Vico Magistretti: Thinking With Hands @ Salone Milan 2012

Vico Magistretti: Thinking With Hands @ Salone Milan 2012

For the Milanese  foundations and small museums dealing with design, the Salone del Mobile is always a good opportunity to show the status of their archives and research activity. The Vico Magistretti Studio Museum Foundation set out to provide some input for studies into how models were used in Magistretti’s Architecture and Design firm that operated until the early 21st century.

The Fondazione Vico Magistretti presented 2 small exhibitions – “Thinking with hands” in the former Magistretti office in via Conservatorio, and “Svicolando” in the courtyard of the nearby “Giuseppe Verdi” Academy of Music – a place Magistretti very much loved and explored in his daily strolls

Sketches, drawings, projects for objects and architectural works designed by Vico Magistretti and his firm, were supplemented by extensive photographic repertoires, collections of magazines, work models, prototypes and even a collection of 108 products designed by the Milanese architect himself.

The exhibition displayied 11 “models” created by the Magistretti firm for designing objects that eventually went into production and became part of the history of Italian design.

Design historians, designers and professional people, who actually worked with Vico Magistretti, and even a restorer were invited to express their own personal cultural and professional point of view on the significance of the use of study models, their replacement with the latest techniques and approaches, comparisons with wooden prototypes and models, the relationship between design and business mediated through these products, and the issue of their fragility and, hence, preservation.

Rosanna Pavoni, the Fondazione Magistretti development manager as well as the curator of this exhibition, decided to collect contributions from a group of persons who were close to Vico Magistretti or experts on his work. eg short essays by Alberto Bassi, Davide Fornari, Paolo Imperatori, Fulvio Irace, Raimonda Riccini and Paola Zanolini; and three video-interviews with Konstantin Grcic and Vittorio Venezia (curated by Vanni Pasca), to Giovanni Sacchi (produced in the past by Studio Azzurro) and to Pierluigi Ghianda (produced by Bartolomeo Pellino).

The interviews that could be seen and heard at the exhibition retrace professional work, over an extremely lengthy period of time, in which different aims and functions were attributed to models for design objects.

The “voices” of Giovanni Sacchi and Pierluigi Ghianda were chosen to describe their way or method of creating models at their workshop. Designers, architects and companies all turned to this workshop for models.

For the exhibition, Vanni Pasca asked Konstantin Grcic to describe his own relationship with models in his design work, starting from the initial step of creating a sketch for an idea before going on to develop the product; Vittorio Venezia was interviewed as a spokesman for a new generation of thirty-something-year-old designers, who have “grown up” with computers.

Svicolando is an installation, under the curatorship of Simona Romano and constructed by Luca Poncellini with graphics by Davide Fornari. A number of screens that can be combined to form a lively wall, simply made out of boxes threaded onto wooden slats that were placed inside the cloister of the “Giuseppe Verdi” Music Conservatoire of Milan.

The archive materials selected and printed on the boxes forming the artefact will outline the working partnership between Vico Magistretti and the companies who founded the Studio Museum dedicated to him (Artemide, Cassina, De Padova, Flou, Oluce and Schiffini)

“Simplicity is the hardest thing in the world” this sentence by Vico Magistretti explains very well the creative partnership that has joined the architect and Maddalena De Padova.

They were always looking for simple and clean shapes, without frills, and their focus on function and utility led to the creation of some of the products that best represent Italian design in the world.

Vico’s models by Paolo Imperatori

During my experience working with Vico Magistretti, which began in 2002 and lasted until 2006, the use of “study models” was extremely important for lots of both architectural and industrial design projects.

During one of my first days working with him, Magistretti asked me in a benevolent voice (as was his custom) if I had the manual dexterity to construct models. The models he was referring to were those “study” models I had already had the chance to admire, arranged in what was apparently random fashion on tables and shelves or inside cupboards, and almost all actually constructed solely by the surveyor, Franco Montella, in that very studio.

Vico Magistretti did not believe he was personally capable of constructing any models at all and, with the utmost modesty, he did not believe he had a particularly “fine hand” in drawing those famous “sketches” of his. “I cannot draw, but I think the sketches have their own heart and soul”: I heard him repeat these words on several occasions in his studio, during interviews and at project presentations.

Right from the beginning I realised that a “study model” had no real aesthetic value in its own right for Vico, and he only used them for the instrumental purpose of trying to communicate concepts within the more elaborate discourse of a design process. In actual fact, for him, the aesthetic value some of these objects may have had was to be treated as a kind of “undesired effect”.

Magistretti’s worked with absolute rigour, but he was not tied to any fixed schemes, which is why he did not believe it was always absolutely vital to devote precious time to “designing models”.

Very often the models were made out of simple sheets of cardboard or balsawood and polystyrene. Most of them were not even kept, particularly in those cases when the model did not even need to be presented to the client or company.

The design “concept”, so important to Magistretti, was always very carefully formulated in his mind, but it then needed to be carefully tested out in reality. Except on very rare occasions, there was never just one single sketch and the idea was never thought up in some fleeting moment but was actually the result of a more or less lengthy design process, sometimes involving the concrete aid of a model.

The sketch and, hence, study model (which, as we have already said, was not always used) actually accompanied the project during its various stages and the two were closely intertwined.

The lack of executive drawings by the studio made the prototyping stage even more important, during which “dialogue” between two or more people working on the design process, carefully orchestrated by Magistretti, played a fundamental role.

“Talking a lot” was, indeed, important to him, and not just on the phone, and it could “never be too much” and always involved drawing on his own means of expression. The deliberate decision was made to never use modelling software or even 3-D printers, since these tools would have produced material containing too much information, too few doubts and only a seemingly realistic image.

Those people who were lucky enough to get to know Vico Magistretti will remember that the brilliant things he always had to say were inevitably accompanied by lively gestures and unusual facial expressions. It was as if he wanted to make his own “spegasci” (as he called his sketches, i.e. Milanese dialect expression) and sometimes even his study models actually “speak for themselves”.

Viewing a model as a means of representation, I noticed that some of them encompass, in a more accentuated fashion, a certain “gestural expressiveness” (certainly also found in sketches) that depended on a design concept linked to a specific material.

Sometimes bendy cardboard or a sheet of paper, folded or cut, could simulate, on a smaller scale, the behaviour of other materials, such as plastic, wood or glass curved by means of casting. In these cases, the models expressed a desire to alter the material in a way that went beyond mimetic representation, as if our “concept” needed to be materialised: a similar kind of procedure to that draw on when Magistretti used not only words but also gestures to explain his projects.

Vico Magistretti liked to describe his own projects in public, and his understatement made them seem extremely simple and, above all, comprehensible, even to people not involved in architecture or design, and even though they were actually quite sophisticated from a technological point of view. Study models, often made out of one single material but never too elaborate, were the opposite of “the work of a Carthusian monk” (i.e. meticulously precise and exacting) and, in many cases, tuned out to be a fine way of representing his way of seeing a project.

Vico Magistretti Studio Museum

Vico Magistretti worked in his studio in Via Conservatorio from 1946 to 2006 after inheriting it from his father, the architect Pier Giulio Magistretti.

After a lengthy process of reorganising and enhancing the archive, the studio became the headquarters of the Vico Magistretti Foundation and its studio museum in 2010. The studio had to be modernised and restructured so that it could be opened to visitors and the resulting hybrid space is something between a studio and museum in which the studio’s original features dialogue with the new installation.

The installation project has converted the studio’s main space – the large entrance room –, where the work tables and furniture belonging to the current archive used to be located and which now displays a selection of archive objects and sketches, into a museum.

The station for consulting a more extensive site than the one available on-line is also set over in a special niche.

The meeting room, which still serves this purpose as well as being a study room, is exactly the same as it used to be, except for a few extra chairs than originally and a selection of architecture models attached to the wall.

Lastly, Magistretti’s office proper, unaltered but used, accommodates the works stations of the foundation’s curator and conservation expert.

The foundation’s underground hold the storage space for the Magistretti archive, open to scholars, students and researchers interested in studying the architect’s work and some of his projects in greater depth

About Vico Magistretti

Vico Magistretti (06.10.1920 – 19.09.2006)


Ludovico Magistretti was born in Milan on 6th October 1920. He came from a family of generations of architects: his great-grandfather Gaetano Besia built the Reale Collegio delle Fanciulle Nobili in Milan; his father, Pier Giulio Magistretti, was involved in the design of the Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. Vico went to Parini High School and in autumn 1939 enrolled in the Faculty of Architecture at the Royal Polytechnic in Milan.

After 8th September 1943, to avoid being deported to Germany, he left Italy during his military service and moved to Switzerland, where he took some academic courses at the Champ Universitaire Italien in Lausanne, taught at the local university.

During his stay in the Swiss city he met Ernesto Nathan Rogers, the founder of the BBPR firm who had taken refuge in Switzerland after racist laws were passed in Italy. This was a key encounter in Magistretti’s intellectual and professional development, since the architect from Trieste turned out to be his maestro.

He returned to Milan in 1945, where he graduated in Architecture at the Polytechnic on 2nd August. He then immediately began his career working with the architect Paolo Chessa at the firm owned and run by his father, Pier Giulio, who died prematurely that same year.

Here, in his father’s small firm, he spent his entire career in partnership with just one extraordinary character, the surveyor Franco Montella, working exclusively on creating the basic concept for projects within the firm and then delegating their technical development externally (engineers and technicians).

The 1950s

During reconstruction operations in Milan from 1949-59, Magistretti designed and constructed about 14 projects for INA-Casa in conjunction with other architects.

He was involved with Mario Tedeschi in the joint project for the QT8 neighbourhood, designing houses for veterans from the African campaign and also Santa Maria Nascente Church.

In 1946 he participated in the R.I.M.A. exhibition (Italian Assembly for Furniture Exhibitions), held at the Palazzo dell’Arte, designing some small almost self-made pieces of furniture and then, in 1947 and 1948, he took part together with Castiglioni, Zanuso, Gardella, Albini and others in the exhibitions organised by Fede Cheti, a furniture fabric maker, held at her own workshop.

He notably took part in the eighth, ninth (Gold Medal) and tenth (Grand Prix) editions of the various Triennials in Milan.

During the 12th edition, he and Ignazio Garella designed the introductory room to the exhibition entitled “Home and school” and he was also a member of the Milanese Association’s executive panel of judges.

The young architect was involved in plenty of activities and came up with lots of new ideas and proposals in the 1950s, which, in a short space of time, saw him rise to the status of one of the most brilliant exponents of the “third generation”, partly thanks to the construction of two key buildings in Milan: the Tower in Park in via Revere (1953-56, in conjunction with Franco Longoni) and the office block in corso Europa (1955-1957).

Over the following years he also designed a number of other important projects, including the Towers in piazzale Aquileia (1961-64), Bassetti House in Azzate (1959-62), Cassina House in Carimate (1964-65), and the house in via Conservatorio in Milan (1963-66).

In 1956 he was one of the founding members of the ADI, Industrial Design Association, and during the same year he was a member of the panel of judges for the Golden Compass Award for the first time. In 1969 he was again one of the judges for the ADI award.

The 1960s

His work as an architect was almost totally focused on the issue of housing and living from the 1960s onwards, as he developed his own extremely expressive idiom, which, even though it was heavily criticised at times, made a real impression on the architectural scene in Lombardy during that period, making him one of its leading figures.

This is the context in which he took part in the CIAM Congress (International Modern Architecture Congress) held in Otterlo in the Netherlands in 1959, during which the Italians presented Velasca Tower designed by the BBPR, the Olivetti canteen designed by Ignazio Gardella, Arosio house designed by Vico Magistretti (1956-59), and the houses in Matera designed by Giancarlo De Carlo. These works caused a real scandal and were, in some respects, emblematic of the deep crisis which struck the CIAM over those years, until then the undisputed protagonist of architectural debate, so much so that the 1959 Congress turned out to be the last.

Magistretti’s project for a small house in Arenzano allowed him to discover his own language and own image.

Magistretti was one of the founding fathers of so-called Italian Design, a phenomenon which he himself described as “miraculous” and which only happened thanks to the coming together of two key players: architects and manufacturers.

He began working with some exceptional manufacturers from the end of the 1960s, including Artemide, Cassina and Oluce, designing objects for them which are still “classics” of modern-day production.

The 1970s

The next decade saw Magistretti’s architectural enterprises increasingly backed up by his work as a designer.

The first product designed by Magistretti dates back to 1960 – the Carimate chair, designed to decorate the golf club he designed in the same year and actually brought into production by Cassina – but he then went on over subsequent years to design numerous other objects for the same company, notably including the Maralunga sofa (1973, Golden Compass award in 1979), Sindbad sofa (1981) and Veranda armchair (1983).

He also designed a set of lamps for Artemide, including Mania (1963), Dalù (1965), Chimera (1966), the extremely famous Eclisse (1967, Golden Compass award 1967), Teti (1970) and Impiccato (1970). After the Demetrio coffee tables (1966), other pieces of furniture designed by Magistretti include Selene chair (1966), which, with the Panton Chair and Joe Colombo’s Universale, vied to become the world’s first plastic chair.

For many years Magistretti was also the art director and main designer for Oluce, giving the company’s production range its own unmistakable style. His masterpieces, icons recognised all over the world, include the following lamps: Snow (1974), Sonora (1976), most notably Atollo (1977, Golden Compass Award 1979), Pascal (1979) and Kuta (1980).

As regards architecture, this was the period when he built Cusano Milanino Town Hall (1966-69), the Milano San Felice neighbourhood in Segrate (1966-69, in partnership with Luigi Caccia Dominioni), and the house in Piazza San Marco (1969-71).

The 1980s

Magistretti’s teaching career began back in the late 1970s at the Royal College of Art in London as a visiting professor, where he was also made an honorary member in 1983.

“Today’s real great enemy is vulgarity. I love Anglo-Saxon culture because it is free from it”. Vico Magistretti’s love of Great Britain was reciprocated and in 1986 he received a prestigious British prize: the gold medal awarded by SIAD, Society of Industrial Artists and Designers.

It was indeed here at the Royal College of Art that the minimalist school first took shape, whose most refined exponents, Morrison and Grcic, were not just Magistretti’s own students, they also acknowledged him as being an absolute benchmark for developing what may be considered as one of the most interesting contemporary movements in the field of design.

At the same time as he was teaching abroad, he continued working as an architect in Italy. His architectural works from that period include the headquarters of the Biology Department in Milan (1978-81, in partnership with Franco Soro), Tanimoto house in Tokyo (1985-86), and the Cavagnari Centre of the Cassa di Risparmio in Parma (1983-85).

He also created lots of interiors, whose designs were free from any pretentions in terms of decoration and merely confined to creating structures suitable for their inhabitants, capable of withstanding the “natural insults of life. Because anybody living in a house I designed has their own culture, background and taste”, so Magistretti claimed as, once again, he proclaimed his adherence to the Modern Movement and distanced himself from any decorative intentions and hence Postmodernism.

At the end of the 1980s he also began a partnership with a leading publisher: Maddalena De Padova, who was awarded the Gold Medal for lifetime achievement at the 20th edition of the prize. The panel of judges referred to: “Maddalena De Padova’s great commitment to producing and spreading design as a common culture interacting in various international realms, unique in Italy for the way she has maintained certain standards in terms of consistency and quality”. After giving up the ICF trademark in the late 1970s including the licence to manufacture Herman Miller products, Maddalena created a range of furniture and objects bearing the De Padova trademark, later named “è De Padova”, whose business partners included such great designers as Achille Castiglioni and Dieter Rams, but above all Vico Magistretti.

The “è De Padova” collection designed by Magistretti includes such classics as: the Marocca chair (1987), Vidun table (1987), Silver chair (1988), Uragano wicker chair (1992), Incisa swivel chair (1992), and the more recent Blossom table (2002).

The 1990s

Whereas the architecture he designed in the 1990s was confined to just the Milanese Underground Railway depot in Famagosta (1989-2002) and Esselunga supermarket in Pantigliate (1997-2001, lots of the architect’s design objects were brought into production.

Vico Magistretti’s work in this field became increasingly diverse in relation to the different companies with which he set up business partnerships, designing more than just one object for them.

For Flou he invented new types of beds including, after Nathalie bed (1978), the first fully padded and upholstered bed in 1993 and another innovative bed called Tadao, whose base and headboard represent a simple reworking of a plank structure.

Similarly, in his partnership with Schiffini Mobili Cucine, Magistretti did not simply settle for conventional styles. His Campiglia kitchen unit (1990) resorts to less cantilever strictures through the introduction of cabinet-type furniture. Solaro (1995) transforms the conventional doors of its basic elements into handy spacious drawers. Cinqueterre (1999) uses a semi-manufactured industrial article, an extruded sheet of undulating aluminium, which gives shape to each individual feature.

Finally, his business partnership with Kartell resulted in the creation of another industrial chair – Maui (1996) – which is made one single piece of plastic, which, due to the international success it attained, has nothing to envy of the previous Selene chair.

In 1997 the Milan “Salone del Mobile” dedicated a special exhibition to Vico Magistretti, alongside another on Gio Ponti, organised by Vanni Pasca. The installation was designed by Achille Castiglioni and Ferruccio Laviani.

A couple of years earlier he was awarded the Golden Compass for lifetime achievement (1995).

2000 and onwards

Magistretti got the chance to apply a reworking of certain articles of traditional anonymous design when working with Campeggi, designing some rather unobtrusive objects bursting with his own personality: Kenia chair (1995), Ospite bed (1996), Africa armchair (2001),which were all folding, and Magellano sofa (2004). Certain objects, again designed for Campeggi, were in some sense dilated so that they could serve different purposes, such as the Estesa armchair (2001) and Fan sofa (2005), the last product the architect ever designed.

The final buildings he designed were a house in Saint Barth in the French Antilles (2002) and another in Epalinges, near Lausanne (2005).

An exhibition entitled “Vico Magistretti. Il design dagli anni ’50 ad oggi” organised by Fondazione Schiffini opened in Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, in 2003.

In 2005 he was awarded the special prize “Abitare il tempo”.

His design works are displayed in the MOMA permanent collection in New York, Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Museum die Neue Sammlung in Munich, and numerous other museums in America and Europe.

After he passed away in September 2006, his studio, where the Vico Magistretti Foundation is located, was converted into a museum devoted to the study of his work and to promoting it.

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