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10 seats that have made the history of Italian design

Make yourself comfortable

10 seats that have made the history of Italian design Make yourself comfortable

The great season of Italian furniture design could begin after the Second World War, when the Triennale di Milano organized the now famous RIMA exhibition in which pioneers of industrial design such as Ignazio Gardella, Carlo De Carli, Vico Magistretti and Gabriele Mucchi introduced for the first time to the general public the idea of a furniture reproducible in series, rationalistic in its use of spaces and finally far from the heavy nineteenth-century furniture. A season that saw a continuous growth over the next twenty years and that culminated in the late 50s and early 70s with the production of furnishings that have remained iconic even today. One of the most important categories of Italian industrial design were the seats, which over the years evolved from the ultra-modern reinterpretations of the classic wooden chair such as the legendary Superleggera by Gio Ponti, to the more elaborate and conceptual models that Ettore Sottsass signed in the late 80s.

To better explore this immense world and its protagonists, here is a list of the 10 seats that have made the history of Italian design.

1. Gio Ponti – Superleggera (1957)

The Superleggera is perhaps the simplest and most legendary seat of Gio Ponti, designed in '55 and produced by Cassina two years later, in '57. Ponti's idea was to give new life to the classic stuffed chair called Chivarina – a great classic of Italian folk craftsmanship. The chair was "light" not only on the physical level but also on that of production costs, a kind of symbol of the renewed Italian spirit on the verge of the post-war economic boom. The Superleggera is a masterpiece of joints and materials such as ash and Indian reed that introduced a new language for Italian design, traditional and futuristic at the same time, but practical first of all. It was also one of the first sessions to become the protagonist of innovative marketing campaigns, based on performances that saw the chair thrown from the fourth floor bounce instead of breaking falling or with photos in which children or women lifted it with a single finger.

2. Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni – Mezzadro Stool (1957)

Appeared for the first time in '54 at the Triennale di Milano, the Mezzadro stool of the Castiglioni brothers recalled on the one hand the ancient Italian agricultural heritage, on the other the compositional irony constituted vaguely Dadaist by uniting together, decontextualizing them, different elements to create something new. In this case it was the ergonomic seat of a tractor, a steel crossbow and a wooden peg. Despite its futuristic appearance, the idea behind the chair was once again that of a simple and practical assembly and easy production on an industrial scale.

3. Gae Aulenti – Sgarsul Rocking Chair (1962)

The Sgarsul armchair by Gae Aulenti, made for Poltronova, is not only a reworking of the classic Thonet rocking chair created in 1862, but also marks an important period of transition of Italian design that went from a angular and geometric aesthetic to a softer and more sinuous conception that, in rupture with the design of the past, he took the name of Neoliberty. If the Italian industrial design of the 50s was rational, practical and geometric, and therefore in rupture with the decorativism of the past, Aulenti's proposal was a mediation between the cloying nineteenth-century taste and the new needs of functionality and comfort. The design process, moreover, was not limited to the wooden structure alone, but also involved the cushion of the armchair, which was redesigned several times to ensure that it included as few stitching as possible.

4. Joe Colombo – Tube Chair (1969)

At the end of the 60s a new company was emerging in Italy. A society that was now completely separated from the values of previous generations and that therefore wanted to invent new rules, new ways of living – an instance that on the level of design was transformed into the search for completely new forms of furniture. Combining several cylinders of steel, polyurethane and PVC, Joe Colombo created the Tube Chair, a modular, flexible chaise-longue that could be recombined at will. Its almost sci-fi forms were an expression of an era in which it seemed to be able to touch the future with one's hand, while its modularity and modernity spoke of new practical and living needs, and above all of a clientele that wanted to break with the past.

5. Gaetano Pesce – UP Series (1969)

Gaetano Pesce's UP series, and especially the two "brother" models UP5 and UP6 have become over the years one of the most famous symbols of Italian industrial design. The artistic current in which they were born is called "radical design" and represents an attempt to respond to the rationalism of the past, perceived as too dry, through expressiveness and experimentation. The complete series includes seven different seats, each built in polyurethane foam, and each inspired by anatomy and natural forms. The shapes of the UP5, among other things, so closely resemble those of female anatomy that they became the model for the installation Maestà Sofferente presented in Piazza Duomo in Milan for Design Week 2019 – to the regret of Pesce himself who claimed that the artists had misrepresented the meaning of his work.

6. Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini e Franco Teodoro – Sacco (1969)

The Sacco armchair produced by Zanotta represents another important chapter in the history of Italian design chairs: on the one hand it refers to the method of Gio Ponti, that is, to the reflection on the peasant tradition of the leaf mattress, that is, of a sack filled with leaves and neutral materials and used as a support; on the other hand, the design process looked to the present, to the new, more relaxed lifestyles that took hold, to the desire to overcome the past through uncompromising innovation.

7. Studio 65 – Bocca Sofà (1970)

The Bocca sofa by Studio 65 is perhaps one of the most loved pieces of furniture by the fashion world. Photographed by Richard Avedon and David Chapelle, used on tour by Beyoncé, appeared in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, the sofa created by the Turin-based Studio 65 and produced by Gufram is an absolute icon of Italian design. The original inspiration is very high: the surrealist portrait of Mae West painted by Salvador Dali in 1935, which sees the face of the actress transformed into the interior of a house and her lips become a sofa. Initially created for the Beauty Salon Counturella by Marilyn Garosci, whose name was initially used for the sofa.

8. Mario Bellini – Le Bambole (1972)

Mario Bellini's Le Bambole series starts from the idea of creating sofas and armchairs that are completely soft and safe, almost as if you could embrace – exactly as you would with a doll. Unlike all other sofas, built with frames and metal structures and then covered in fabric, Le Bambole is built in fabric, apparently composed of cushions indeed, consisting of a single large cushion in the shape of a sofa. To promote it at the Salone del Mobile was called Oliviero Toscani, who immortalized him together with Donna Jordan topless scandalizing the public of the Salone del Mobile.

9. Vico Magistretti – Divano Maralunga (1973)

The Maralunga sofa by Magistretti, unlike all the other seats listed in this list, was born with the idea of home and family in mind, that is, to create a seat that would be welcoming for different people who, being able to adjust the backrest by raising and lowering it, could have used it to sit or rest, independently of each other but still sitting close together. The movement is made possible by the use of a chain similar to that of bicycles that gives the sofa both structure and flexibility – but according to legend the intuition for the adjustable backrest came to Magistretti during the test of a prototype, when Cesare Cassina, annoyed by the backrest, punched him, distorting him.

10. Ettore Sottsass – Sedia “Miss, Don’t You Like Caviar?” (1987)

If the great part of the most famous seats of Italian design was born with mass industrial production in mind, this chair by Ettore Sottsass starts from the opposite side: the Met Museum itself in describing the seat in its caption begins by writing that «the honesty with which Sottsass designed and marketed this work to a luxury clientele could be seen as antithetical to modernism’s democratic ethos predicated on mass production». Unlike the works produced in the Memphis Group season, this chair does not have ringing colors, but retains that attention to elementary geometric shapes that has always distinguished Sottsass's work.