Italian Design in the 40’s and 50’s
In 1940's Italy, a new wave of designers was creating furniture and lighting “totally unconfined in their flamboyant use of silhouettes and their wild application of jigsaw rhomboids … Their wittiness and drop-dead sophistication..”*. Milan was at the center of this tremendous creative energy and was the venue of choice for defining events like the Milan Triennale exhibitions and later on the Salone del Mobile. Italy was able to merge art with design and craftsmanship with industry in a way nobody had done before. This occurred thanks to a very peculiar industrial network where larger companies would often work hand in hand with architects, artists and family size enterprises located in the same industrial districts. In the 50’s George Nelson identified three currents in modern design: the biomorphic, the machine look and the handcrafted look but none of these could fully describe Italian design as it was so diverse that it could not fit in a single category. In a way, it was already at that time postmodern. On one hand you had "Rationalist" designers such as Franco Albini who focused on function and on the other you had architects and designer such as Gio' Ponti, Ico Parisi and Piero Fornasetti who added to functional pieces a poetic interpretation and dynamism.
In the lighting sector there were two distinct types of manufactures: Murano based companies (Venini, Barovier & Toso and Mazzega) who mainly used blown glass in their works and Milan based companies (Fontana Arte, Arteluce, Arredoluce and Stilnovo) who employed flat glass and brass. The latter collaborated with well know designers such as Angelo Lelli, Gino Sarfatti, Gio Ponti, Max Ingrand who brought their designs to the attention of the world.
Seating was another field in which Italian innovations were notable. While few companies such as Arflex produced on and industrial scale, most manufactured in limited numbers using a wide network of small local companies and craftsmen creating pieces that were unique and rare. Two main types of approaches were used in manufacturing: the traditional springs and the more modern “nastrocord” elastic ribbons and “gommapiuma” foam introduced by Pirelli. Legs were often very particular and made of metals such as brass.
Italian Design in the 60’s and 70’s
Italian design exploded during the 50’s becoming well known internationally, but it was only in the 60’s that Italians became the trend setters in lighting and furniture design. 1960 was after all the year of “La Dolce Vita” and during this decade and the 1970's "Salone del Mobile” became the most important industry event. There was a high level of experimentation with companies like Cassina, Gavina, Zanotta supporting the development of young designers using new materials, techniques and shapes. Shapes became less flamboyant in the mainstream design but remained very vivid in the work of designers inspired by the pop art and plastic became a widely used material even for high end products.
By the endof the 60’s, the “economic miracle” ended, social tensions began and this had a strong effect on the industry with the rise of “radical” design. Ideologies split into two different directions: Some designers further evolved the more rational shapes of the early 60’s, focusing on larger consumption whilst keeping quality and sophistication in mind. As a result of this, the use of polished bright steel became more common. Other designers instead focused on "Anti-Design”, choosing to model their designs on intellectual statements and experimental concepts with limited quantities manufactured. This tendency grew stronger and exploded in the 80's with the creation of "Memphis" and the work of Ettore Sottsass, Mendini, Branzi and others.
* Penny Sparke, Design In Italy, Abbeville Press, 1988
Designers & Brands
Franco Albini (1905-1977)
Albini was the most important architect of the Italian Rationalism although he bypassed the strict "form follows function" mantra of the Bauhaus adding a strong human touch to his pieces. He worked as architect, university professor and designer. The latter activity saw him design a limited number of pieces of furniture for Poggi and lighting for Sirrah. He also designed the Milan Linea 1 subway and several museums.
One of most innovative Italian seating companies of the 50's, it is still active today. It worked closely with such designers as Marco Zanuso, Franco Albini, Joe Colombo and many more to create seating that was avantgarde not only from a design standpoint but also in terms of the materials that were used such as the Pirelli foam and nastrocord (a webbing to support the chairs). In particular, the Zanuso Lady Chair edited in 1954 marked a revolution in the production of chairs. Notable was also the Serpentone sofa designed by Cini Boeri and edited in 1971.
Arredoluce and Angelo Lelli
Arredoluce was created by Angelo Lelli in 1943 and was active through the 80's. It was one of the most creative Italian lighting companies after World War II and together with Fontana Arte, Arteluce and Stilnovo, it brought Italian lighting to the attention of the world. Some of its creations are among the most coveted pieces of lighting among Mid-Century design collectors. Notable works include the famous Triennale floor lamp, the painting easel and the star shaped ceiling mount chandeliers. The company also employed important designers such as Gio' Ponti who created under this brand some remarkable pieces. Arredoluce fixtures are always of the highest quality with great attention given to details.
Artemide was created by Ernesto Gismondi and Sergio Mazza in 1959. Many of these companies, although often born as small workshops, were able to expand quickly and efficiently market their production all over the world. Artemide collaborated with eminent designers such as Vico Magistretti , Michele de Lucchi and Richard Sapper. The latter designed in 1972 the well known Tizio desk lamp.
A.V.E.M. (Arte Vetraria Muranese)
AVEM started its activity in Murano in 1932 and reached a great production standard creating glasses designed by such seasoned artists as Vittorio Zecchi, Giulio Radi and Anzolo Fuga. In the late 40's and 50's, Radi and Aldo Nason designed for AVEM innovative and colorful glasses.
Barovier & Toso
The company traces back its origins to the 14th century, but it is in 1877 that Antonio Salviati and Giovanni Barovier organized the present company. In 1936 it merged with SAIAR Ferro Toso changing the name Barovier and Toso. The company was responsible for many innovative designs especially through the works of Ercole Barovier. Specialized in lighting, many of the fixtures created from the 30's to the 60's were produced by them.
Osvaldo Borsani (1911 -1985) — Tecno
Osvaldo Borsani inherited the family company Borsani Arredamenti - Varedo, that had been manufacturing wood furniture since the 1800's on a small scale. He started collaborating with the company already in the 30's innovating its designs but it was in 1952 that he accelerated it toward a new design oriented direction and renamed it Tecno. He is also responsible for creating a collaboration with artists such as Gio' Pomodoro, Lucio Fontana, Agenore Fabbri and more. Some of Osvaldo Borsani's creations such as the P40 lounge chair are considered masterpieces of Mid-Century design. He was also among the founders of Ottagono a very improtant magazine of the time. In the 60's the company shifted its production towards office furniture.
Cassina was created in 1927 and initially manufactured very high quality traditional wood furniture using skilled craftsmen. After WWII Cesare Cassina (1909 - 1979) understood that in order to grow the company he had to start collaborating with designers. Manufacturing on a large scale was also requested by the contract Cassina had won to furnish the luxury liners that were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The collaboration between Cassina brought great results involving such figures as: Gio' Ponti, Ico Parisi, Gaetano Pesce and Mario Bellini. The will to innovate and the freedom given to designers were some of the elements that made Cesare Cassina one of the most important players in the birth of Italian design.
Carlo De Carli (1910–1999)
Carlo De Carli was an architect who radically changed Italian furniture design from the 40's to the 60's. He started his activity working in Gio' Ponti's studio and his influence was not only limited to the furniture design but also to his activity as an architect, scholar, editor and active member of the Triennale exhibition. Like Gio' Ponti and Ico Parisi, he worked often for Cassina, the most innovative Italian furniture manufacturer of the 50’s. Although inspired by the Italian Rationalism school of design, De Carli's designs always had a lyric element that added warmth and distinction.
Joe Colombo (1930 -1971)
Joe Colombo was one of the most innovative Italian designers of the 60's and also an architect and artist even though he did not produce many designs due to his early passing at 41 years of age. He explored the idea of the multi functional units and one of these was exhibited at the 1972 ground breaking MOMA exhibition Italy where it was one of the most notable pieces. Colombo's designs often used innovative materials and shapes that were influenced by the 60's space age visual culture.
Cristal Art was a high end glass company active in Turin from the 50's to the 70's, well known for its large mirrors.
Dubé (1914 - 1961)
Duilio Bernabé, known as Dubé, was one of several Italian artists that after WWII worked closely with furniture and lighting designers. He collaborated with Fontana Arte in the production of back painted glass panels and tables. Among his works the abstract paintings are the most recognized.
Since its inception in 1932 until the 1970’s, Fontana Arte focused on high end workmanship of flat glass and was the first Italian company to become a major player internationally. The idea of producing high end flat glass production was successful thanks to the employment of the best men in the field as Artistic Directors: Gio Ponti, Pietro Chiesa and Max Ingrand. It also worked with specialized artists such as glass engraver Edwin Burger and painter Dube'. This great craftsmanship and attention to detail allowed for their pieces to be very expensive even when first produced. After the death of Max Ingrand in 1969, Fontana Arte continued to produce his designs through out the 1970's until it decided to change its focus to more industrial designs.
Piero Fornasetti (1913 - 1988)
Piero Fornasetti could be defined as the poet of Italian 20th Century design. The self taught artist and designer started working in 1933 with upholstery and fashion fabrics that were decorated with trompe-l'oeil (fool the eye) images. In a time when decoration was off limits, he affirmed the possibility of applying this innovative approach to Mid-Century design and met the approval Italian design giant Gio' Ponti. Fornasetti was inspired by dreams and the surreal and raised common objects by decorating them with unusual and repetitive patterns. In a way he anticipated Postmodernism. After his death his son Barnaba Fornasetti continued his activity issuing re-editions of his creations that were dated and numbered.
Ico Parisi (1916 -1996)
Not enough has been written about this, architect, artist, photographer and designer who created some of the most beautiful Italian Mid Century furniture designs. He started working in 1935 with Terragni, a leading figure of Rationalism. After the war in 1948, together with his wife Luisa, he started the studio La Ruota allowing him to collaborate with well know companies such as Centaurino, Stildomus, Cassina and Stilnovo. He also designed for the US market for Singers & Sons and Altamira. In the early 1950's his designs were very sculptural and creative but by the end of the decade his collaboration with new furniture manufacturers such as MIM forced him to tone down his designs while still keeping them very elegant. Many of his designs were co-productions with his wife Luisa. As an artist, he experimented with many different media from pottery to photography.
ISA was a seating company located near Bergamo which was very successful in the 50's and 60's . Like the other top Italian companies of the beginning of the "Italian Design", it was able to associate itself with valuable architects and designers including Gio' Ponti. Its production was among the best in that period with products also being exported to the United States.
Leucos was created in the 60's as a highly innovative company often employing cutting edge designers and is still active today. Its concept was to explore new shapes, new processes and is a way revolutionize Murano glass production. This is how the company presents itself today: "Back in the sixties, design met Murano glass, innovation married tradition giving birth to LEUCOS’s style."
Lumi has been specializing in high end lighting since 1944 focusing on using the best materials available and producing items on a small scale . In its seventy plus years of existence, it has employed the help of great designers such as Gio' Ponti and Oscar Torlasco. Ponti designed for Lumi some of his well known "Quadri Luminosi" (light paintings) sconces.
Angelo Mangiarotti (1923–2012)
Angelo Mangiarotti was a celebrated Italian architect and artist. In the field of home design he is best known for his gravity tables, were large stone elements interlocked via gravity. Mangiarotti created multiple production lines based on this concept, including the Asolo, the Eros and the Incas. Asolo mainly used black granite, manufactured by Skipper and later by Cappellini and is now out of production. He also worked with the Murano glass maker Vistosi creating the well known interlocking “Giogali” glasses and some striking table lamps.
Mazzega IVR was founded in 1938 and ceased its activity in 1983 although the brand has been resurrected under the name Mazzega srl. During its fifty years of existence, Mazzega IVR employed great master glassblowers such as Ermanno Nason and Pino Signoretto. In the field of lighting Carlo Nason designed in the 60's some extremely refined lighting fixtures some of which are still in production.
Born in Murano in 1935, he grew up in a family of senior glass makers who introduced him to the most refined techniques of the island at an early age. He quickly started to collaborate with other glass manufactures as well, specializing in modern designs characterized by great craftsmanship and technique. His pieces often employed shapely textured glass.
Poliarte was an Italian company based in Verona created by Albano Poli. His creations vary from brutalist pieces were glasses, often of different colors, are connected or framed by metal structures to more minimalist fixtures made just of glass. Many of his designs featured pieces of glass glued together making them very sculptural and easily recognizable.
Gio Ponti is considered the most important Italian designer of the XXth Century. As the founding editor of the magazine Domus, through the design of ocean liners furnishings and a fervent exhibition activity, he was able to stimulate a significant growth in Italian design and its world recognition. His activity spaced from pure art and architecture to every field of the home products design: porcelain (for Richard Ginori, Pozzi and others), glass (for Venini), lighting (for Fontana Arte, Arredoluce and others), silverware (for Krupp, Cristofle and others), furniture (Cassina, Singer’s and Son, Altamira and others). His design cannot be classified clearly as he was a classicist and a rationalist, a traditionalist and an innovator at the same time, refusing to wear a precise label, he was always working outside boundaries. In addition to the celebrated Leggera and Superleggera chairs designed for Cassina, he left a large number of outstanding designs highly coveted among collectors.
Vittorio Introini is the main partner of architectural firm, Vittorio Introini e Associati engaged mainly in construction projects. In his long career, however, Introini has also collaborated with Saporiti Italia, an important player in the making of Italian design since the 1945. Introini designs for Saporiti are very different from the rest and characterized by the use of metal. Particularly interesting are his cast aluminum tables and his chrome plated shelving units. Several of his works have been sold at auctions all over the world for very high prices. Various exhibitions on his work have been held including in 2012 " Vittorio Introini. Architecture Design" at the Milan Polytechnic.
Seguso Vetri d’Arte
Founded in the 1300's it is to this day considered one of the best Murano glass manufactures. The ideology of the modern day company can be traced to the 1930's when four partners including Archimede, Angelo and Bruno Seguso restructured it and re-named it Seguso Vetri d'Arte. Among the outstanding designers and glass blowers that worked for the company stand out the works of Archimede Seguso and Flavio Poli. The latter served as artistic director from 1937 to 1963. Poli made a name for himself via the 'Sommerso" technique where thick layers of different colored glass are submerged in one another. Most of the Seguso pieces are unsigned.
Stilnovo after enjoying success from the 1950's to the 1970's was less successful in the following decades and was eventually acquired by Venini ceasing de facto its production. One of the particular aspects of this company was that it produced an extremely wide number of styles but in small quantities. The Stilnovo look included the use of frosted glass spheres on brass cups, the creative use of cylinders made of frosted glass and flat dish shaped shades made of aluminum or brass. Stilnovo worked with various architects, the most notable of them being Gaetano Scolari, Gae Aulenti and Livio Castiglioni.
Aldo Tura worked in Milan from the 30’s to 70’s specializing exclusively in parchment objects and furniture. He made a name for himself at the time for his whimsical objects mixing tradition and innovation in a unique blend. While items designed up to the first part of the 60's have a rounder and more traditional aesthetic, later designs became more linear and to some extent less interesting.
Up & Up
Up & Up was a furniture company founded in 1969 that specialized in using stones and marbles in innovative ways and employed well known architects and designers. In 1979 it was acquired by a larger company.
Venini more than any other symbolizes the collaboration between Murano glass blowers and artists, architects and designers that revolutionized the art of glass making in the 20th century. Its success can be attributed to its founder, Paolo Venini, who led the company as well as designed some great pieces. In its long history Venini worked with important glass blowers such as Carlo Scarpa who was artistic director from 1932 to 1947. Other notable designers include Fulvio Bianconi that designed the famous "Pezzato" vases , Toni Zuccheri, Gio Ponti, Tapio Wirkkala and Massimo Vignelli.
Vistosi was created in Murano in 1945 specializing in the production of lighting. In 1956 Alessandro Pianon, a Venetian architect, joined the company and together with the second generation Luciano and Gino Vistosi, relaunched the company focusing on innovation and design. Vistosi has employed some very relevant designers such as Fulvio Bianconi, Angelo Mangiarotti, Ettore Sottsass, Enrico Capuzzo and Gae Aulenti.
Milan based Zero Quattro was active from the 60's until the 90's and created exceptional and innovative lighting fixtures. Most of the glasses they used were made by Mazzega. Zero Quattro lighting fixture were very distinctive as they were always opulent without being excessive. They used blown glasses, chiselled glasses and glass and metal pendants (sometimes gold plated). All of its production was done on a small scale with local craftsman working on the metal structures and assembling the chandeliers.