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On the 100th birthday of Vico Magistretti.

He designed numerous icons of design and is rightly considered one of the founding fathers of Italian design. Significant designers such as Jasper Morrison and Konstantin Grcic learned from him what it means to be contemporary. Vico Magistretti would have turned 100 on 6 October 2020 this year.

By Thomas Wagner.

© Fondazione studio museo Vico Magistretti

It is not out of the ordinary to consider architecture as the reflection of an era. But design? One assumes that the facade of a building betrays not only its vintage, but also the spirit of an age, its customs, its expectations and perhaps even its secret thoughts. Does design reveal these things too?

We cannot say for certain, and maybe someone like Vico Magistretti was only able to flourish in Milan, the city whose squares were described by author and painter Alberto Savinio as “chance encounters of streets, where the wind of fantasy gathers and plays. Because in this calm and happy city, there is no wind blowing other than that of a gentle and peaceful fantasy.” Vico Magistretti, who was born in Milan on 6 October 1920 and died in the same city on 19 September 2006, knew where fantasy gathered. He once said that nothing is as wonderful as the gesture of someone who throws a large piece of fabric or leather onto a sofa or armchair just to see how it looks. With “Sindbad” from the early 1980s, he made a series of seating furniture based on observation. It celebrates the gestures of showing and looking with amazing simplicity.

Vico Magistretti, who spent his whole life working as an architect, town planner and designer in parallel, can unhesitatingly be described as one of the fathers of “Italian design”. The latter is a phenomenon that he himself referred to as astonishing, and that only became possible in a period of new beginnings and awakening, and thanks to the meeting of committed architect designers with manufacturers who were as brave as they were competent.

Part of a new generation of architects

Ludovico Magistretti was born into a family of architects. His great-grandfather Gaetano Besia built the Collegio delle Fanciulle, while his father Pier Giulio Magistretti was involved in the design of the Palazzo dell’Arengario on the Piazza del Duomo. That building now houses the Museo del Novecento (“Museum of the Twentieth Century”). As was befitting, Vico also enrolled in architecture at the Milan Politecnico in 1939 after graduating from secondary school. During his military service, he ended up in Switzerland in 1943 to escape being deported to Germany. There he met Ernesto Nathan Rogers from the Milan-based firm BBPR. Rogers, eleven years his senior and the son of a Jewish/Italian mother – and therefore not an émigré by choice – became an important role model figure for Magistretti’s later professional career. Vico returned to Milan in 1945, graduated from his studies and began to work (together with Paolo Chessa) in the atelier of his father, who sadly passed away the same year.

The 1950s were packed full of initiatives and innovative proposals from the young architect. Thanks to the construction of two major buildings in Milan – the Tower at the Park on Via Revere (1953–1956 with Franco Longoni) and the office building on Corso Europa (1955–1957) – Magistretti quickly developed into a significant, leading character of a new generation of architects. In 1956, he became one of the founding members of the Associazione per il Disegno Industriale (ADI) and a member of the Compasso d’Oro jury for the first time.

Vico Magistretti, who spent his whole life working as an architect, town planner and designer in parallel, can unhesitatingly be described as one of the fathers of “Italian design”.

Classics of Italian design

Towards the end of the 1960s, he began extremely prolific collaborations with manufacturers such as Artemide, Cassina and Oluce. Magistretti created an entire range of objects that are today considered classics of Italian design. To name just the most significant ones, he created lights for Artemide such as the kooky “Dalù” (1966), the famous “Eclisse” (1967, awarded the Compasso d’Oro that same year), the elegant “Chimera” (1969) and, not to forget, the simple and in equal parts shrewd ceiling light “Teti” (1970). At Oluce, Magistretti spent many years working as Art Director and Chief Designer, which led to some iconic lamps. They include the “Sonora” (1976), the simple as well as extravagant “Atollo” (1977, Compasso d’Oro 1979), which was essentially composed of cones, (hemi-)spheres and cylinders in a very cubist style; and the “Pascal” (1979), formed of two chalice-like cylinders.

Particular highlights of his partnership with Cassina include the innovative sofa “Maralunga” (1973) with adjustable backrests and the bookshelf “Nuvola Rossa” (1977), both tremendously innovative and imitated numerous times though never paralleled. A partnership with è De Padova began in the early 1980s. It produced objects such as the “Marocca” chair (1987), the table “Vidun” (1987, made of interlocking pieces of timber reminiscent of a “vidun”, meaning “big screw” in the Milan dialect) and the comfortable, lightweight “Silver” (1992) inspired by the proportions of the classic Thonet chair yet made of polypropylene and aluminium.

Contemporary but not a trend

What always marked Magistretti was that he never stopped exploring the broad field of design and experimenting with materials, functions, forms and combinations while disregarding fashionable attitudes. His designs seem to have a basis completely of their own and yet they do not ignore the user. On the contrary, they often demand interaction, whether with backrests that are to be folded back into place or sources of light that can be made to rise or fall as if they were a moon. For decades, Magistretti worked with his finger on the era’s pulse like few others did. Perhaps it is for this reason that his work demonstrates exceptionally well the originality, intensity and stylistic confidence with which the combination of building and living, architecture and design, public places and distinguished spaces in Northern Italy were lived and designed, and how irresistible the effect of Milan’s magnetism was.

To be truly contemporary, one must always have a hand in the past and a hand in the future.

Vico Magistretti

Magistretti’s influence over the next generation of designers is now difficult to overstate. While it might appear a small detail, it is a testament to his significance that he took on a role as Guest Professor, and later Honorary Fellow at the Royal College of Art in London, and taught Jasper Morrison and Konstantin Grcic, among other students. Magistretti declared back then that his real great enemy was vulgarity, and that he loved Anglo-Saxon culture because it is free from it.

His love of the United Kingdom was reciprocated, and in 1986 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers. Emanating from the Royal College of Art, there also developed a type of design whose most consistent exponents – Morrison and Grcic – had identified Magistretti as a key source of inspiration for the development of a contemporary design. (Those who look closely at Magistretti’s famous plastic chair “Selene” from 1967, or even “Gaudì” or “Vicario” from 1970, should – despite all the significant differences – see a striking resemblance to Grcic’s “Bell Chair”, which was recently developed for Magis.)

Vico Magistretti, who would have been 100 years old on 6 October 2020, remonstrated design and showed what it needs now more than ever when he said, “To be truly contemporary, one must always have a hand in the past and a hand in the future.”

Fondazione studio museo Vico Magistretti is celebrating the architect and designer in conjunction with its ten-year anniversary with the travelling exhibition “100 Years of Vico Magistretti”. The exhibition has been making stops at various Italian cultural institutions since January. Dates are planned for Budapest and Washington in October.

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