04 September 2019

Learning from the classics

by Marco Romanelli

Specialist publications strive continually to predict the most cutting edge trends and therefore what the most sought-after new pieces (chairs, tables, lamps, bookcases, stools etc.) are likely to be. This quest for innovation that is as forced as it is fictitious has meant that we have lost sight of the basic values of design, such as the quality of a design and the durability of an object. As far as the quality of a design goes, it is clear that design “on an annual basis,” as mediated by the fashion world, presents some objective risks. Equally, these days “durability” is no longer seen, by some manufacturers at least, as a positive factor, rather as a market hindrance. Thus, when buyers come to make their choices, they find themselves very much out on a limb, unable to come up with safe interpretative codes with regard to design and materials, incapable of evaluating actual primogenitures, and therefore in danger of acquiring products that are going out of date or are badly-made copies. This chronic lack of security, along with the ongoing economic crisis, causes the general public to freeze, or, potentially, to turn to the large-scale retailers in order to avoid major outlays. We thus feel it our duty to steer the reader towards 20 “sure-fire” pieces that qualify as “classics” (these do not include re-editions, as previously discussed), which are therefore destined for longevity. Good-looking, reasonable objects that will still be of use to the generations that follow our own. This indirectly triggers an “ecological” system - it is clear that the best way of respecting the environment is not to produce recyclable furniture, but to produce furniture that has been properly constructed and will last for very many years. This is why we decided to put together a series of objects that make up a sort of lexicon of excellence. Each one of you will be able to add your “own classics” to this list and every contemporary designer will be in a position to aspire to achieving similar results. *

*This article is partly based on a project called The Essentials, carried out by the author for the journal Domus in 2018

Giuseppe Gaetano Descalzi (known as Campanino), Chiavarina chair, 1807, now produced by F.lli Levaggi and Podestà Sedie – Chiavari
It is said that “in 1808, Marquis Rivarola … brought with him a lightweight chair with a wicker seat from Paris … which had enjoyed great success … at the time of the French Directorate” (E. Bacceschi, 1986). That chair spawned the “classic Chiavarina” which, after 150 years of being used to furnish noble residences, became a star of the great era of Fifties Milanese architecture, used by Gardella, by Caccia Dominioni, by Albini and studied by Ponti.

These extremely lightweight Chiavarina chairs are still being manufactured in the small Ligurian town of Chiavari, just as they once were. There are several different models, the Campanino Classica, the 900 and the Tre Archi. The frame comes in wild beech, cherry and maple or in a shiny painted finish. The seat is usually made of caned willow or lightly padded and upholstered.

Maximum dimensions: L 41 x D 45 x H 86 cm

Michael Thonet, 14 chair, Thonet GmbH, 1859
Probably the most famous chair in the world. By 1930, 50 million of them had been produced and two great architects, Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, regularly included them in their buildings. Because of its innovative production method, the 14 model can rightly be seen as the first modern design object, marking the beginning of the democratisation of furnishing.

Frame in curved beech, seat and backrest in woven rattan cane or lightly padded and upholstered in leather or fabric.

Dimensions: L 43 x D 52 x H 84 cm

Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, LC 6 table, 1928, now produced by Cassina
Like many of the pieces designed by the Le Corbusier, Jeanneret and Perriand trio, the LC 6 table is representative of the very concept of “modernity”- programmatically imagined with the austerity of a machine tool. Formally neutral, it is suitable for use in every possible environment (not particularly unusual in this day and age, but totally revolutionary in 1918).

The table was first produced in 1974; the enamelled steel base is available in black, light blue, grey, green, taupe and ivory, with a tabletop in plain or textured glass, natural oak, stained black oak, American walnut and white Carrara or black Marquina marble.

Dimensions: L 170 x D 75 x H 71 cm

Alvar Aalto, 60 stool/small table, Artek, 1933
In constant production from the moment it hit the shelves, this three-legged stool represents the quintessence of Nordic design, especially in the detail of the bentwood legs, which are simply screwed directly into the top. When stacked, the stools form a beautiful spiralling tower. Aalto described his revolutionary leg structure as “the little sister of the architectural column.”

Available in natural lacquered beech veneer with a choice of tops: beech veneer, laminated linoleum, padded and upholstered.

Dimensions: Ø 38, H 44 cm

Arne Jacobsen, Ant chair – Series 7, 1955, Fritz Hansen
Preceded in 1952 by the so-called Formica model, with three legs and a shaped backrest, the Ant chair is largely responsible for the success of Danish style all over the world. The all-in-one seat and backrest are the formal secret to this masterpiece, imitated thousands of times.

Chair shell made of pressure-moulded curved layers of veneer, natural or lacquered. Chromed steel legs. Stackable.

Dimensions: L 50 x D 52 x H 78 cm

Eero Saarinen, Pedestal table (also known as Tulip or 150°), Knoll International, 1956
Saarinen believed that this project would put an end, once and for all, to the great confusion of “legs” that generally builds up under a table. He achieved his aim perfectly, especially in the extraordinary, huge oval versions. It is now, unquestionably, the most iconic table on the market.

A central cast aluminium single-stemmed base supports a round or oval top available in a variety of finishes: laminated, marble, granite or wood veneer.

Dimensions (round version): Ø 91-107-120-137-152 x H 72 cm
Dimensions (oval version): L 198 x D 121 x H 73; L 244 x D 137 x H 73 cm

Courtesy of the Knoll Archive

Gio Ponti, Superleggera or Model 699 chair, Cassina, 1957
One of Gio Ponti’s great masterpieces, the Superleggera is actually the result of a long and complicated design process that began in 1949, continued in 1952 with the so-called Leggera and finally culminated in the slender triangular-section structure of the Superleggera, which remains one of the lightest (and most beautiful) chairs in the world.

Frame in natural or lacquered ash, Seat in woven rattan cane or lightly padded and upholstered. Another version is available with a lacquered black and white frame.

Dimensions: L 41 x D 47 x H 83; weight 1.7 kg

Arne Jacobsen, Egg chair, Fritz Hansen, 1958
Designed for the lounge of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, the Egg chair was revolutionary not just because of its enveloping and extremely comfortable shape, but also and especially because of its slender inner shell, on which Jacobson worked at length with a sculptural approach. Now, more than 60 years on, it is perhaps the most recognisable chair in the world.

Polished satin aluminium four-footed base. Fibreglass-reinforced polyurethane shell, covered with leather or fabric. It contains a tilting mechanism. The collection includes a footstool.

Dimensions: L 86 x D max 95 x H 110 cm

Gino Sarfatti, 2097-50 lamp, Arteluce, 1958, later Flos
Before ceiling lights fell out of favour for quite some time, Sarfatti designed an absolute masterpiece, one of the few suspension lamps capable of competing with the legendary Murano glass creations. In reality, the design is spare, boasting slender arms, each of which holds a tiny “small pear-shaped” bulb.

Suspension lamp providing diffused light. Central iron structure with brass arms, both available either chromium-plated or gilded. Steel ceiling fitting and rose.

Dimensions: Ø 100 x H 88 (mod. 2097.50, with 50 bulbs); Ø 88 x H 72 (mod. 2097.30, with 30 bulbs)

Universal Shelving System 606 , 1984, è De Padova
An object that represents the essence of minimalism – spare and eternal.

Bookcase with aluminium E-shaped supports and thin aluminium shelves. It can be hung, partly fixed to walls or centrally. It can be fitted with drawers, integral tables, hanging rails, magazine racks and special bookends.

Dimensions: modular system starting from L 1.67 upwards; there is a choice of four different shelf depths. Comes in white, black and silver.

Photo by Tommaso Sartori

Achille and Piergiacomo Castiglioni, San Luca armchair, Gavina, 1961, now produced by Poltrona Frau
Regarded as a formal exercise when it first came out, the unusual and totally original contour of the San Luca armchair responds to precise ergonomic demands (support for the kidneys and neck)and for easy disassembly (it breaks down into five constituent parts), testament to the Castiglioni brothers’ attention to what were then new production items, such as car seats. A special edition was produced in 2018, to mark the hundredth anniversary of Achille’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of Piergiacomo’s death, upholstered in a fabric taken from a design by Max Huber.

Structure in plywood and sold wood upholstered in differentiated polyurethane. The seat is fitted with elastic straps.

Dimensions: L 85 x D 98 x H 99 cm

Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Arco floor lamp, Flos, 1962
Possibly the most recognised object in Italian design. Arco was conceived as an alternative to central ceiling lights. Its great “arc” allows light to be beamed towards tables placed in areas some way from the walls of a room. This sort of “range” could only be achieved with the aid of a stabilising, heavy base – which accounts for the block of white marble with its characteristic hole, which actually served to allow a rod (a broom handle) to be inserted, enabling two people to move the lamp with ease.

Direct light floor lamp. Base in white Carrara marble. Telescopic stem in brushed stainless steel. Swivelling, directable and height-adjustable polished aluminium reflector.

Dimensions: L 220 x H 240 cm

Joe Colombo, stackable 4867 chair (also known as Universale), Kartell, 1967
This was one of the first entirely injection-moulded plastic chairs to be produced. The 4867 fully embodies and exhibits the ideals of the period in which it was designed. It was geared to the mass market and a multitude of uses, soon becoming known as the Universale, representing one of the founding ideals of the discipline of design, now all too often overlooked.

Made of polypropylene in two parts (shell, seat, leg notches and the legs themselves) it is characterised by the famous hole in the back. The chairs are not just stackable, but can also be placed directly abutting each other thanks to the particular shape of the legs, which are flat on the outside.

Dimensions: L 42 x D 50 x H 71 cm

Superstudio, Quaderna table, Zanotta, 1970
Evidence of Italian design’s only truly Utopian phase, the Quaderna table is part of a wide range of projects which the Superstudio envisaged covered in the black and white squared pattern typical of exercise books; these included not just furniture but also buildings and land.

Honeycomb core structure coated with white laminate, silkscreen printed with black squares with three centimetre spacing.

Dimensions: L 111 x D 111 x H 72 cm; L 126 x D 126 x H 72 cm; L 180 x D 90 x H 72 cm

De Pas, D’Urbino, Lomazzi, Sciangai folding clothes stand, Zanotta, 1973
A typological invention that soon became an icon (Golden Compass Award, 1979). It is reminiscent of the famous game of pick-up sticks in which the sticks are gripped in the hand before being allowed to fall. Perhaps an initially playful object (given the spirit of this extraordinary Milanese trio), it became a real “interior design sculpture”.

Structure in natural oak or painted grey, white, black or wine.

Dimensions: Ø 65 cm; H (open) 145 cm, H (closed) 160 cm

Vico Magistretti, Atollo or Model 233 table lamp, Oluce, 1977
One of the few lamps in the history of design that everyone, even non-professionals, knows by name. Built to a spare geometric scheme (a hemisphere on a cone which turns into a cylinder), it conceals sophisticated details such as a tilting mechanism for the large shade.

Table lamp (Model 233) originally in white, black, sand or rust-coloured fire-enamelled metal. It featured two 100W E27 bulbs. During the Nineties it was also produced in opaline Murano glass and scaled to size. The galvanised brushed gold version was produced at the start of the new millennium

Original dimensions: Ø 50, base Ø 20, H 70 cm; now also Ø 38, base Ø 15, H 50 cm; Ø 25, base Ø 10, H 35 cm

Paolo Rizzatto, Costanza floor and table lamp, Luceplan, 1986
One of the objects that marked the beginning of Minimalism in Italy. In reality, Costanza is a re-reading of the classic shaded lamp in which Rizzatto recognises the unparalleled values of domesticity and “warmth.” Here he has stripped back and reinterpreted the classic model using cutting edge materials. A true “contemporary classic.”

Extendable aluminium stem. Silk screen polycarbonate shade. Over time, Costanza has spawned a large design family (floor, table, applique, suspension and arc lamps) for both interior and exterior use.

Dimensions: Floor lamp: Overall H 120/160 cm; Table lamp: Overall H 76-110 cm. In both cases, shade: Ø 40 x H 28 cm, base 18x18 cm

Jasper Morrison, Glo-Ball lamp collection, Flos, 1998
Constantly striving for the simplest of forms that are also the height of expression, Morrison came up with a white glass globe “squashed at the poles” that needs no further intervention to become a classic.

Externally acid-etched, hand-blown flashed opaline glass diffuser. The collection includes ceiling, floor, table and wall-mounted versions. A tubular steel stem on a thick steel base has been employed for the table lamps, where the glass is not simply fixed to a reinforced polyamide injection-stamped base.

Dimensions of glass diffuser: L 33 x H 27 cm (basic 1); L 45 x H 36 cm (basic 2)

Bruno Rainaldi, Original Ptolomeo bookcase, Opinion Ciatti, 2003
Ptolomeo is testament to the fact that it’s never too late to invent a new typology. Once filled with books, the structure of the column becomes invisible. It revolutionised the world of contemporary furnishing and won an extremely well-deserved Golden Compass Award in 2004.

Self-standing bookcase with a stabilising base in stainless steel or lacquered metal to coordinate with the colours of the structure (black, white, stainless steel or Corten effect). The invisible bookends are also in metal. Available in three different heights with capacity for 35, 70 or 95 books respectively.

Dimensions: L 26 x D 26 x H75 cm; L 35 x D 35 x H 160 cm; L 35 x D 35 x H 215 cm

Neuland Industriedesign, Random bookcase, MDF, 2005
As its name suggests, Random harnesses the irregular distribution of the shelves. The relatively narrow book spaces are an elegant solution to the problem of bookends. The horizontal “pockets” lend movement to the composition and generate innovative ideas for their use.

Back panel in melamine-coated board, the shelves are inserted into invisible slots cut into the side panels at different, pre-fixed heights.

Dimensions: L 81.6 x D 25 x H 217 cm

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