The grace and verve of postwar Italian design are causing it to find new favor with collectors and take its rightful place in the 20th-century canon.
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Whether it’s the smooth, elegant contours of a Giò Ponti cabinet, the biomorphic curves of a Carlo Mollino glass-topped table, or the science-fictional fantasy of a Gino Sarfatti lighting fixture, there is something about postwar Italian domestic design that marks it as unique. Call it flair, or sprezzatura, that especially Italian quality of effortless grace and success. That same quality can be seen even in mass-produced Italian industrial products—an aluminum espresso pot, an Olivetti typewriter, or a Ferrari sports car. While the world has been aware of the excellence of Italian design since at least the early 1950s, it’s only in the last decade or so that design collectors have started to take it as seriously as French or Scandinavian design. In the U.S., a small cadre of dealers and auction houses has been championing the material, educating collectors, and scouring both sides of the Atlantic in the search for the best and rarest pieces.
Part of the appeal of Italian design lies in the process of discovery itself. Not only collectors but even American dealers and auctioneers have had a steep learning curve. One of the most dedicated champions of the material has been Wright, the Chicago- and New York-based auction house that specializes in 20th-century design. Michael Jefferson, senior vice president at Wright, recalls, “For a full decade the market was focused on French design. It was easier to understand, and there was plenty of dealer support. We couldn’t get any traction in pursuing French design, so we went to Italy. Italian design is a very nebulous field to outside observer. It took the crystallizing of the canon to figure out what was important, and now it’s finally turned the corner. It’s expressive and unique from a visual standpoint, and that’s been a strong driver of interest, but it did take a long time for the information to get out and for the market to catch.” In 2012 Wright held its first dedicated Italian design sale. Since then there have been three more, and the auction house includes groupings of Italian pieces (including Italian glass, a related field) in every design sale it does.
Dealers have also played a large part in the revival of interest in Italian design. New York dealer Paul Donzella, who specializes in Italian design, says, “I’ve been in this business 20 years, and Italian design was one of the first things that crossed my mind. I wondered what was stopping it from becoming bigger and more noticed. I started going over to Italy to shop more, and I wasn’t the only one.”
The relative newcomer status of Italian design in the collector market has a lot to do with the economic and historical conditions under which it was created. Unlike French design or American studio furniture, Italian design was, from the beginning, situated within the world of mass production (not that all pieces were mass-produced by any means, and certainly the most collectible ones were not). Rather than being solitary craftsmen, Italian designers, especially the so-called “superstars” like Ponti and Ettore Sottsass Jr., were primarily idea men who worked in tandem with manufacturing companies, mostly located in the northern cities Milan and Turin. Many were trained as architects, and Italian furniture and lighting design can be considered offshoots of architecture and industrial design to an extent that is unparalleled anywhere else.
Although it draws on centuries—even millennia, arguably—of Italian tradition, Italian design is itself a relative newcomer to the field and didn’t really gel until after World War II. At that point, Italy was in ruins and needed to jump-start its economy. In her 1988 book Italian Design: 1870 to the Present (Thames & Hudson), design historian and curator Penny Sparke writes, “It came into its own after 1945, as part of Italy’s need to penetrate new, foreign markets, and to become established as a viable economic, industrial and cultural power within the modern industrialized world.” So Italian design’s obscurity in the American market is only a recent phenomenon. Beginning in the 1960s, Italian design’s “impact was felt most strongly in the wealthy quarters of London, Paris, New York and Tokyo,” writes Sparke. “Thus, while the production of Italian design is inextricably linked to the economic, social and cultural context of modern Italy, its consumption is not.”
With the war over, graduates of Milan and Turin’s architectural schools found themselves without any projects to work on. To earn a living, they naturally turned to interior design commissions for wealthy clients and thereby acquired expertise in furniture design and allied arts. It should be pointed out, however, that some of the key figures in postwar design got their start before the war and were even quite influential during the 1920s and ’30s, when the Mussolini government proved on the whole sympathetic to modernist design. Ponti, for example, was the artistic director for the Richard-Ginori porcelain firm at that time and also founded, edited, and wrote for an important design magazine, Domus, which spread modernist ideas. (After the war he started another magazine, Stile.)
In any case, by the early ’50s Italian design was getting attention outside its native country. A key event was “Italy at Work,” an exhibition of hundreds of objects—from furniture to ceramics to shoes and clothing—by some 150 designers, which traveled throughout the U.S. during 1950–54. Spearheaded by the Art Institute of Chicago, the show was mounted in partnership with two groups, one Italian and one American, that were formed with the express purpose of promoting Italian design and industry in this country. The first venue for “Italy at Work” was the Brooklyn Museum, and when the show closed, about 200 of the objects entered the museum’s permanent collection, ensuring that it would become a major destination for research in this field.
Over half a century later, what is being most hotly collected in this country—and wherever else aficionados of modern design seek out Italian pieces—is examples by the top designers that are unique or in some sense limited-edition. “It’s a very broad field,” says Jefferson, “but there are a few players that the market really focuses on.
There’s a core canon of postwar Italian design that stems from a couple of different lineages.” At the very top of the market is by Carlo Mollino, a polymathic furniture designer, photographer, and writer who is most famous for combining bentwood and glass in an absolutely distinctive way. A unique 1949 oak-and-glass table by Mollino sold at Christie’s New York in 2005 for $3.8 million, a record for the entire field that still stands. “Rare bespoke material by Carlo Mollino has eclipsed, in terms of value, everything else in the market,” says Jefferson. “But the real market, the one that actually trades, is formed by Giò Ponti and all of his circle.”
Ponti’s works are multifarious and his influence was widespread. Starting as early as 1931 he was the artistic director of the Milan design house Fontana Arte, which still exists today and has been responsible for many fruitful collaborations with key Italian designers. “Ponti was a publisher, writer, and artist who was looking to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art,” says Jefferson. “He designed everything from furniture to lighting to the tiles on the floor. He did toilets and coffee machines.” But the Ponti pieces that are sought after today are pieces of wooden furniture, for the most part. “The best Ponti works are from custom commissions,” says Jefferson. “They might be variations of what you’d see in catalogues of his work, but with special modifications. A lot of what you see, on the other hand, is industrial production or serially produced furniture. It’s still at a high level, but simplified so it can be manufactured and mass-produced.” The firm of Cassina, in particular, is credited with executing many of Ponti’s designs, and the American firm of M. Singer produced and marketed many for the U.S. market. Also particularly sought after are Ponti’s collaborations with designer Piero Fornasetti, known for his appropriation of images from 16th-century Italian engravings. Ponti-designed furniture decorated with Fornasetti’s designs represent a very distinctive—and distinctively Italian—combination of high modernism with reverent references to centuries of tradition.
The combination of tradition and modernity can also been seen very clearly in a circa 1950 six-legged wall console by Paolo Buffa with elaborate marquetry, which now resides in Donzella’s gallery. “It’s interesting to me that some of these Italian designers were very influenced by classical or historical design that came before them, and applied it in their work with a very modern twist,” says Donzella. “This piece crosses into both categories.”
This quality of seamlessly blending historical with very modern inspirations has motivated Mallett, the storied London- and New York-based antiques and design dealer, to venture into the modern Italian design market. Andrew Ogletree, of Mallett’s New York branch, says, “Even though these designers were avant-garde, they weren’t anti-establishment. Because they were part of the establishment. What they were doing is a continuation of the great history of Italian design beginning in Rome. Their pieces are sleek and beautifully designed, in terms of the line, and they fit into a 14th-century or a 17th-century palazzo just as well as a modern house. It’s not the same kind of design as American or Danish. It’s more interesting.”
The finest pieces by Ponti now bring six-figure prices, as do those by Ico and Luisa Parisi, a husband-and-wife team who founded the design studio La Ruota (The Wheel) in 1948 and frequently collaborated with artists such as Lucio Fontana and Bruno Munari. As with Ponti, the architectural inspiration is clearly visible in works by the Parisis. Stars of lighting design, an important sub-field, include Gino Sarfatti, a self-taught visionary designer, and Max Ingrand, a French-born virtuoso who worked extensively with Fontana Arte. And of course Ponti also designed lighting.
These masters continued to produce great work through the 1960s and in some cases into the ’70s, a decade in which, in general, it can be said that the Italian design world entered into a period of fatigue and self-doubt amid the country’s economic and political crisis. As the 1980s dawned, a new movement arose to shake things up in a major way. Italian postmodernism, exemplified by the Memphis Group, founded in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass Jr., brought a spirit of playfulness and social satire to design, producing extremely colorful works in offbeat and decidedly non-elite materials like formica. While these creations made a big impression on design critics and journalists, they have not yet been embraced by the collector market with the same passion as the earlier works. “It remains a selected market today,” says Jefferson, “a very specific taste. We had seen a rekindling of interest in the last five years, representing an uptick of interest from that generation that experienced postmodernism at a very young age. But it seems to have leveled off. I think that’s the way it’s going to be. It was an important moment in design, but for people to actually live with that material is difficult and challenging, as it always has been.”
Be that as it may, the top works by the top designers crystallize a unique national quality that, it is clear at this point, guarantees them a permanent place in the canon of 20th-century design. The essence running through these very diverse pieces, something seen and felt in architecture and fine art as well, has been called “the Italian line.” Following that line through the latter half of the 20th century, collectors will continue to find beautiful and thought-provoking pieces that are a pleasure to live with.
By John Dorfman