In the design world, few nations possess the trend-setting cultural power that Italy has – it’s evident in their art, their cars and their influence in Italian furniture. But while you’re probably familiar with Da Vinci and Armani, you probably know a lot less about Castiglioni and Aulenti (two iconic designers).
It’s hard not to be inspired when you live in Italy, a country home to design icons like Gucci, Versace and the Michelangelo’s. Whilst much of American culture is vapid and shallow, the culture in Italy is much more about depth, self-expression and eccentricity.
This article looks at the top 5 legends of modernist Italian furniture design and explores their bold, intelligent and gorgeous creations.
Ponti is one of the great masters of modernist architecture and design. He began working in the 1920s and was known for his creativity, craftsmanship, expression, sense of play, love of colour, and his warm and curious personality. He worked not only in Italian furniture design, but in architecture (having designed the Pirelli Tower which still stands in Milan today), ceramics and glassware. He also founded the famous design magazine Domus.
His “Superlight” chair (1957) was considered a great success in engineering and craftsmanship due to being incredibly lightweight yet strong. His other designs included a colourful hand-blown glass chandelier, the Ponti lounge chair (1953) and the 1931 Bilia lamp.
Castiglioni worked alongside his brother, Pier Giacomo, re-contextualising everyday objects into works of art – Italian furniture that is both functional and stylish. Castiglioni was known for his use of irony, pop art and paradox, as well as his sense of humour and mischief. He once took a simple streetlight and transformed it into one of the most iconic modernist lamps in history – the Arco (1962). His tractor-seat chair is another classic, referencing the ready-mades of Duchamp.
Colombo made the most of the plastic decade that was the ‘60s and created one of the first mass-produced chairs made completely of plastic. His designs have a space-age, futuristic quality about them, evident in his Elda chair, whose appearance remarkably resembles a space suit. He was passionate about creating compact, portable, modular and self-contained environments – like something you’d see in a rocket ship. His functional Boby trolley (1969) is still available to purchase today.
Aulenti worked primarily in the ‘70s, and was responsible for designing the world-famous Musee d’Orsay (which was originally a railway station!). Her Italian furniture designs are highly original and well-thought out, with many having a surrealist quality to them – such as the Tour table (1993), whose legs are made of bicycle wheels. Her Pileino lamp appears similar to a space helmet – high-tech yet practical. Since designing the Musee d’Orsay she became a popular architect valued for her creative, witty reuse of materials and spaces, and her ability to balance history with contemporaneity in her designs.
Sottsass had a long career before starting his work in Italian furniture design. He was a photographer (shooting the likes of Picasso and Bob Dylan), he’d launched a publishing house, and created the iconic red Valentine typewriter. In the 1980s Sottsass responded to the boom in trendy, international-style design by forming the radical post-modernist group Memphis. The group caused a shock to the design world with its colourful, exaggerated blend of Art Deco, Pop Art and 1950s kitsch. Sottsass’ work grew even more popular when it was found out that Bowie was secretly collecting his designs.
The masters of modernist Italian furniture can teach us a lot about great design and craftsmanship.