05 July 2018

Osvaldo Borsani: three readings
An impeccable exhibition. Villa Borsani at Varedo. Interview to Valeria Borsani

by Marco Romanelli

While the history of Italian design has managed to celebrate its heroes, we can see that some key figures have been left somehow in the background. They certainly include Osvaldo Borsani, Gino Sarfatti and Gastone Rinaldi. What have these three people in common, apart from having worked around the same period and often for the same shows? That’s quite easy to answer if you match their names to those of the companies they founded: Borsani and Tecno, Sarfatti and Arteluce, Rinaldi and RIMA. That’s almost self-evident: the history of Italian design has not been generous with those children of hers who wanted to be designers and businessmen at the same time, as if being one’s “own principal” were no guarantee for the purity of the results. While no word has been said yet by the institutions about the genius of Rinaldi, after the fine exhibition curated by Giuseppe Drago in Brescia in 2015, it was precisely the Triennale di Milano that celebrated the talent of Sarfatti (as the complete works of this artist of light were coming out) in 2011 and now at last celebrates that of Osvaldo Borsani (1911-1985). Actually, to give a preview of the outstanding layout designed by Norman Foster and Tommaso Fantoni, we can say that “the transparency” sought by the two designers seems to repay Borsani at last for that dark place and for that poor understanding we mentioned before.

Here’s then, on the ground floor of Palazzo dell’Arte, one of the famous bends designed by Muzio and usually masked in the layouts, he is emphasised, brought into focus: as if displaying an unconscious process of rediscovery, not just of the Palace but also of the designer who’s on display there. A lot of the exhibition can already be sensed from the outside hall, “as simple and effective as a Sol Lewitt”, Alessandro Colombo wrote in Giornale dell’Architettura, and it is: at the entrance, a “castle” of white transparent cubes welcomes visitors and announces the philosophy of the exhibition, with a multilevel construction that hosts the original pieces along the concave side of the trail and a rich “collection of paintings” along the convex side in front. Items and drawings from an extremely long time, 1925 to 1985, tell us not only about Osvaldo Borsani’s career and evolution as a designer, but also the changes in the tastes of the Italian upper middle-classes that were grappling with a far from easy transition from the latest period styles to modernity. For many years, Borsani himself built items that, though greatly fascinating, were deeply rooted in the “20th-century-style” manufacturing tradition of the Brianza region. We can see these pieces, still produced by ABV (Atelier Borsani Varedo), in the exhibition too, and feel a deep nostalgia for their retro aesthetics that reminds us of our granny’s parlour. However, there’s one feature that is suggestive of the author’s sensitivity as something quite different from that of many of his peers: it’s his ability to interact with artists. Since the Forties, the items designed by Borsani have added up, not juxtaposed, to Lucio Fontana’s ceramic plates, Arnaldo Pomodoro’s metals or Fausto Melotti’s and Roberto Crippa’s designs. This is perhaps the first symptom of that change that blew up when he opened Tecno and took part in the X Triennale 1954, where Borsan looks perfectly contemporary, actually “futuristic”, capable of designing genuinely iconic pieces, such as the famous D70 “pivoting-wing” sofa or the P40 “multiple-setting” lounge chair. Pieces that are not just outstanding in their design, they are also an amazing litmus test of a sociologically changed world. From then on and for many years, Borsani’s career was perfectly consistent and creative (let’s just mention the AT16 coat stand, 1961, an unprecedented sculpture standing between the floor and the ceiling, or the expressionistic force of the “Canada” lounge chair, 1966) and got entwined with important people, especially Eugenio Gerli, another forgotten master, with whom he jointly designed other outstanding pieces.

But, going back to the exhibition, which as we said before is truly “impeccable”, it is the extremely long “collection of paintings” wall that is the most impactful, which goes to show the amount of hard work that has gone into archival research as well as the attempt to display these findings in a coherent, visually powerful way. If we really wanted to engage in nit-picking, maybe just not to give up on the constructive role of critique, we might point out that there may be some problems of attribution for the less expert ones, unless hey consult the precious booklet that is given out at the entrance, at seeing pieces that have not been designed by Borsani but have been still included in the sequence of furnishings as they have been produced by ABV or Tecno, and maybe also that the layout at the “end” of the exhibition sort of “dies away”. I think, however, that in this case you have to wear your psychologist’s hat and explain that probably this is because nobody would ever want to “end” a story of life and design that is so important, and so effectively told.

Osvaldo Borsani
La Triennale di Milano
Viale Emilio Alemagna, 6

16th May - 16th September 2018

Curated by: Norman Foster and Tommaso Fantoni
Layout: Norman Foster Foundation and Archivio Osvaldo Borsani
Catalogue by Giampiero Bosoni (Edizioni Skira)


Osvaldo Borsani, portrait of a father and a master of design. His daughter Valeria remembers him.

Who was Osvaldo Borsani? Can you give us a picture of the man (as a father) and the architect (as a colleague) he was for you?
As a father he was affectionately strict, always ready to push me to do things, to travel, to meet people; but he wanted an update every evening. We always went away in the holidays: he for work, the rest of us to get to know the world, especially Europe. Our favourite destinations were from Naples to Holland, Spain, Germany, France.
As an architect, he certainly put me on the right track professionally. But also in his own particular way, i.e. in the office: partly as a designer and partly as an entrepreneur. Even before I went to the Politecnico, I was sent to Benelux to meet all the distributors, and to Paris at the drawing board for two months, to study various ongoing projects in the French capital. He taught me never to close any doors, how to work with other people, to treat everyone the same way, from technicians to presidents. His view of the world and human relationships shines through quite clearly in the Graphis system. There’s no room for levels of dignity and power, or distinctions made with materials or colours; perhaps that’s why it dovetailed with the mood of the times and millions of exemplars were sold all over the world.

Osvaldo Borsani was certainly ahead of his time. Where did his acute ability to conceive objects and situations even before they existed come from?
He was the opposite of marketing, or at least of the sort of design that then assumed that name (until the Seventies the word didn’t even exist). He wanted to dream up and suggest to his clients the things they might want in the future, what would be good to have, what the world needed …

Osvaldo Borsani and design. How were his relationships with companies and clients?
His clients were important; in a way they were the anchor for his dreams, which left to themselves might have steered him more in the direction of art than design. I think a lot of the furniture on exhibit bears the hallmarks of this vocation. His clients, on the other hand, and especially the more knowledgeable, came to him with real problems: for example the D70 double-sided sofa, one of Tecno’s first great “pieces,” was created to furnish an elegant but small space with a fireplace at one end and a view over Lake Como at the other. So, his great gift was to be able to abstract, universalize, transform “made to measure” furniture into mass production: having started out in a romantic sitting room, D70 went on to be produced for large domestic, professional and public spaces … Then there was Nomos, Osvaldo Borsani’s last great project, which drew on the worktables that Norman Foster had designed for himself and commissioned a craftsman to make.
This transition from one-off product to great industrial product implies an ability to plan production processes and to set up “satellite” enterprises that dealt in large numbers: so the P40 armchair and the D70 sofa were produced on Lake Iseo; the Graphis system in the province of Brescia; while Nomos was produced by a company in Varedo.

From his many artist friends to the many works of art integrated into his designs, what did art mean for Osvaldo Borsani?
When I look at his sketches or his watercolours, I think that art was his one great temptation. Or at least a counterpoint to his rigour and his passion for complicated mechanisms and advanced technologies. Even his concept of space was that of an artist. He couldn’t think about an object without relating it to the whole environment: doors, windows, lamps, wardrobes, coat racks, bookcases, swivelling screens for interiors … it was all “floor to ceiling.”
Basically, I think he was lucky and clever enough to chose artists who were just emerging to work with, who could add imagination to his architectural projects.

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