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The secrets that give Italian design its x factor

Why ‘Made in Italy’ became a byword not just for beauty and function, but also for vigour and joy

‘pratone’ sofa by studio 65 for gufram

In 1971, the Italian company Gufram launched a new product called ‘Pratone’ – a bright green block of wavy plastic fronds, large enough to sit among, should you so choose. Designed by an avant-garde collective of artists and architects based in Turin, called Studio 65, it is quite simply a lunatic pop art proposition for a sofa. And to me, unbeatable as an emblem of Italy’s no-holds-barred post-war exuberance.

But plenty more examples come to mind when thinking of Italian design. There’s the chrome-framed ‘Max’ sofa, created by Antonio Citterio for Flexform in 1983, and the formal elegance of the ‘Charles’ sofa, also by Citterio (for B&B Italia in 1997), which changed the living room landscape in one go.

The apparently timeless whimsy of Fornasetti’s gold-rimmed ceramics with their distinctive black and white illustrations are not to be forgotten. Plus, Ettore Sottsass’s iconic exercises in patterned laminates from the 1970s and 80s, and the crystal-clear ‘Ghost’ chairs that sprang from Louis XIV’s France, the sketchbook of Philippe Starck and the factory of Kartell in 2002.

wall plate from ‘tema e variazioni’ by fornasetti
Wall plate from ‘Tema e Variazioni’ by Fornasetti
furniture collection titled "abet laminati" designed  by ettore sottsass, pictured exhibited at triennale in milan, italy
Gino Begotti

Achille Castiglioni’s ‘Arco’ light has lost none of its freshness 60 years after its introduction. An Aldo Rossi coffee pot by Alessi? Yes please. Or how about that Armani/Casa logo lamp, devised by Mr Armani himself in 1982, which became the Armani/Casa logo 20 years ago.

But much as Italian design covers a wide terrain, for decades it’s been underpinned by family ties, and the harnessing of both artisan skills and material innovation, from B&B Italia’s development of PU foam injection to Kartell’s manipulation of plastic to create its unique soft-to-touch finish.

‘louis ghost’ armchair in ‘smoke grey’ by philippe starck for kartell
‘Louis Ghost’ armchair by Philippe Starck for Kartell
‘arco’ light by achille castiglioni for flos
‘Arco’ light by Achille Castiglioni for Flos

At first, its protagonists were homegrown, too – privileged, well-educated, almost inevitably male and with an intellectual training not in design but in architecture (Italy didn’t have a single design school until one was established at the Polytechnico in Milan in 1989, and it still doesn’t have an outstanding one).

By the time Memphis took off in 1982 – a postmodern assault on modernism and minimalism – the design industry had become professionalised and, once the 90s arrived, with Italy’s design domination secure, its companies started sponging up international talent. Philippe Stark, Jasper Morrison, Ron Arad, Naoto Fukasawa… (In a world of so many masculine players let’s raise a cheer for the two Patricias – Moroso and Urquiola – who have formed a particularly fruitful partnership as producer and designer).

‘max’ sofa by antonio citterio for flexform
‘Max’ sofa by Antonio Citterio for Flexform
charles’ sofa by antonio citterio for bb italia
‘Charles’ sofa by Antonio Citterio for B&B Italia
B&B Italia

Before World War II, Italy was a country of agriculture and artisanship. And after it, having ended up in ruins and on the wrong side, it was the beneficiary of massive investment from America, which saw it as a possible foil to the Eastern Bloc. Its architects set about giving their country a decidedly post-fascist appearance with buildings and furniture that looked as anti-rationalist as possible.

Gio Ponti encouraged small workshops everywhere to produce up-to-the-minute designs. For his extraordinary Parco dei Principi Hotel, which opened in Sorrento in 1962, he changed the fortunes of local firm Agostino di Salerno when he commissioned them to create the 30 different tile designs that would allow him to lay 100 completely unique floors throughout the property.

fjord’ armchair by patricia urquiola for moroso
‘Fjord’ armchair by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso

That centuries-old savoir faire persists, says Jay Osgerby of design duo Barber Osgerby, who first worked in Italy with Capellini in 1998. ‘You could sketch something out and have someone make it in front of you,’ he says. ‘There was a reliance on craftspeople, and in some parts of the business there still is.’

What he remembers even more clearly is the thrill of having a piece of work on show during the Salone, the Milan furniture fair that goes back to the early 1960s and now stands unrivalled as a global design event. (This year’s cancellation has been a huge blow for the design industry in every corner of the world.)

‘These are working alliances, but they are about friendship and passion’

‘It was like headlining at Glastonbury after someone had heard your tape at college,’ says Osgerby of the moment when the pair’s ‘Loop’ table – a dainty piece in birch ply on a minimal stainless steel base – appeared as part of the Cappellini collection, at a time when an invitation to a Cappellini opening night was like being in the VIP enclosure at the Somerset festival.

‘la cupola’ coffee pot by aldo rossi, alessi
‘La Cupola’ coffee pot by Aldo Rossi, Alessi

Globalisation and significant changes in company structures mean that Italy may not hold sway forever more. Claudio Luti is still manning the fort at Kartell, with his children being groomed for takeover; and the Anzanis and Spinellis are onto the third generation at Poliform. But other firms, including Flos, are no longer in family ownership.

When Michael Anastassiades started working for Flos in 2011, a visit to the factory in Brescia with the founder’s son Piero Gandini was an essential appointment. ‘And so was a lunch in the local pizzeria, where the food was fantastic and the staff were all Neapolitan,’ says Anastassiades. ‘It ended up with Piero inviting me and the restaurant guys to Naples for a Naples-Manchester City match.’

Recently, he has been working with Carlo Molteni on a new table to be launched soon. ‘He’s another inspirational figure,’ says Anastassiades. ‘These are working alliances, but they are about friendship and passion.’ And many of the designs they’ve produced have improved our world.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration August 2020

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