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Author: Chris Yeo

Date: 3rd May, 2018



Italy in the 1950s and ’60s was a hotbed of creativity and style. Chris Yeo looks at how modern design had a very glamorous moment in the sun.

Don’t you think modesty can be an overrated virtue? Italian architect Luigi Dominioni certainly does: “Italian design is, quite simply, the best in the world. We have more imagination and more culture. No other country can compete with us.” Such bold words would have most self-effacing Brits spilling their tea, but, you know what they say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. And where jaw-dropping design is concerned, Italy’s got “it” in spades. However you look at it it’s an indisputable fact that over the centuries Italians have produced a huge amount of world-class art, architecture and design. The Germans might have their engineering prowess, the French their haute couture, and we British our fish and chips (and modesty), but it’s undoubtedly the Italians who have the edge when it comes to making things with style. It’s the country that gave us the Negroni, Leonardo da Vinci, Verdi and the best coffee in the world. Whenever there’s something to indulge and delight the senses, it seems those fun-loving and very inventive Italians are never far away.

They know a thing or two about furniture as well. When it comes to the things we put in our homes, Italian designers have helped to define every decade since the end of the Second World War, from the poetic prints of Fornasetti in the ‘50s through the Space Age plastic wonders of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Memphis’s crazy zigzags and eye-popping colours in the ‘80s and the knockout glamour of Cassina and Alessi in the ‘90s. And today Milan, the historic centre of Italian furniture production, remains a mecca for design lovers from all over the world. Every Spring the city plays host to the biggest event in the design calendar, the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, otherwise known as the Milan furniture fair. Yet, it’s perhaps true to say that, in the world of antiques and vintage design, Italy has been rather overlooked. We’ve rode the bandwagon of mid-century Scandinavian hip until the wheels fell off and yet, sitting over there in the sunshine, impeccably dressed and sipping Campari, are Gio Ponti, Pierro Fornasetti, Achille Castiglione and others (we’ll meet them later). The generation of designers who emerged in Italy in the 1950s were amongst the greatest of the 20th century. Together they conquered the design world and helped make ‘Made In Italy’ a label everyone wanted to have.

Can a sense of style be inherent in a whole nation’s DNA or is it something in the coffee that makes Italians such masters of all things beautiful? Well, as the saying goes, nothing breeds success like success. As the cradle of the Renaissance, Italy can lay claim to some world-class heritage, meaning that when it comes to beauty, Italians, have a head-start in life. Growing up around assorted Michelangelos, Berninis and Borrominis is a powerful stimulus to creativity. Add to that the nation’s well-founded reputation for living the dolce vita – the sweet life. It is not by chance that most of the Italian design success stories are also objects that contribute to the enjoyment of life: Ferraris, coffee machines, exquisite clothes. It’s all part of the Italian way of making the most of their daily lives.

History, of course, has a part to play. The roots of Italian design are long even if the country itself isn’t that old. For somewhere which trades on its ancient heritage, it’s always surprising to remember that Italy itself only appeared on the map in 1871. The Romans were just that: Romans, not Italians. Until then, the peninsula was made up of separate city-states, all of which had distinct identities and ruling families. Over the centuries, aristocrats and the ruling class sought the best artists and craftsmen to decorate their Palazzo. Style and fine craftsmanship became a mark of status and an inseparable part of the ruling class’ identity. Once Italy unified, and the old feudal system was replaced, an enormous amount of crafts skills remained. All that was needed was a creative spark. But it was the experience of rebuilding the country out of the rubble of World War II – from which Italy emerged defeated and exhausted – that gave Italian design its Big Bang. The country was battle-scarred and bankrupt but, for the Italians it was a case of, in the words of the song, take a deep breath, pick yourself up, start all over again. A mood of national reconstruction was in the air. There was a need for new housing and household goods, and the Italians rose to the challenge, embracing Modernism to give the ‘new’ Italy a fresh, young and exciting image. A new wave of designers created furniture and lighting quite unlike anything that had been seen before, the hallmarks of which were witty flamboyance and drop-dead sophistication. This was the time when Italy had its fashion moment on a global scale, the era of the dazzling Trevi Fountain scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn’s Vespa moment in Roman Holiday. Furniture and design in general became a key ingredient in the world’s idea of Italian style.

Because modern design arrived in Italy comparatively late, designers had none of the hang-ups about what design should be and weren’t hide-bound by the same theories and philosophies that had kept their counterparts in, for example, the Bauhaus, unable to wander from the straight and narrow path of design purity. Italian design was all about creativity, spontaneity and exuberance – in fact, not altogether unlike the Italian people themselves. Leave Functionalism to the Germans and understatement to the Danes, Italian design is all about making bold statements and having fun. Okay, sometimes their approach isn’t exactly subtle but, there again, why should furniture be serious? The key to Italian design – like Italian style in general – was about being polished but relaxed, witty but never silly. It’s a tricky knack to finesse – much like the ability to conjure up the perfect espresso – but they did it and we drank it up. Let’s meet some of them.

Gio Ponti (1891-1979)

Quite simply, the father of modern Italian design and a polymath to boot. There was little Ponti couldn’t do. Trained as an architect, he made a name for himself designing ceramics, then buildings, then furniture, then glassware. Over a long and distinguished career, he worked for over 120 different companies. He was also a writer, professor, design theorist and founder of the prestigious design magazine Domus. One of Ponti’s most iconic designs was the Superleggera (“Superlight”) chair of 1957. A wonder of engineering, it lived up to its name and was very light and easy to move around. Even a snappily dressed child could pick it up with just his little finger.

Piero Fornasetti (1913-88)

Why have a chest of drawers when you could have a chest of drawers that looks like a Renaissance palace? Fornasetti sneaked a happy pill into modern design’s glass of water. He was a consummate magician, producing surreal screens, chairs, magazine racks, posters and a host of other items in a playful, highly decorative style using colourful antique inspired graphics in a way that brought decoration back into fashion’s mainstream for the first time since the 19th century. He lived most of his life in Milan, attending the Brera Art Academy from where he was expelled for insubordination, which is always a good thing to have on your C.V.. His output was prodigious and over his long career he produced over 11,000 (yes) designs. To encounter Fornasetti’s world was to follow Alice down the rabbit hole and emerge in a place where turban-wearing servants sprout candelabra from their heads and the face of his (long dead) muse, the Victorian opera singer Lina Cavalieri, appears in over 500 surreal poses.

Achille Castiglione (1918-2002)

Was an industrial designer who understood better than anyone the impact that a boldly designed piece of furniture brings to any room. He set out to create forms with maximum effect while using the minimum amount of materials. His iconic Arco lamp, designed in partnership with his brother Pier Giacomo, was a Hollywood favourite when a note of high style was needed, and featured in classic films like Diamonds Are Forever and The Italian Job. The base is made from Italian carrara marble. Why is there a hole in it? To slide a broom handle through (of course), so you can slide it around the room.
At its best, Italian design works so well because the people behind were secure with their own sense of style and realised that – as is so often the case in life – playing it safe is unlikely to get you very far. Be bold, be brash, but, above all be stylish. Perhaps modesty is an overrated virtue. Sometimes, Italians just do it better.

Image Credits:
2. Cassina
4 & 5: Ken Stradling Collection

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