A land of fine things, Italy is synonymous with sublime artistry, heady romance and depictions of everlasting sophistication, be it in fashion, film or furniture-making. With some of the most notable figures in the arts setting the bar staggeringly high—from artists and writers like da Vinci and Raphael to architects and designers such as Michelangelo and Pucci—each new wave of Italian design talent has continued to uphold its bastion of exquisite detail and unique, expressive aesthetic.
Looking back—a history of furniture-making in Italy Classic yet early adopters of less-is-more contemporary form, ornate and charming yet approachable and achievable, Italian furniture design isn’t so much a paradox, but capable of satisfying almost every style preference in existence.
From the very beginning, furniture makers in Italy have drawn inspiration from sculpture, the fine arts and architecture from the current era and those that preceded it. From era to era, there have been major transformations in Italian furniture, though the constant muse that is art and the unwavering focus on form and detail was never abandoned.
The 15th-century Renaissance period witnessed furniture that was large and majestic with scrolls, shells and animals serving as decorative motifs—a result of antiquity being a great inspiration of the time.
A century later, there was a definite air of fantasy evident in Italian design with influence from Gothic and the Orient coming through.
Italian Baroque and Rococo summarise the 17th-century in Italy with furniture growing in scale once more but with an increased stress on comfort. Curved forms, elaborate detailing and ornate motifs were in abundance at this time.
Interestingly, the 18th-century movement presented clear combinations of what had been seen up until this point. Empire and Neoclassical pieces married artistic flourishes typical of Ancient Rome and Greece, but the form was more restrained and simplified than the curvaceous silhouettes of times gone by. Colour palettes too became more muted and reflective of nature’s soft hues.
A similar trend of combining past influences is evident in 19th-century Italian furniture too. This time though, the presiding narratives were from Renaissance, Gothic and Rococo furniture design with nuances from the Orient. Walnut and ebony were widely used and ivory began to make its appearance in decorative inlay.
Despite its design calibre, the effects of the Second World War resulted in severe economic struggle for Italy as a whole. Financially bankrupt and politically fragile, it took much investment from other territories (namely America) to bolster the economy until it began to recover. ‘Il miracolo economico’ (‘the economic miracle’) is the term used to refer to the 1950s-1960s when things turned around, with furniture being one of the principal thriving industries. Names such as Gio Ponti, Ettore Sottsass (founder of the Memphis Group) and Franco Albini made global names for themselves and their creations have gone down in furniture-making history.
Challenges in modernity
Mass consumption and impatient societal attitudes of wanting everything with urgency has presented Italy’s furniture makers with a conundrum in more recent history. While other nations have long been accustomed to fast-paced production to feed the world’s appetite for see-it-now, want-it-now pieces of furniture, Italian makers are in the camp of steadiness, the hand-made, and creating fewer pieces for a select few. So the question begged as to whether they should move away from the custom of crafting furniture in order to compete and remain relevant or to hold their own and continue as they were.
While certain fashion houses were tempted over to the mass-market side with designers producing high street-ready collections with everyday labels, such as H&M counting Giambattista Valli, Prada and Moschino in its list of Italian name-drop collaborations, or sportswear giant Adidas doubling up with Missoni and Prada, traditional Italian furniture-makers largely held their own. Bigger brands have ridden the wave, bolstering their production facilities to cater to demand, while small players have remained true to their craft, serving a specialist consumer with an eye for nothing other than perfection. Such designers specialise in bespoke commissions or made-to-order projects to reduce waste. See creations by Dom Edizioni as a modern example, whose pieces are painstakingly crafted on a demand-supply basis.
Finishes and flourishes—the Italian way
Much of the Italian way involves close proximity between designer and manufacturer. Artists at work, the story goes that many Italian furniture designers prefer to keep a watchful eye over the process of taking their designs from page to workshop. It is therefore no surprise that the level of quality and attention to detail is unparalleled, and why Italy’s export figures have sky-rocketed over the last century; countries far and wide desire a piece of La Dolce Vita for their homes, knowing the duality of craft and furniture couture is hard to come by elsewhere.
This is, in essence, the ultimate trademark of the made in Italy finish. It’s less a case of the stereotypical Italian style of inlay or upholstery silhouette, but more about meticulous execution and the promise of every detail being deeply considered.
Image Credit: Sahrai Milano
Look to the contemporary pieces by Signorini & Coco whose combinations of opulent brushed brass alongside surfaces such as myrtle briarwood, dark Emperor and Golden Calacatta marble narrate the classic Italian story of luxurious materials and rarity of finish. Similarly, Isabella Costantini’s instantly recognisable monochromatic (with the occasional application of gold leaf) tables and sideboards speak eloquently of sophistication in a manner achievable only by the Italians.
A reputation—in brief
Italian furniture has rightfully had its name safeguarded for centuries. The exquisite is expected and the world’s stage anticipates breathtaking beauty each and every time a new collection is born. Modern-day Italian designers, including Opera Contemporary, Capital and Casamilano, have done little to disappoint.
Milan’s annual furniture design exhibition, Salone del Mobile (although cancelled for 2020), sees interiors enthusiasts and trendsetters attending to keep their finger on the pulse, tradespeople hoping to discover the new and the intriguing to add to their own offerings, interior designers and architects seeking what others might not have to present in their professional (and personal) projects, and authentic Italian craftspeople and design houses presenting their wares to the world. It is a hotly anticipated furniture show with global acclaim, and cements further Italy’s status in the design arena. A status that says, it is us, Italy, who set the trends for the world to watch and follow, and it is us, Italy, who are the masters in creating not simply furniture, but works of art—always have, and always will.