19 July 2019
by Marco Romanelli
Generations of critics, foreign critics in particular, have done their utmost to crack the secret of Italian furniture design. Because there has to be a secret, otherwise how could a country (fortunately) defeated in a long and agonising war have turned itself around within a decade to become the discipline’s undisputed leader?
As it happens, there was a secret: furniture design in Italy was born fully-grown, it sprang up all of a sudden, but after a gestation period lasting approximately 30 years. Thirty years in which Italian architects (nobody would have called them designers in those days and, in any case, given the absence of an industrial counterpart, the term would have been totally incorrect) had carried out “trial runs”, or at least seen interiors as an architectural matter (no need to be surprised, this was not a very widespread attitude!). While society evolved, while the strict social class divisions crumbled, new needs sprang up, along with new dreams. People dreamt of “offices” and “American-style kitchens”, large terraces and children’s bedrooms. By the end of the First World War, the bourgeois architectural aspiration was no longer the aristocratic palazzo with its series of interconnecting rooms, but the apartment. Not even situated on the piano nobile (just imagine, the first floor!) but as high up as possible, on the attic floor – once the servants’ quarters. All of a sudden hitherto unknown demands became paramount: the desire to live in the open air fuelled designs for urban buildings with large balconies crying out for flowers, and people’s imaginations turning to seaside villas and mountain chalets (The 1930 Monza Biennale dealt expressly with this). Gio Ponti (well, there’s a thing, his name pops up in every story we tell) designed a furniture collection for this “new home”, under the name of Domus Nova, which he wanted retailed in a Department Store (La Rinascente, which postulated Italy’s rebirth).
Did that qualify as design?
In a way, but only partly: the manufacture was still totally handmade, but sales were catalogue-based, the style was simplified (for cost containment purposes), briarwood gave way to paintwork (for the young lady’s room). Underlying all this was clearly a “development” rationale, keen not to pass for “revolution” but as progressive change (the only way the upper middle classes could come to terms with the new world). One wonders how much time, what steps would have been required to effect the transition “from the decorative arts to design” had the above-mentioned horrendous war not broken out. No one can know. What is indisputable, however, is the state of Italy in 1945, with millions of memories to be wiped out and millions of houses to be rebuilt, along with their windows, their stairs and their banisters, not to mention their floors, kitchens, domestic appliances (the earliest), as well as seats, armchairs, dressers, built-in wardrobes, tables and desks (anything that hadn’t been burnt stank of smoke in any case - people wanted to move on!). Enter the architects (Ponti, Albini, Gardella, Parisi, Frattini, Menghi, Gentili Tedeschi, Borsani, De Carli, Caccia Dominioni, Viganò, Zanuso, Magistretti and Mangiarotti), all keen to swing into action! They already knew just how to negotiate this new world. Enter the pre-war upholsterers and carpenters who, while still speaking in dialect, were keen to embrace industry and had enough courage and vision to build this brave new world. For each of them, architects and producers alike, it was simply a matter of rationalising previously ingrained knowledge and standardising previously analysed demands.
The fact of the matter is that there were the houses, there were the interiors, but there was certainly no Polytechnic or Academy to teach the Italian architects how to become designers. So, thanks again to the houses, the Italian furniture industry was born.
From then on, what with the reconstruction efforts and the economic boom, the invention of foam and of plastic, the great Triennale exhibitions and the advent of the Salone del Mobile.Milano, the years just flew by. All this was punctuated by the barrage of magazines. Italian magazines had been circulating around the world when the world was still sedentary. They arrived in New York well before the cargo ships. It was their images that spoke (no need for translations!). They made their way North, South, East and West - seamlessly, so well “organised” that only the endemic Italian non-organisation could achieve it.
One factor needs be further underscored: how could Italian design which, as we have seen, “came from within” (“from the plant and from the heart”, as Lisa Ponti used to say), be instantly prepared to take over the world? Because it had already gone through its initiation rites, its baptism of fire – it had been used by men and women in real houses. Basically, Italian furniture was born mature and, if you will forgive the neologism, already “humanised”. This prompts another spontaneous question: “is the situation still the same? Does Italian furniture still “come from the plant and from the heart”? Despite everything, despite the (necessary) criticism of the recent formalism of interiors, despite the cultural drift following the loss of the Masters, I believe the answer would be “yes”. This affirmation would be completely unimportant were I the only person to think like this. But this “yes” sounds loud and clear from North to South and East to West, from the people in faraway lands that buy Italian furniture every day. Should we be satisfied with this clamorous success? Absolutely not! In order to carry on designing unique pieces we need to go back to designing unique houses. Italian houses, capable of sustaining the Italian way of life, of propelling an ancient, democratic culture into the future. Welcoming houses. Real houses. What’s more, we need to start discussing these houses and their differing layouts and contexts in magazines, avoiding the recent stereotypes that have turned Italian interior architecture into “still lifes”, undoubtedly elegant, but that’s just it: they’re lifeless! Just as interiors began to fuel design in the 30s, we now need to reorganise a “resistance” movement for design, starting again with interiors, using interiors as test beds once more, as a gauge of their staying power, monitoring the new behaviours, the new housing models! An operation that, believe you me, cannot be carried out in the furniture dealers’ showrooms.