An upper floor of a historic Pittsburgh office tower seems an unlikely spot to find the North American headquarters of a European luxury mattress maker. But in spacious digs in the century-old Arrott Building on Wood Street, employees of Italy-based Technogel are working to convince Americans that a cool, blue gel will give them a deeper, more restful night's sleep.
Since July, Technogel has occupied the entire 14th floor of the building and is using it as a base from which to market its upscale brand mattresses -- along with pillows and a new line of seat cushions -- to retailers nationwide.
The headquarters is more furniture showroom than office space, with demo beds, mattresses, chairs and cushions -- all featuring the company's distinctive layer of gel -- arranged on exposed hardwood floors. Natural light floods through large, early 20th century-era windows, while employees and managers' offices and a conference room overlook the central business district.
Technogel, which opened a sales office in Robinson in 2010, doesn't yet manufacture anything in the U.S. but its product is sold in 800 retail outlets. The Pittsburgh region could fit the bill when the company is ready to launch production outside of Europe, said Alvise Bertoncello, vice president, sales and marketing and the company's top American executive.
The company selected Pittsburgh for its North American base because of its relationships with several European businesses that have operations here, including Bayer Material Science, which holds the patent on the cooling gel used in Technogel products; Otto Bock Plastics, which owns 50 percent of Technogel through a joint venture; and Sycor Plastics, an affiliate of Otto Bock.
Technogel saw North America as a market ripe for its upscale sleep and seating accessories because of an untapped group of consumers "willing to pay more for something," said Mr. Bertoncello, 33, who came here to establish the company's first office in Robinson.
Indeed, those who purchase Technogel products can expect to sink at least $3,000 or $4,000 into a queen-size mattress or spend $169 on a pillow. But the trade-off, Mr. Bertoncello said, is that the products should last for 20 years. "The price is high, but it's not crazy if you end up using it for 10 to 20 years."
Like mass-market mattresses, Technogel starts with a core of foam, latex or coils. Then it adds one inch of gel on the surface to provide a sleep surface that Mr. Bertoncello described as "a waterbed with stability." A queen-size mattress contains 72 pounds of gel, he said.
Technogel was founded in 1998 as a joint venture of German-based Otto Bock and Italy's Royal Medica, which was using the Bayer gel in cushions for wheelchairs and other medical equipment. Technogel has an exclusive license with Bayer to use the gel, Mr. Bertoncello said.
The company's mattresses and pillows are sold locally by the Mattress World chain that has five locations in the Pittsburgh region; and by Relax the Back, a franchise with a store in East Liberty.
"I sell more of [Technogel's] gel pillows than any pillow I have in the store," said Relax the Back owner-manager Greg Peterson. "People are becoming much more aware of living more healthy. So they're just looking for ways to sleep better ... and they're taking care of themselves before they have problems."
Mr. Peterson also carries the company's Technogel Living line, which was introduced earlier this summer at a Las Vegas furniture and home decor trade show and includes cushions and pads for office chairs and travel pillows.
The U.S. has been challenging, Mr. Bertoncello acknowledged, "because selling mattresses in the U.S. is like selling beer in Germany: [Most] of the market is the five biggest players. It's not easy to get in."
Top mattress makers include Sealy, Select Comfort, Serta International, Simmons Bedding and Tempur-Pedic.
But even if it's tough to crack a market dominated by well-known producers, the industry may be poised to benefit from the economic rebound. Worldwide mattress sales are expected to reach $24.7 billion by 2017, according to a report by Global Industry Analysts Inc., which said the growth will result from a rebound in home construction and pent-up demand from premium customers such as those Technogel targets.
"A major portion of new mattress demand will come from premium bedding customers that deferred big ticket purchases during economic woes," the report said.
Mr. Bertoncello considers Technogel's primary competitors to be Tempur-Pedic and specialty manufacturers Duxiana and Vivon.
Despite its relatively recent entry into North America, he said, the company has grown U.S. sales from zero to $7 million in three years and has expanded from one employee to 13. The only place it sells directly to the public is a showroom in the Beverly Hills section of Los Angeles, "where we invite them to sleep over to make sure they like what they are purchasing."
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.