30 December 2016
In 1966 the entrepreneur Piero Ambrogio Busnelli (1926-2014) decided to revolutionize the design of furniture. He wanted to take an ambitious leap forward from craft-based manufacture—something that had a long and highly esteemed tradition in Brianza, but was somewhat conservative in its approach—to industrial production, making use of new materials, new approaches to marketing and new technologies. He found an ally in Cesare Cassina, with whom he founded C&B (the initials of their surnames), imposing a clear rule: “No employee of Cassina. No master upholsterer who thinks he knows how to make an armchair, because here we do things differently.” This was the beginning of one of the most interesting adventures in Italian design, whose story is told by Stefano Casciani in the three hundred and sixty pages of The Long Life of Design in Italy: B&B Italia. 50 Years and Beyond, published by Skira. It all began with polyurethane, which in the sixties was starting to make inroads into the world of design. The material was there, but it was necessary to learn how to work it and to make people aware of its utility, overcoming a lack of understanding on the part of many people: even Bayer, the main producer of polyurethane at the time, refused to provide technical assistance, showing little interest in such a small customer (although it would change its mind a few years later). Busnelli had the luck to meet Tobia Scarpa and his wife Afra Bianchin, who proved capable not only of creating a whole world of forms, but also of refining the methods of production. They were the ones who designed Coronado (1966), the company’s first bestseller: a reinterpretation of the classic tufted couch in which the traditional materials were replaced by a steel structure, polyurethane padding and DuPont’s Dacron polyester fiber. As had been the plan, an industrial approach took the place of the handcrafted model, but the memory of the past was maintained. Something similar happened with the Amanta armchair (1966) designed by Mario Bellini and constructed around a polyester framework, reinforced with fiberglass and tempered by reassuring cushions. The aesthetic revolution came in 1969 with Gaetano Pesce’s famous UP series, in which the armchair was born as an amorphous piece of fabric, with no volume, that took shape only on contact with the air: the polyurethane expanded until it assumed a form with feminine curves. It was a piece of furniture, but also a sculpture generated by a chemical process, an artistic and political performance in tune with the ferments of those years: a message on which the seal was set by an accessory—the ball tied to the foot of the UP5 model—that alluded to the condition of women in our society. In April 1973, following the split with Cassina, B&B Italia was founded. Its first step was the opening of the new headquarters at Novedrate, whose design (1971-73) was entrusted to the then young architect Renzo Piano, engaged in those years, along with Richard Rogers, in the construction of the Centre Pompidou (1971-77). Not coincidentally, the building followed the same principles of construction as the great “machine” in Paris: industrial components, lightness, functionality, bright colors and the freedom of action permitted by technology. Casciani retraces all the other stages of the adventure: from the creation of the Maxalto brand to the spinoff of B&B Italia Marine, a line devoted to cruise ships; the Office Division, the continual experimentation and the work of the designers who have been members of the brand’s team over the years: in addition to the ones already mentioned, these include Kazuhide Takahama, Richard Sapper, Studio Kairos, James Irvine, Marc Newson, Jeffrey Bernett, Patricia Urquiola, Naoto Fukasawa, Zaha Hadid, Barber & Osgerby and the Swiss designers of Atelier Oï. And of course Antonio Citterio, who after the first collaborations with Paolo Nava came up with a series of successful products, commencing with the Sity system (1986). The last chapter, “What You See Is What You Get,” in which the theme of corporate communication is explored, is particularly worthy of study. First of all the famous and scandalous campaign of 1972 in which the model Donna Jordan posed topless on the armchairs of Mario Bellini’s series Le Bambole: photographer Oliviero Toscani, art director Enrico Trabacchi. Then Klaus Zaugg’s photos for the UP series , the contribution of Pierluigi Cerri, the campaigns of the STZ agency (Hans-Rudolf Suter, Fritz Tschirren, Valeria Zucchini), the evolution of the logo, etc. What is lacking, in this handsome volume, is an in-depth analysis of recent developments in the management of the company: the sale of a majority stake to the Fondo Opera, its reacquisition in 2011 and finally the entry of Investindustrial, a private equity fund headed by Andrea Bonomi. It would have been useful to reflect on the fundamental alliance between design and finance.