Vintage View: Seductive Italian furniture

Kya de Longchamps explores some seductive Italian furniture by resonant design names, that was the height of fashion in the 1970s and which is now coming round again and is highly collectible.

Just before Christmas some highly unusual and high end pieces of late 1970s Italian-made furniture appeared at auction at Lynes & Lynes auction house in Cork.

Rare lots in an Irish market, and described as made in the “style of Romeo Rega”, the sideboard, étagère, and dining set were ostentatious and clearly beautifully made.

Despite getting half way there, I found myself turning the junker around and sourcing asthma meds’ for the pony rather than venturing a strategised bid.

My head said ‘do it Kya’, but frankly, these chrome, glass and lacquer dandies were just too much — and I don’t mean the estimate. Even with their considerable potential as investments and obvious class when sensitively placed in the right room — I wasn’t ready to usher the Italian aristocrats inside.

Still, if you want to know what to buy in the coming decade, it’s 70s all over, and the Rega contribution to what international fine art dealers call “Hollywood Regency” is very much a part of it. A number of important designers have passed away in the past ten years, and the value of quality pieces by known Italian creators is certain to increase.

To explore the infancy of contemporary Italian interior design, we have to go right back to the 1920s and 1930s and the work of what were termed the Rationalists (Razionalismo), headed up by a group of visionary young architects (Gruppo 7) including Gio Ponti, Adalberto Libera, Gino Pollini and Giuseppe Terragni.

In their buildings, they shook the more polite, archaic vestiges off even Art Deco, with a bolder look marked out primarily by airy functionality and the lack of any extraneous decoration. Furniture worthy of these buildings and the supporting theory was part of the total design. 

Gio Ponti (1891-1979) under his brand Domus Nova for store Rivascente and the house of Cassina, set the standard in startling but lucid forms with bold inclusions of utilitarian materials in exaggerated outlines and lots of tubular steel.

In the 1960s, this modernist design movement was revived as what was termed Tendenza (trend), an almost forgotten period said to stand as the only truly modern Italian theory of architecture. The country experienced an economic boom remembered as The Italian Miracle of the late 1950s and early 60s.

This exuberant post-fascist zeal for change and almost frenzied confidence, was reflected in exciting new expressions in design as Linea Italiana (Italian lines). The link between sophistication in Italian interiors and branded couture fashion was made early and persists today.

Italian furnishings in the 1960s and 70s were known overseas for office furniture and fittings, above all. Sexy, sleek chrome and leather reflected the avant garde aesthetic flair and material success of the firm (the American market was wildly enthusiastic). Not surprisingly, these products soon found an audience for domestic use too.

The 70s, and especially the years jiving towards the 80s, were never feted for their sense of restraint. There is something for every taste in vintage Italian from decadent modern classics with hints of 18th century and Deco, to unadulterated pop art fun and unsettling surrealism.

The Italians relished the rush towards the non-conformist use of materials like plastics in furniture and lighting including the iconic work of Artemide, founded by Ernesto Gismondi and Sergio Mazza.

Take a look at the highly-desirable work of architect and urban planner Vico Magistretti (1920-2006) whose quiet seating pieces are almost Scandinavian in feel. He is best known for his beautifully-engineered Nuvola Rose bookcase, again another piece showcasing the softer side of Italian mid-century

Other names to look out for as icons of the mid-century Italian line include Ettore Sottsass (1917 – 2007) for Olivetti. Sottsass was bold and witty, gifting the world, amongst other things the beloved Valentine typewriter (1969) and aluminium swivel chairs (Nine-o for Emeco), his final project before his death in 2007. 

A founder member of the influential Memphis Group in 1980, his work remains cheeky even by today’s standards.

Mario Bellini (1935- present) is yet another architect and city planner, who perhaps has designed the base of every modular sofa set with his stout Camaleonda sectional (1970) for B&B Italia. His lighting for a number of firms in folded stainless steel is now also hot property.

Paolo Deganello (b.1940) who found fame in 1973 with his baggy Aeo chair designed for his students (making €1,000 plus at auction), is still deconstructing chairs for Cassina.

His sailboat style Torso 654 armchair with side table from 1982 is still in production, with early models netting up to €2,000 on the second hand market. Buono fortuna!


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