21 January 2021

Stories of identity

Memory and future are the keys to the secrets tucked away in the rooms of corporate museums, which are becoming increasingly common in a wide range of production sectors. The noble driving force behind every museum, where a company’s identity materialises and its history literally becomes tangible, is the desire to preserve a brand and valorise its heritage, keeping it alive.

As well as boasting archives, prototypes, one-off pieces, tools, right down to machinery and much more besides, these museums also become channels for direct and effective dialogue and immediate engagement with the surrounding territory. Museums of this sort don’t merely entertain and educate, they also bring added value to companies, preserving and disseminating their know-how. They increasingly become a part of the functioning of companies, contributing to competitivity and directly linked with marketing strategies. The museums featured below, all of which have links to the furnishing world, give us a flavour of their very real, deep-rooted importance. Immeasurable, in fact.

Corporate museums are frequently set up in order to celebrate special anniversaries, as in the case of Calligaris, which in September inaugurated 300 m2 of exhibition space at its Manzano headquarters, near Udine, launching the celebrations for the company’s approaching 100th anniversary. The company was founded in 1923 as an artisan workshop producing the Marocca chair, a typical local piece with a linear wooden frame and straw seat. Its museum is not only dedicated to the history of the company, which has passed down through three generations, but also to the history of the Friulano chair-making district, which supplies 80% of national demand and has strong trade connections with Europe, the US and the East. The exhibition spaces are marked out into seven stages, leading from the company’s 18th century origins to the present day, exploring the company’s vocation for innovation, turning its hand to other materials, such as metal, leather, glass and plastic as well as wood, with a particular focus on sustainability.

Museo Calligaris, Manzano (Udine)

Another centenary-linked museum is that of Poltrona Frau, designed by Michele De Lucchi, which opened in 2012. An austere, white industrial building, its long stand-out orange wall catching the eye as it meets the corner of the Tolentino plant. The interiors have been designed like a great grey container, their design spare. “The intelligence of the hands,” i.e. the skills enshrined in the brand’s products, welcome visitors through fascinating films that focus on the processing phases. The iconic Vanity Fair occupies a central patio, while the large room with scenographic towers contains faithful reconstructions of the historical periods of 11 iconic pieces, which tell the company’s story, along with original documents, postcards, advertising posters, catalogues, sketches and drawings displayed in a showcase. There is also a reading room where museum-related activities and workshops take place, in addition to guided tours, making for a museum that strives to be very much alive.

Poltrona Frau Museum, Tolentino (Macerata)
Photo Alessandro Digaetano

Conceived during the course of historical research for the Molteni80 exhibition, which led to the Molteni Archive, containing more than 4,500 documents, the Molteni Museum opened in 2015. It is housed in a late ‘50s industrial building at Giussano restructured by Aldo Rossi and Luca Meda in 1986 and then again by Studio Cerri & Associati, which also curated the coordinated image of the museum itself, designed by Jasper Morrison. 48 iconic products trace the history of the Group’s four brands – Molteni&C., Dada, Unifor and Citterio, making the museum not just a container for memories but also a living space and an opportunity for the local and international communities with which the Group has forged relationships over time to come together. The museum has continued to broaden its cultural remit since 2018 to embrace contemporary art with an ongoing collection of work by talented youngsters, which is also on sale in the flagship stores dotted around the world. By the end of 2021, the museum will have taken on a completely new look, shaped by Ron Gilad, to tell the company’s story with an eye to the present and to the future. The historical nucleus will remain the inviolate heart of the new project, with the addition of special, global initiatives, open to the world, thanks to the new flexibility of the spaces and the new digital technologies.

Molteni Museum, Giussano (Monza e Brianza)

The Kartell Museum was designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company in 1999, gaining instant recognition as an outstanding corporate museum, cemented by garnering the 2000 Guggenheim Enterprise and Culture Award. A growing collection of 8,000 objects, 5,000 designs and 15,000 photographs tell the story of the successful Noviglio-based company, which was set up in 1949. It is a permanent excursus, with display by Ferruccio Laviani and curation by Elisa Storace, encompassing car accessories (including the stand-out K101 ski rack, lightweight, easily fitted and the only one of its kind, which was the first Kartell product), domestic objects (in new industrially-moulded plastic materials rather than wood and metal), lighting (including Achille and Piergiacomo Castiglioni’s 4006, the company’s first pendant lamp), laboratory fittings (the Labware division started up in 1958), furniture (with the Habitat division in 1963) and furnishing accessories, including many Italian design icons. Even the building itself is a museum piece, an interesting example of industrial architecture, as is the plant designed by Anna Castelli Ferrieri and Ignazio Gardella in 1967, when the business moved to the outskirts of Milan. An exclusive space for disseminating design culture through publications and research, guided tours and exhibitions.

Kartell Museo, Noviglio (Milano)

An entrepreneurial history stretching back five generations has seen a return to the origins of the late 19th century building that has belonged without interruption to the Rubelli family. Almost 150 years after its foundation, in 2018 the Rubelli group decided to move its Historic Archive, along with the flagship showroom for all its global outlets, into the family’s 14th century palazzo, Ca’ Pisani Rubelli, in Venice’s Piscina San Samuele. The archive documents the company’s production right from the very beginning and contains thousands of samples of precious, antique fabrics. Both the family and the company were extremely keen to rehouse the archive and the adjacent reception rooms alongside the shop and the textile exhibition on the lower floors, in a bid to rekindle the “on-street” relationship with Venetians and passers-by, allowing its products, legacies of one of Venice’s most noble traditions – the art of textile and silk weaving - to become visible again.

Rubelli Historic Archive, Venezia

Venini is another historic Venetian manufacturing business, which launched its project for a museum in 2008, sparked by a desire to pay homage to the skills and artistic traditions of the company, and to its amazing historical archive. The museum opened at Venini’s Murano headquarters in 2009 and contains an incalculable legacy of more than 45,000 artists’ drawings, over 10,000 vintage photos of architectural installations, past exhibitions, events and people and, lastly, 5,000 works which include a great many prototypes that never went into production along with very rare proofs, often lent with the drawings to leading international museums for exhibitions on the history of the company and Murano glass. The museum doesn’t just document a historical continuity, but a complete lifecycle, marked by unique occasions, situations and creations. It is an engaging museum, channelling the sensations and emotions that only glass can provide.

Museo Venini, Murano (Venezia)

Another museum dedicated to glass was set up in 1992 by Fiam Italia, a pioneering early ‘70s company, specialising in the creation of collections of curved glass furnishing pieces. The Spazio Miralfiore, as it is known, is located in the villa of the same name, a 15th century dwelling restored to its ancient glory, set in a park in the centre of Pesaro. The collection, which contains around 60 unique pieces, traces the history of furnishing – through glass objects, naturally – of the last 50 years, marked by successful collaborations between the company and designers such as Cini Boeri, Massimo Morozzi, Vico Magistretti, Enzo Mari, Philippe Starck, Daniel Libeskind, Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, and Marcel Wanders.

Spazio Miralfiore - Villa Miralfiore, Pesaro

The Alessi museum, designed by Alessandro Mendini and curated by Francesca Appiani, provides a sweeping overview of the history of design. Inaugurated in Spring 1998, it occupies a building in the factory complex at Crusinallo di Omegna. The company has produced an infinite variety of prototypes over the years, fuelled by its constant experimental activities which, along with its traditional production, the innumerable objects collected all over the world and ongoing acquisitions, make for an extremely comprehensive overview of domestic objects. The museum contains prototypes, items no longer in production, printed documents, graphic and design material, displays, historical images, books, magazines and catalogues – a specialist collection of 20th century applied art and design, containing extremely rare pieces that combine to make up Alessi’s archival cultural identity. The collection is a valuable source of material for temporary exhibition curators. The museum also produces exhibitions of its own, which include Objects and Projects. Alessi: History and Future of an Italian Design Factory, at the Neue Sammlung in Munich and Alessi: Ethical and Radical at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Museo Alessi, Crusinallo di Omegna (Verbania)
Photo Jacopo Farina

We will have to wait until later in the year to see the new exhibition space at the Bitossi museum, which forms part of the Italian Design Network promoted by the Triennale di Milano, and has been designated as being of significant “historical interest” by the Tuscan Archives Authority – with its holdings of 7,000 ceramic pieces dating from 1853 to the present day.

Not a museum as such, but an astonishing factory/museum containing 2,500 frames of an equal number of models of chairs, armchairs and sofas, and the 2,500 life-size drawings that reproduce the sample pieces produced over the lengthy history of the Meda-based P&G Cugini Lanzani company. Seven generations of the family and the factory in the heart of Brianza have been producing sought-after furnishings since 1798, in Empire, Louis Philippe, Liberty and Art Deco style for the internal market (destined for the homes of leading entrepreneurs and financiers and five-star hotels) and, especially, for the foreign market (the homes of American, Russian, Austrian and British millionaires).

Finally, a mention of Museimpresa, the Italian Association of Corporate Archives and Museums, to which some of the above-mentioned collections belong, which was set up in Milan in 2001 thanks to the efforts of Assolombarda and Confindustria. It is a unique network at European level dedicated to preserving the memory of Italian industry and to valorising the testaments to Italy’s huge manufacturing capacity.

A combination of business and cultural legacy makes for a brand heritage of incalculable value. The future of a company is built on its own history and on its ability to work out which values to pass on and which languages to harness in order to dialogue with the contemporary world and with an increasingly international public. What better instrument than a Museum?

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