posted on 07/02/23
This series explores five pioneering partnerships which produced some of the most beautiful buildings, cars, furniture, and products ever designed and helped to secure Italy’s creative reputation at the height of the 20th century and beyond.
They take place every Thursday from 1st to 29th June at 4.30pm (GMT +1) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (24th August 2023).
Between 1945 and 1960, no other Italian company came close to matching Olivetti’s combination of design excellence and corporate beneficence, when business boomed under the inspired leadership of Adriano Olivetti. He encouraged close collaboration between designers, engineers and the company’s marketing department. The designer, Marcello Nizzoli, worked closely with several key colleagues to produce the world’s most highly advanced electro-mechanical calculators, and the sublimely elegant Lettera 22, the portable typewriter favoured by writers the world over.
Important partnerships especially in Lombardy in the north, were central to shifting the Italian furniture industry out of its mock-Baroque rut. Responding to Ernesto Rogers’ ‘call to arms’, many leading architects, including Franco Albini, Cini Boeri, Franca Helg, Gio Ponti and Marco Zanuso collaborated closely with furniture companies. Their designs were characterized by a timeless elegance, in which innovation and the precision engineering were applied to cane, rattan, steel and timber components alike. The small size of these companies, combined with abundant skilled artisans, meant that they could be adaptable and quickly produce prototypes for major exhibitions and fairs. This helped to rapidly establish Italian design excellence in the eyes of an international audience.
Fiat’s tiny Nuova 500, designed by Dante Giacosa, was launched in 1957. Its captivating looks, clever design and low cost, quickly won it many admirers and helped to get an increasing number of Italians mobile on four wheels, much as the Vespa scooter had done on two wheels a decade earlier. However, its design was directly influenced by Giacosa’s more innovative Fiat 600 of 1955, the company’s first with an air-cooled rear engine and monocoque chassis. By the early 1960s, Italy’s car production epitomised what became known as the ‘Italian Line’, a byword for sophisticated chic and innate elegance.
Pier Luigi Nervi (1891–1979) designed brilliantly innovative buildings that helped showcase a modernizing Italy to the world. ‘Architecture is, and must be, a synthesis of technology and art’, he stated, and his work has been described as ‘Poetry in Concrete.’ His revolutionary designs and ingenious use of reinforced concrete created stunning buildings for the 1960 Rome Olympics and Italy Expo 61. He also collaborated with Marcel Breuer and Bernard Zehrfuss on UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, inaugurated in 1953, and with Gio Ponti on the design of Milan’s first skyscraper, the elegant Pirelli Tower, opened 1960, which became a symbol of Italy’s remarkable industrial recovery after 1945.
The exciting new possibilities offered to designers by industrial plastics were fully exploited in Italy in the 1960s and 70s. The great innovator was Kartell, originally founded in 1949 by chemical engineer Giulio Castelli and his architect wife, Anna Castelli Ferrieri. Under Castelli Ferrieri’s direction, leading designers produced scores of iconic objects, furniture and lighting designs for Kartell. In turn, this encouraged several other designers to work with plastics. In 1972, the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at MoMA in New York brought these designs to prominence and to the attention of a global audience.
An art, architectural, and design historian whose research covers artistic and cultural exchange across Europe, especially between Andalucía and Sicily, and the wider Mediterranean basin. Philippa also has an academic interest in, and teaches on, 20th-century Italian architecture and design. She is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, a tutor at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education and a regular contributor to History Today.
Philippa leads MRT’s new tour Italian Design – Modernism in Turin and Milan, which runs from 23rd to 29th October 2023.
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