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Modern & Contemporary Italian Furniture

Italian styled furniture, with its sleek, smart lines, and made from wood, chrome, and leather, in the modern and contemporary taste is one of the joys of the furniture industry today in Europe and continues to maintain its vitality and design strength in the face of the mass of cheap imports from other parts of the world.


Following the Second World War the Italian design arts lay in a parlous, under-resourced state. The new Italian government saw design as a matter of national pride which of course also had economic potential. Consequently the Italian government organised a touring exhibition "Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today" from 1949 and this marks the beginning of a major flowering of contemporary furniture in Italy.

Arabesque Table
Arabesque Table, by Carlo Mollino, 1949
Plywood and glass, with brass fittings.
This table was displayed in 1950 in the "Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today", a major exhibition of Italian design. Although it is functional, this table looks like a piece of sculpture. Its undulating curves were inspired by the work of Surrealist artists, in particular Jan Arp's flowing lines and biomorphic shapes. The shape of the table top was based on the outlines of a woman's torso. Mollino had traced it from a drawing by the Italian Surrealist Leonor Fini (1908-1996).

Following are some more pictures and examples of some of the more unique and interesting contemporary Italian furniture over the second half of the twentieth century.

Cabinet Bookcase
Cabinet Bookcase, by Gio Ponti and Piero Fornasetti, 1951
Screen printed wood-fibre board (masonite) on laminated and solid wood, varnished.
In Italy this type of cabinet was known as a trumo or trumeau. Its origins can be traced back to the 1700s. Piero Fornasetti's unique style of decoration has transformed Gio Ponti's modern version into a striking piece of furniture. The technique used to make it was unusual. Lithographs were created for each section, printed on to transfer sheets, and then applied to fibreboard panels. These were fitted to the cabinet and varnished. Fornasetti's trompe-l'oeil schemes were inspired by 16th century Italian Mannerist art as well as by 20th century Surrealism. (Trompe-l'oeil is a French term meaning "trick of the eye".) They were based on his knowledge of printed books and engravings, rather than the observation of real buildings.

Universale Chair
Universale Chair, by Joe Cesare Colombo, 1966.
Injection-moulded ABS plastic.
The "Universale" was the first all-plastic chair to be made by the injection-moulding technique. It was also one of the earliest plastic chairs to be commercially available. the Universale as a multi-functional chair that was stackable, portable, and suitable for both indoor and outdoor use. The design included detachable feet, which allowed the height of the chair to be adjusted. The structure was based on a child's chair. The Universale is typical of Pop furniture design, which used bold patterns, bright colors, and new shapes and was specifically aimed at a young market. Plastic, previously seen as "cheap and cheerful", became a fashionable and novel material.

Contemporary Sideboard
Contemporary Sideboard, by Ettore Sottsass, 1981.
Plastic laminate over fibreboard.
This sideboard was part of the first collection of furniture by the Italian Memphis design group. Ettore Sottsass designed it to combine storage and display while also serving as a room divider. The angled arms are intended to hold wine bottles. Its garish colour, pattern and strange winged shape went against the Modernist belief that form should follow function. The brash decoration, which opposed the purity of much undecorated minimalist furniture designed in the 1970s, was inspired by the everyday products of the 1950s. American 'diner' interiors and the wipe-clean furniture of the kitchenette influenced the use of laminated plastic. Although the patterns and materials of Memphis designs were drawn from popular taste, the furniture was too expensive for the average customer. However, by drawing on so-called "low taste", the Memphis group introduced a new spirit of fun and fantasy into design.

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