Charming Fifities

text and icons by Vanni Pasca
1950s: the Pirelli tower is built in Milan, the symbol of the modernization of Italy. The architect is Gio Ponti. A traditional crafts company, Cassina, asks him to design a chair. The result is the Superleggera, the symbol of Italian design and the new modernity of the country.
The transformation of Italy from an agricultural-industrial to an industrial-agricultural country, with the rise of an urban lifestyle, has technical modernization at its center. Utilitarian cars for mass mobility (already launched by scooters), portable typewriters and early calculators, espresso machines for cafes. For the home, refrigerators and washing machines, the boom of appliance manufacturing, the replacement of traditional objects like pedal-operated sewing machines with new electric models. In 1954 television broadcasting begins. The figure of the designer starts to emerge. Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper create a series of innovative television sets for Brionvega. Alongside the names of the industrial companies, from Turin to Milan, Pontedera to Pordenone and so on, appear those of Dante Giacosa, Marcello Nizzoli, Gino Valle and many others.

The home is modernized, with low-cost flats and real estate development: the residential cells are based on the model proposed in the 1920s in Germany, organized in functional zones. The bathroom inside the house is a fundamental development, with the growth of the bath fixtures industry, and people want an ‘American kitchen,’ with low and high cabinets, based on the Frankfurt kitchen (1925). A new space appears, the ‘living room,’ with the gradual invasion of the television set and groups of sofas and armchairs.

In Milan, the School of Architecture and the Triennale have conducted experimentation with architects on the transformation of the home for some time. Magazines like Domus and Casabella pay close attention to the international scene, and in 1954, published by Görlich, “La rivistadell’arredamento” appears – later to become “Interni, la rivista dell’arredamento” – with its focus on contemporary style and furnishings. In this period, a process is launched by the most advanced architects, against traditional ‘period’ furnishings, based on Chippendale models and promoted by many manufacturers in the area of Cantù, in favor of a new, modern taste. Many designers encourage modernity while attempting to conserve a relationship with the culture of dwelling and crafts, in tune with the experiences of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Viennese workshops in the 1800s and early 1900s. In Milan the sober elegance of Albini stands out, while a small company is founded, Azucena, where architects like Caccia Dominioni and Gardella try to create a network with artisans (elsewhere, there is the phytomorphic and zoomorphic language of Carlo Mollino in Turin).

The Castiglioni brothers design a space for an exhibition at Villa Olmo in Como (1957), with an idea of free, nonchalant living and a series of furnishings, including stools based on the assembly of already existing components, which become points of reference for young designers in the years to come. Experimentation begins with new materials for mass production. Marco Zanuso tests foam rubber and elastic belting (derived from his experiences with Pirelli for car seats) in the Lady armchair. Foam rubber is replaced by polyurethane, leading to the success of upholstered furnishings. Gino Colombini designs light, colorful plastic utensils for Kartell, which replace the objects in galvanized sheet metal in homes, leading to the success of polypropylene (‘moplen’). The lighting sector grows, and Gino Sarfatti designs innovative lamps. In 1959 Flos and Artemide begin operation: certain lamps become icons, like the Arco by the Castiglioni brothers (Flos 1962). At this point Italian design is in full swing, as can be seen in 1972 at the exhibition at MoMA New York: “Italy - The New Domestic Landscape” introduces the world to the culture of living artisanentrepreneurs and architect-designers are developing.