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Mario Bellini’s Camaleonda sofa – how a 70s classic became a modern must-have

This once radical now iconic sofa system for B&B Italia is finally back in production, tweaked for the 21st century

camaleonda sofa by mario bellini for bb italia
B&B Italia

Although it had been conceived several decades earlier, the modular sofa went truly mainstream in the 1970s.

As baby boomers were earning well and furnishing their own homes, the three-piece suites of their parents’ generation became seen as passé. It was also the dawn of open-plan living– and low-slung, sexy seating offered flexibility and an exciting new aesthetic.

One of the protagonists of this design revolution was the Italian architect Mario Bellini.

‘At the beginning of the 70s, upholstered furniture for the home had stagnated into the tired traditional stereotypes that rarely challenged the styles of furniture available on the market at the time,’ explains Bellini.

camaleonda sofa by mario bellini for bb italia
B&B Italia

His answer was the ‘Camaleonda’ sofa, a radical modular design that gave people unparalleled freedom to configure it however they desired: ‘Cameleonda is a name I invented by mixing two words: the first is the name of an extraordinary animal, the chameleon (camaleonte in Italian), that can adapt to the environment around it and the word onda, (wave). Both these words describe the shape and function of this sofa.’

The sofa’s louche look was an instant hit, with its squishy, generous forms and characteristic capitonné buttoning – made possible with the exciting new material of the day, polyurethane – capturing the zeitgeist.

Now, 50 years after it was designed, B&B Italia has reissued the piece, much to the delight of design mavens everywhere.

While the look and dimensions of the new version remain faithful to the original (Bellini didn't want anything to be changed as he felt there was no need), its inner workings have been given a sustainable overhaul with recycled or recyclable materials; the seat, backrests and bases are made of wooden panels, the spherical feet are made from FSC beech and the padding from polyurethane, while its removable covers are spun from recycled PET plastics. Proof that, true to its namesake, the ‘Camaleonda’ really is the master of change.

The Early Years

camaleonda sofa by mario bellini for bb italia
An archive poster promoting the original design, highlighting its endless possible configurations.
B&B Italia

Bellini's 1970 creation chimed with the cultural shift that was happening in homes and interiors as people looked for designs that allowed them flexibility and a futuristic new look. ‘Of all the objects I have designed,“Camaleonda” is perhaps the best in terms of its sense of freedom.There are an infinite number of possible configurations,’ he notes.

Breakout Moments

camaleonda sofa by mario bellini for bb italia
Archive imagery of the original design.
B&B Italia

The design became iconic almost as soon as it was featured in a1972 exhibition titled ‘Italy and The New DomesticLandscape’ held at MoMA in New York. It explored the work of a new wave of Italian designers(including Joe Colombo and Gaetano Pesce), who were experimenting with innovative materials, production methods and ways of living. However, although ‘Camaleonda’ sold well, it was only produced until 1979.

Why it’s so now

the camaleonda sofa by mario bellini in a london home
Jake Curtis

The design has become so sought after in the last few years that it’s perhaps even more popular now than when it was when released. Today, originals fetch handsome sums and it’s high on clients’ wishlists, according to vintage furniture dealers and interior designers. We’ve spotted it in a slew of our own stylish home stories, too, including the London home of Ed and Reema Stanbury, designed by Daytrip studio (left), featured in our January 2020 issue, and Bettina Gedda’s Copenhagen home, in June 2020. bebitalia.com

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration September 2020

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