After the death of the Italian designer Cini Boeri (1924–2020) at the age of 96, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist shared a photo on Instagram of a Post-it note she had left. ‘I would like architecture to design joy!’ it read. ‘We need it so much. Shall we try? I’m ready to do it.’
This ebullient spirit, underpinned by a staunch belief that design should improve people’s lives, shaped Boeri’s career. She was born in Milan and graduated with a degree in architecture from the famous Politecnico di Milano in 1951, one of only three female students to do so that year. Undeterred by the prevailing belief that it was an unsuitable career for women, she went to work in the studios of Gio Ponti and Marco Zanuso, before setting up on her own in 1963.
In the early years, Boeri designed several holiday homes in Sardinia, including Casa Rotonda (1967), a curved structure reminiscent of a snail shell that hugs the rugged coastline. Like Casa Rotonda, her Casa nel Bosco in Lombardy (1969) was intended to harmonise with its surroundings; in this case, the house consisted of staggered cuboid forms that seemed almost to disappear into the thickets of birch trees clustered around it.
Boeri was one of the most successful female designers to emerge in post-war Italy. Strongly influenced by practical industrial design, she believed that beauty was born of function and could be expressed best by foreground-ing a single key material. She also stuck to a limited palette of finishes in her furniture designs, which were usually modular in order to maximise their versatility.
Many of her finest pieces were created for Italian manufacturer Arflex, including the hugely influential ‘Serpentine’ sofa (1971). A kind of elevated ‘Slinky’ for the lounge, this sinuous form was made of flexible, connected loops of polyurethane foam that could be cut to fit any space. The idea evolved into the ‘Strips’ sofa system (1968), comprised of foam bricks that are stacked to make various configurations.
Understanding that homes change over time, Boeri always loved to give people choices. Her plump ‘Botolo’ chair for Arflex (1973) has sturdy legs that can be specified in two heights, so you can make it a low lounger or a dining seat. It’s also equipped with hidden wheels for ease of movement. Similarly, the elliptical, glass-topped ‘Lunario’ table for Knoll (1970) is available either as a dining or coffee table, while a boxy armchair from 2008 is designed to accommodate multiple sitting positions.
With her innate respect for human needs, Boeri could imbue any material with a sympathetic, comforting quality – even glass. Her ‘Ghost’ armchair for Fiam (1987) is made from a single pane, manipulated into curvy lines that caress the body. Believing that it could help us all to live better, she knew that ‘designing is a joy, but also a commitment’.