthusiastic and encouraging. By the end of the trip, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, this might not be a bad way to make a living!’”
Barrett ended up joining his father and learning the business, first as VP/Operations and later as President. Their collaborative partnership and trips overseas together were always happy adventures, with Barrett especially impressed by his father’s ease in navigating the international business scene.
“On that first trip to Europe, we went to Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, Milan, Florence, Venice, and many smaller cities and villages in between,” Barrett recollects. “Every factory we visited treated us like royalty. Most were family-owned, and they clearly loved Bernie for the way he embraced their culture. His curiosity, personal warmth, and sophisticated sense of style made him a very unusual businessman. My take-away was that interpersonal relationships were the keys to my dad’s success in business. He’s also an extraordinary traveler. He would drive into a tiny Italian hilltop town with no address numbers and no road map and five minutes later, we’d be sitting in a fabulous farmhouse restaurant meeting one of his suppliers for a spectacular lunch. Even on nights when we didn’t have a plan, Bernie would always find the best place in town to get a meal. At first, his penchant for spontaneity was unnerving, but I learned to embrace and emulate it.”
There is something else memorable about that initial venture overseas together. “I met Federico de Majo on that first trip to Europe in 1985. I immediately felt a connection to him,” Barrett states. “We were both the younger ‘partner’ [in a family business], he to his older brother Lucio and I to my dad. He was creatively oriented, as I like to think I am, so we bonded right away. Federico was also the catalyst for the sale of IE to NemoItalianaluce in 2002, and I will always be extremely grateful for that.”
Those relationships the Gross family developed over the decades are clearly deep and enduring. “When [my wife] Ballard and I were embarking on our first cruise from Venice many years ago, I took that opportunity to invite all of our local suppliers to dine with us at a rustic restaurant nearby,” Bernie remembers. “They all showed up, and I was treated to sincere expressions of friendship and respect, as well as gratitude for the business done with IE. That illustrates the nature of the relationships I had. Personal, communicative, embracing mutual objectives. The business almost took care of itself within this caring environment.”
After the sale of IE almost 20 years ago, Bernie and Barrett each stepped away from the lighting category; Bernie to enjoy retirement and his son to explore other creative endeavors before re-entering the lighting industry 10 years ago.
“When word reached Federico that I had returned to consulting in the lighting business in 2011, he immediately contacted me,” Barrett states. “We [both] know that relationships are the key to business success, and we have always had a good one, so we formed Zafferano USA in 2014, and then Zafferano America in 2019. We’ve been on a roll ever since.”
Federico adds, “The customer-supplier relationship between our families has evolved over time to become friendship, and today we are business partners. We feel mutual respect, but also affection. The values we share – and this applies to both the company and the family – are loyalty, honesty, concreteness, punctuality, and reliability. When things were less easy, we always knew we could count on each other.
“Trust is the fundamental feeling on which every relationship must be founded,” Federico remarks. “Equally important keys in a commercial partnership are the knowledge of the technical aspects of the product, the distribution network, and the knowledge of the market. It is useful to know the customers – even if today distribution has changed, and it is increasingly important to collaborate with the most prestigious online retailers – but it is also useful to know architects and interior designers in order to aspire to do the largest and most prestigious jobs.”
With Barrett’s guidance, Zafferano has maintained a significant presence at the Dallas Market (at Lightovation in the past as well as most recently at the Gift + Total Home Market) and is experiencing consistent growth.
Zafferano America expanded its presentation at June Lightovation/Dallas Total Home + Gift Market and featured its popular battery-powered portable lamps.
“Zafferano is the leading brand for cordless LED lamps both in Europe and the U.S.,” Barrett comments. “We first introduced the POLDINA lamp in Dallas in 2017 to little acclaim. It took us a couple of years to figure out the pricing and get the color selection right. Then, the explosion in outdoor dining last year [during the pandemic] really opened up the door. Our PINA lamp is probably the most popular cordless LED lamp in the U.S. right now; they are on restaurant tables everywhere.”
Barrett hopes to emulate his experience with IE and take Zafferano America to new heights. “My goal is to maintain our position as the market leader and leverage this success. We want to increase our penetration into the U.S. market for our other product lines such as lighting fixtures, glassware, and tableware. Zafferano has recently returned to its Italian roots with interests in a glass atelier on the isle of Murano and ceramics in a factory just outside of Rome; this presents a tremendous opportunity to sell luxury Italian goods under the umbrella of an already strong Italian brand,” he explains. “We sell to gift, tabletop, lighting, catalog, and garden center retailers as well as to the restaurant and hospitality industry. We see opportunities for synergy and growth across all of our product lines. There are also some new retail channels – such as outdoor furniture shops – where we think there is great potential. Our sales have quadrupled in the less than two years, although managing that growth in a time of shortages has been challenging.”
Part of that growth was announced last month during Lightovation in Dallas when Zafferano America announced the establishment of a new lighting division for North America under the name Zafferano Lighting (zafferanolighting.com).
According to Barrett, Zafferano Lighting will serve as the exclusive North American distributor for two of the company’s celebrated sub-brands – Ai Lati Lights and Zafferano Bespoke Lighting – plus will also offer the line’s immensely popular cordless lamps.
“Zafferano Lighting is now the one-stop-shop for those in the North American design industry to seek out product lines they know and love,” Barrett says, “Whether it’s bold pieces to make a statement in the interior of a hotel, or reliable indoor/outdoor technical lighting for a commercial space.” Zafferano America has been selling Ai Lati and Bespoke collections as Zafferano USA since 2012, but only recently launched Zafferano America in 2019 as an official distribution arm.
Reflecting on his decades in lighting, Bernie notes, “My career in lighting was as a market influencer, someone who pioneered new looks and new materials. I had access to many independent modestly sized manufacturers, and the aesthetic sensibility to select or jointly develop new product with them. Both my son Barrett and my stepson Blair Hutkin of JB Lighting Collection [which distributes the European lighting lines such as Lodes, Barovier & Toso, and Martinelli Luce in North America http://www.JBLightingcollection.com] are following in my footsteps, marketing upscale and unique lighting products to the American market. So although it may appear to be more difficult to differentiate product in this era of Chinese product origin, there is demand and opportunity to develop and market it.”
Zafferano America will be exhibiting at next month’s NY Now, being held at the Javits Center in New York City, August 8-11 (Booth #2417).