The furniture industry in Italy contributes greatly to the country’s economy and is one of the pillars of the “Made in Italy” merchandise mark.
There is, without question, no comprehensive timeline of design history out there that doesn’t include Italian furniture masters.
Italian designers that helped shape the industry – and who are now considered legends of some sort – include Gio Ponti, Achille Castiglioni, Carlo Scarpa, Piero Fornasetti, Cini Boeri, Franco Albini, Gae Aulenti and Vico Magistretti.
This list, however, is not conclusive and there have been a plethora of names to grace the Italian design scene over the past century.
One of the primary reasons for the continued creativity in the industry is that major Italian design brands like B&B Italia, Cassina and Artemide all rely on, for the most part, collaborations with external designers.
With an abundance of furniture brands operating in the country comes the need for, well – designers.
The country’s landscape as a whole has grown to support the industry.
The city of Milan plays host to one of the world’s most major design fairs, the Salone del Mobile, and its annual editions have witnessed some of the most notable debuts in design history. Along with robust design and architecture university programs around the country, and awards like the Compasso d’Oro, the industry continues to be stimulated.
One of the features of this design success appears to be a penchant for risk.
Here, we take a look at the designers who were especially playful in their approach to design – whether that’s Ettore Sotssas’s unconventional geometries and clashing colours, Enzo Mari’s critically-driven design, or Vico Magistretti’s tendency to use bright red.
Continue reading to learn more about these Italian furniture designers and to discover some of their most iconic pieces.
ETTORE SOTTSASS’ UNCONVENTIONAL VISION
Ettore Sottsass, 1969. Photo: Giuseppe Pino
You’ve likely come across the “Ultrafragola” mirror, or a questionable knockoff, at one design store or another. The mirror is probably the most iconic of Sottsass’ work, designed for the brand Poltronova in 1970, which debuted it at the Eurodomus fair.
Born Ettore Sottsass Jr in Innsbruck back in 1917, he moved to Turin in 1929.
He studied at the Politecnico di Torino in Turin, later joining the Italian military during World War II with years spent in a labour camp in Yugoslavia.
He moved to Milan where he later set up his own studio and eventually began collaborating with Olivetti – the historic Italian typewriter manufacturer whose items are now collectibles – designing over 50 items for the brand, including the Valentine Portable Typewriter in 1968 (in collaboration with Perry A King).
Sottsass is best known as the founder of the Memphis collective (the name of which is an ode to a Bob Dylan song, and not the city) which he founded in his living room along with other designers.
The Memphis group was active between 1981 and 1987, challenging pre-existing design conventions including Bauhaus to bring in bold schemes, clashing colours and unconventional shapes – later debuting their first collection of 55 items at the Salone del Mobile in 1981.
Though their time as a collective was short-lived, their influence continues to be paramount.
Sotssas’ “Carlton” room divider on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin. Photo: Sailko
Other iconic pieces by the designer include the “Carlton” room divider, the “Tahiti” table lamp, and the “Casablanca” cabinet (all designed in 1981).
Sottsass passed away in 2007 at the age of 90. He is now considered to be a seminal designer, and Memphis-themed exhibitions continue to pop up around the world.
The Olivetti Valentine Portable Typewriter. Photo: Tomislav Medak
ENZO MARI DESIGNS WITH A CONSCIENCE
Enzo Mari in his studio, 1974. Photo: Adriano Alecchi
Can design be ethical and conscious? Designer, critic and theorist Enzo Mari certainly seemed to think so.
Born in 1932 in Cerano, located within the northwest Italian region of Piedmont, Mari moved to Milan when he was two.
A graduate of the Brera Academy, he fought against consumerism and aimed to design with an ethical and civil “conscience”, famously avoiding any stylistic fads. Often playful, his designs include furniture, toys, office gadgets, industrial items and graphic work.
Enzo Mari’s “Timor” perpetual calendar for Danese. Photo: Sofia Conte
In 1958, he began collaborating with the Italian brand Danese, which had only just launched at the time – and the relationship with the Danese founder, Bruno Danese, would last for years to come.
His first designs for the famed brand include the “Formosa” perpetual wall calendar (1959), one of his most recognisable designs, along with the “Timor” calendar (1967), both frequently available for sale at design stores worldwide.
Another early design for Danese is “16 animali” (1958), a puzzle inspired by Scandinavian wooden toys and crafted from a single piece of oak.
Enzo Mari’s “16 animali”. Photo: Giulio Contessi
The designer received the Compasso d’Oro award five times.
When he won his first one in 1967, he was only 35 years old and it was the first time the famed award was granted to theoretical research.
Over his 60-year career, Mari has designed for brands that include Tonietta, Zanotta, Driade and more. In addition to the “Perpetual” wall calendar and “16 animali”, popular designs by Mari include the “Sof Sof” (1972) and “Delfina” (1974) chairs for Driade and the “Tonietta” chair for Zanotta (1980).
Mari recently passed away at the age of 88. In between 2020 and 2021, he was the subject of a major posthumous retrospective show curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Triennale di Milano.
“For Enzo everything revolves around the object, and good design alone is destined to triumph,” wrote Obrist in the accompanying catalogue.
Vico Magistretti pictured with a variety of his lamps for Artemide. Photo: Topmmaso feltrin
Born in Milan in 1920 to a family of architects, Magistretti pursued a similar route and went on to study architecture at the Polytechnic University of Milan – making him a third-generation architect.
Forced to flee Italy in 1943, he headed to Lausanne, Switzerland, later returning to Milan to work for his father’s architecture studio.
Besides his architecture work, he began to increasingly work with furniture items and in 1948, won the Gran Premio award at the 7th Triennale di Milano. One of his first designs was the “Carimate” chair for Cassina (1959) in wood and rush, which was eventually transformed into a mass-produced, long-running series.
Vico Magistretti’s “Carimate” chair for Cassina. Photo: Austin Calhoon
The “Dalu” lamp for Artemide. Photo: Tommaso Feltrin
Brands he has collaborated with over his long career include Artemide, FontanaArte, Poggi, Gavina, Azucena, De Padova, Kartell and more.
Famous works by Magistretti include the “Eclisse” (1965) and “Dalu” (1969) lamps for Artemide, plus the “Atollo” lamp for Oluce (1977). If you ever come across one of these in a snazzy Brooklyn bistro, take a moment to remember Magistretti!
Cover Credit: View of a collection of Memphis design items that include Ettore Sotssas’ “Carlton” room divider in the back. Photo: Dennis Zanone
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat