Newsletter #8



The strength and singularity of Italian modernity comes from a very original combination of technological and formal innovation with tradition, which makes the success of the « Made in Italy » label up to this day.

It has not always been like this. This achievement is due to a permanent and demanding effort that has undergone interruptions, backward trends and powerful steps forward. During this period, each parameter of this impossible equation has allowed to get rid of the conflicts between industry, taste and craftsmanship which had hurt Italian modernization in the previous period. 

Giuseppe Pagano, chair and stool, plywood, for Bocconi University, Milan, 1940.
Photo Federico Torra. HP Le Studio Collection.

At of the 3rd Biennale of Monza in 1927 and for a long time, innovation became for the architects and the first designers the condition of a necessary Italian update in decorative arts and architecture under the influence of European modernism and the pressure of nationalism, fascism (1923) and war, not without creating misunderstandings and perversions in the building of modernity at that time.

The various gatherings of architects and artists at international fairs during the 20’s allowed the Italian architects to compare and make their own judgements about  their work, like in 1925 in Paris, where the Italian Pavilion appeared completely isolated from the modern evolutions of architecture and decorative arts, especially with the Bauhaus in Germany (the Stuttgart Exhibition in 1927 for instance) or the Chicago School in the United States, the Constructivism in the USSR, the French modernism with Mallet-Stevens, le Corbusier, the Perret brothers, and even very far from the elegant French « Art Deco » which could have been a reference for the fashionable neo-classical taste in these years in Italy.

For Italy, the Paris Exposition Internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, in 1925, had been a terrible humiliation but a decisive opportunity to make a serious update.

Figini, Pollini, Bottoni, Frette, Libera (Gruppo 7), Casa Elettrica,
IV Triennale de Milan, 1930, Milan Triennale Archive.

Giuseppe Terragni, Casa del Fascio, Como, 1932-1936. Milan Triennale Archive.

An update for a new Italy…


The incredible technological progress of industrialization and its image, the failure of artists and architects at inventing  solutions for mass housing, the interest of the young generation of Italian engineers and architects for these topics and from 1935-1938 their progressive detachment from the régime with its growing taste forimperial monumentalism and its very ambiguous attitude toward Italian or International Modernity, has led Italy to an update where technological innovation, new taste and Modernity are matching at last.

From the end of the 20’s, the Italian rationalists began to work not with the idea of creating a « style » anymore,
but, instead of that, by using a new methodology : functionalism.
Form follows function, and that’s it. 

Felice Casorati, V Triennale, Milan, 1933. Milan Triennale Archive.

Asnago and Vender, VI Triennale, 1936. Milan Triennale Archive.

Franco Albini, Villa Pestarini, 1938. Domus Archive.

Franco Albini, VI Triennale, 1936. Milan Triennale Archive.

The Milan Triennales, from 1930 until 1940, were a strong means for the diffusion of Italian functionalism which took the name of Rationalism (Razionalismo italiano). The public as well as the authorities has been seduced by these luminous, clear, transparent and hygienic pieces of architecture. The steel tube furniture was seen like very practical and its low cost was appreciated. But the régime and the common taste for furnishing unfortunately kept these innovations in the bounds of public health institutions, schools, kindergartens, post offices, and so on.

Agnoldomenico Pica, chair, V Triennale, Milan, 1933, Triennale Archives.

Gio Ponti, chair for Montecatini, Milan, 1936. Archives Domus.

The rationalist interior architects’ settings, even if documented every months in Casabella or Domus, were for the most their own apartments or commissions from the « élite ». We have to admit that the ordinary Italian domestic landscape in the 30’s and 40’s was far from the rationalists’ ambitions. The growing influence of their ideas and taste in the Italian homes was a long and difficult process. Undoubtedly, the obsession of the régimefor Roman imperial monumentalism and the then fashionable «art deco» neoclassical taste called « Novecento Style », from the late 20’s, promoted by the most influential architects and stylists like Marcello Piacentini in the Roman way or Gio Ponti in Milan, was the principal difficulty in order to escape the hybridization of rationalism with these productions which were looking only for a new “style” for the “new” Italy. The result of these formal and superficial combinations was a tsunami of fake modern architecture or furniture, more or less cubical, sometimes aesthetically flattering  but nothing really modern. The best example of this architecture de prestige, is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (1940) part of the EUR 42 Project in Rome and, for the private « élite », the Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan by Portaluppi and Buzzi in the mid thirties.

Virgilio Vallot, monumental buffet in “Novecento style”, IV Triennale, 1930. Milan Triennale Archives.

An example of the alternatives to rationalism or monumentalism: Gio Ponti, Cabinet, oak an enamels by De Poli, 1941. Ponti Archives.

Guerrini, Lapadula, Romano, project for the ‘EUR42, VI Triennale, 1936. Milan Triennale Archive.

By force


At the opposite, the fascist state hegemony on almost every aspect of the economy, the mussolinian corporatism with the institution in 1925 of the ENAPI (Ente Nazionale Piccole Industrie) serve the modernization of production. This Institute and the fascist bureaucracy created norms, defined quantities and strategic choices for all products.

The war economy, that Mussolini adopted from the mid 30’s, is focused on autarcy. So every material that comes from abroad had to be replaced by an Italian one, even if Italian chemical industry had to invent it. Franco Albini, Ignazio Gardella, the BBPR Studio, Giuseppe Pagano, Gino Levi-Montalcini, Giuseppe Terragni, Bottoni, Asnago, Vender, Palanti and the young rationalist generation were the first to use with enthusiasm all these ersatzes and new materials: Buxus, Faesite, Suberit, Masonite, Plymax, for replacing wood, aluminium, Anticorodal, Xantal, Italian Securit glass, Linoleum, Lincrusta and neon. This effort for progress and technology in the industry was without any doubt a booster for modernity in Italy.

But the ENAPI was also interested in the use of domestic natural materials like travertine, marble, hay, rattan, which can be found everywhere in quantities. For instance: the Ligurian city of Chiavari has been in the first part of the 19th century the European leading production center for very light, well designed, easy chairs in wood and straw called “Campanina chair”, created in 1807 and exported since then all over Europe, until Thonet took the business after 1860 with their millions of bentwood dismountable chairs.

Reborn in the 30’s, this dying, even dead, chair industry became very popular in Italian modern furnishing, because of its modesty and simplicity,  and the designs by Emanuele Rambaldi in 1933 for Chiappe-Chiavari of a range of modern models at reasonable cost were immediately adopted by the rationalists and placed as often as possible in their interiors. The nationalism of the régime (flattered by the vernacular origins of this chair), functionalism and modernity found with this resurrection a common field which has clearly participated in the modernization of Italian homes in an Italian way. This Rennaissance did not escape to Gio Ponti who made in the 50’s a redesign of this chair: the famous “Superleggera”.

Even if these progresses were obtained by force, innovation is clearly now the condition for modernity: modernism in the 30’s and 40’s is part of the everyday life in cities: bars, restaurants, shops, public administrations and amenities are being renovated in the modern taste, sometimes homes as well…

Sign of the times, the direction of Domus, the fabulous magazine created in 1928 by Gio Ponti, goes to the rationalists in 1940 and it is a rationalist architect who is chosen as the curator of the VII Triennale which in 1940 put the focus on the solutions for standard furniture.

Nevertheless, rationalist architects, and in particular anti fascists like Franco Albini, are not that occupied, and if they want to participate in the building of modern Italy they have to do some compromises or concessions like Adalberto Libera in Rome for the Congress Palace of the E.U.R. 42. But they have some private commissions, and enough time to think about what is and what could be an Italian Modernity: the rationalists are working on a repertory of new types of furniture which will be very precious for the Reconstruction. They also publish catalogs of models like Giancarlo Palanti : Mobili Tipici moderni, ed. Domus, 1933.

For instance the researches about the Fiorenza chair by Franco Albini began by a first idea in the 30’s and reached their means in 1952 with the Arflex first version after almost 20 years of various prototypes and variations.

Emanuele Rambaldi, rush chairs, production Chiappe, Chiavari, 1933. Private Collection.

BBPR, Casa Banfi, 1940, Milan. Domus Archive.

Franco Albini, “atmospherical” bedroom, Albini appartment, Milan, 1940. Private Archive.

Franco Albini, Villa, VII Triennale, 1940. Milan Triennale Archive.

Franco Albini, chair, Albini appartment, 1940. Archives Domus.

Franco Albini, project for a chair, 1939. Archives Domus.

The point is that Italian rationalism has always feared, since its apparition, to fall into International Style. Therefore the rationalist architects were very scrupulous with the sincerity and specificity of their projects, trying to improve rational furniture with a critical eye, avoiding every stereotype in order to protect functionalist subtle expressivity from dogmatic frozen immobility.

Gio Ponti himself participated in this process with his reviews Domus and Stile, as well as the rationalists’ review Casabella which name became Casabella-Continuità after the war. These reviews were also very useful for the diffusion of foreign ideas. The circulation of these modern projects enhanced the Italian rationalist « parti pris » of a modernity conceived as a permanent evolution, a continuity.

The integration of these evolutions by Italian rationalism, in the respect of functionalist methodology, has been made with pragmatism and caution, but  whereas these architects did not want to create a new style, others did it.

The mass production in tube and the radical paradigm shift proposed by the rationalists had convinced very few people except a tiny « élite ». The banishment of useless luxury, the standardization and its consequences which make modern furniture almost anonymous, led most of the Italians going on with « in style » furniture, bourgeois comfortable chairs from Borsani or “gracious” furniture in the Novecento Style by Buffa or Gariboldi for the Parioli in Rome, all dominated by the figure of Gio Ponti. 

Franco Albini, The Bachelor Studio, VI Triennale, 1936. Milan Triennale Archives.

An example of the alternatives to rationalism: Paolo Buffa, enfilade “Novecento”, 1934, courtesy Phillips auctioneers.

After the New York International Exhibition in 1939 and the MOMA « Organic Design » competition in 1940, we can see in the documentation an increase in zoomorphic forms, sinuosities, and dynamical designs which in a way inspired Gio Ponti, a lot of architects in the world, and most probably among them, Carlo Mollino.

If on the margins of functionalism, especially in the United States, appears another « modern style », quickly called “organic”, in Italy this evolution can only be observed after the war and did not escape from the rationalists’ suspicious but curious eye on International Style “formal” evolutions.    




When the régime collapsed in 1943, the situation was quite satisfying. Because of their perseverance in their methodology and their change of paradigm (no more styles but a methodology), because of their critical eye on the international modernism, because of the spectacular technological improvements in construction and materials, because of the time they took to think and theorize an Italian way for functionalism, which led to the new concept of Modern Tradition after the war, and because of their pragmatism in their relationship with a régime often hostile and  sometimes favorable or indifferent, Italian rationalist architects and a very few others with among them Gio Ponti, found the way of a reconciliation between industry, technology, craftsmanship and modernity and initiated an Italian modern tradition .

We cannot ignore the tragic destiny of the rationalist pioneers : Banfi (Studio BBPR) and Pagano, dead in Mauthausen in 1945, Terragni died from depression and exhaustion after his return from Stalingrad in 1943 and from his disappointment at realizing how deceiving the promises of early fascism had been, Belgiojoso still alive (Studio BBPR) after being deported to Mauthausen with Banfi for their implication since 1938 in the antifascist resistance, and years of exile for Rogers, back from Switzerland, after Mussolini’s death.

At the opening in 1947 of the first Triennale since 1940 which put the focus on the Reconstruction, the surviving Italian rationalist architects (Albini, Gardella, Rogers and the Studio BBPR, etc…) are in the best position and ready for the colossal challenge of building a modern Italy upon the ruins of war and dictatorship.

Lucio Fontana, Sculpture, VII Triennale, 1940. Milan Triennale Archives.

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