AICO celebrating 25 years
Heath E. Combs -- Furniture Today, January 29, 2013
LAS VEGAS - For Michael Amini, formative years in Europe helped cultivate a lifelong appreciation for design that's evident at AICO/Amini Innovation Corp.
But AICO - which this year is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding by Amini - didn't start out as an expression of love for European design.
Click here to see past AICO images.
Now known for original designs and showrooms that promise an elegant, sometimes ornate touch, it took years for the AICO that customers recognize today to emerge.
In his late teens, in 1976, Amini began trekking from Iran to travel Europe, fortunate to have enough savings and family support to "find out for myself what the world was about."
He traveled extensively in Turkey, Belgium, Italy, France, Britain, Greece, Luxembourg and elsewhere, falling under the spell of Old World architecture at places like Versailles and Kensington Palace. The fashion-centric worlds of Milan and Rome awakened a love of design.
Amini recalls Europe as a living museum, helping to cultivate an appreciation of design in architecture, clothing and furniture design that transformed his life.
"You see some of the furniture sitting in those palaces, and it touches you. I remember thinking as a young man, I wish I could live in this palace with this architecture and these paintings," Amini said.
"The countries like France, England Germany, they all talk to you. Especially if you're young and you're walking all day everywhere with a low budget." Amini began designing clothing - one of the few design fields he could afford to take on - tailoring them or having them tailored, playing with design concepts.
"I have some, I would say, impressive but crazy looking clothes," he said.
He left Europe at the age of 23. Curiosity, mostly, drove him to America.
He settled in Roanoke, Va., for 14 months, attending Virginia Western Community College. He eventually decided Roanoke was just too small a city for him, so he packed up his Pontiac Gran Prix and in 1980, moved to Los Angeles.
"At that time I was looking for action, I was looking for a city. When you live in Europe you're used to seeing people walking on the sidewalk and shopping. I was bored to death at that time," Amini said. "I wanted to become more sophisticated by being in a major metropolitan city."
He attended Cal State Long Beach, graduating with a focus on electrical engineering in 1984. He bounced around in various industries until 1988, when he started selling a furniture factory line in Los Angeles. On the side, he began buying furniture that was returned or defective, reselling it under the AICO name.
He bought a small truck with a rebuilt engine, rented space and after work each day fixed furniture seconds with parts he bought, then wrapped and photographed them.
His goal was to accumulate enough money to start his own business. Amini sold the pieces to local retailers under the AICO name, which - although not yet registered - was what he wanted to one day name his company.
"They said: ‘AICO? Who the hell is AICO?' I said, this actually belongs to this guy I'm trying to help. I didn't want to say it was mine because I was afraid people wouldn't buy it," Amini said.
He registered the name in 1988 and soon after, began attending furniture shows in Taiwan. His first container of product arrived in late 1989.
The first few years were tough, he said. The first container of chairs he purchased from Asia wasn't kiln-dried well and began shrinking. There were also finish issues. His retail customers began returning the chairs.
In what would become a key business lesson for him, Amini said, he refunded his customers' money. That such a small dealer would return their money impressed many of these retailers and probably helped save his business, he said, earning loyalty from his customers. The chairs were a bust, though.
"I lost the money. That happens in business sometimes," Amini said. "I had a couple of other disasters along the way that really ran me down and I lost a lot of money on. But I never gave up."
Amini said he was also able to develop some important relationships in Asia early on - relationships that would later bloom. In 1990, AICO imported cocktail tables, followed by dining and bedroom later in the decade.
Amini's itch to design came back. Even though he didn't know much about what would sell at retail, he was forming his design vision. "I started designing things and changing things. All those urges for design came back and it was like, ‘I want to continue this and I want to start designing.' And from beginning days I started designing things and changing things," Amini said.
"And it was like, you know I want to continue this."
As AICO's sales surged during the 1990s, Amini said he began developing more self assurance in business and design. Today, his most important job in the company is product design and development.
"We really got into major business development, a meaningful business after 2000," Amini said. "The confidence in business and what I was doing made me dare to do more and more."
AICO soon begin focusing on collections, introducing its first upholstery in 2004. It added office systems in 2005 and top of bed in 2007. That same year, Amini published "The Grand Tour Book," a recap of his travel-inspired collections and passion for fashion in the home.
In 2009, AICO heightened its focus on international distribution and in 2010, launched the Michael Amini and Jane Seymour: A Design Collaboration line.
In 2011 the company ran its first national advertising in a consumer publication, and built on the campaign in 2012 with ads in Architectural Digest, House Beautiful and Elle Décor.About 10 years ago, with a growing business, Amini started tackling what would become an important industry issue - intellectual property. Amini said he wanted to protect AICO's unique designs, which take a lot of work to create and promote. Furniture has a short shelf life and the hard line stance on patents and copyrights has helped AICO collections survive longer than the norm, with several boasting a decade or more in sales, he said.
Amini said he wants to keep from jeopardizing the reputation AICO has built for design.
"The fact that my name is in the drawer, that my face is on the packing, I take it very personally," he said. "I want to be proud of what goes to people's homes and people live with it for years to come. Certainly you do not want your face and name on a piece of furniture that's just a piece of furniture."
So what is Amini's design philosophy? He says it's about creating something unique - maybe giving a piece a historical aspect and a fresh touch. One of the worst enemies of design is duplication, Amini said.
He said consumers don't buy furniture to last forever, and want to change styles like they do paint on a wall. Retailers should take note of those changing preferences, he said.
"People understand and appreciate good furniture. When you go to some of the small cities, the furniture stores, they have the same type of furniture I used to see when I was in Roanoke," Amini said. "They're still selling the same old stuff,"
One of the most positive changes for the furniture industry is that consumers have become increasingly fashion-oriented, he said, especially with the prevalence of design channels like HGTV and the array of design-oriented magazines.
One area in which he'd like to see the industry improve is to trade up in pricing.
"I remember when I came to the U.S., a Camaro used to be $6,000 and a dining set cost three, four thousand dollars. Well, a Camaro is $30,000 and a dining room is still three to four thousand dollars because there is no profit left," Amini said.
But as supplier costs increase and furniture becomes more expensive overseas - Amini said many Asian factories are realizing that good furniture should command a higher price - the furniture industry will realize it can't keep beating itself up on price.
"We have all seen how many furniture stores have closed, we have all seen how many factories have closed, we have all seen how many factories have closed overseas in Asia. There's really not that much choice left for us," he said.
"If we want to stay in business we're going to have to give factories a little profit and retain a little profit to continue designing good furniture and building good furniture."
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