Made in Italy

by Mark Calderwood

At the Geneva motor show in 2015, Maserati won the prestigious Car Design News Concept Car of the Year award for its stunning Alfieri sports concept, that had beeb unveiled in the Swiss city the year before. It was the latest in a very long line of accolades that the Italian marque has received over the past seven decades, for cars lauded not only for their sports performance and exclusive luxury, but for their outstanding design aesthetic. From cars like the 1950s & 60s A6GCS, 3500 GT and Mistral, through the Bora and the Ghibli in the 70s to the current stars Quattroporte and GranTurismo, Maserati’s superlative design has always been a highly praised, and prized, element of the brand’s DNA.

And that’s no accident. Italian design culture reflects a centuries-old heritage that draws on rich traditions of seeing, thinking and crafting that at first seem incompatible with modern innovation and the demands of large-scale manufacturing, yet has a way of walking the tightrope between the two, translating that tension into design full of nuance and individuality, without ever forsaking a distinct sense of quality, of the well crafted.

In the 20th century, that need to balance the legacy of craftsmanship against the rise of mass production let Italian design come into its own, and turned Italy into a dynamic manufacturing powerhouse. But it was a bumpy road at the outset, with the demands of mass consumption and Italy’s own political, social and economic landscape posing some significant challenges.

A unified nation more in name than fact, manufacture lagged at the start of the century, and for the most part, was confined to the old workshop model in separated cities. The tempo picked up slightly as new machinery allowed production to become serial during the 1920s and 30s, and Italian design began to stand out for its originality and sophistication.

But it was only after World War II that Italian design began to win global recognition, aided by Italy’s own economic miracle. In the wake of the War, Italy became an important ally for the free world, and the United States poured money into the country’s reconstruction. The Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (Institute for Industrial Reconstruction) negotiated the public and private capital needed to revitalise industry on behalf of the fledgling democratic government; the creation of the European Common Market in 1957, of which Italy was a founding member, opened even more investment and markets.

The effect was indeed a miracle. As the economy boomed, incomes trebled and living standards shot skyward. Italy was transformed from an impoverished and semi-rural to a vibrant, forward-looking consumer society in less than a decade.

And those consumers were hungry for the latest designs. Manufactures snapped up architects and designers, ushering in a golden age as everyday objects from refrigerators to portable fans were designed for flair as much as functionality. Famed architect Ettore Sottsass summed up the new vibe when he declared ‘functionalism is not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting!”

Industrial objects and furniture became a symbol of this heyday period during the 1950s and 60s, and was further popularised around the world by Hollywood and Italian cinema. By 1980, the success of Italy’s design style in turn become a brand itself, with companies such as Kartell, Alessi, Cappellini, Flos, Artemide, Driade, Foscarini and more trading under the ‘Made in Italy’ banner, guaranteeing high design, craftsmanship, and manufacturing quality.

Professor Richard Blythe, Dean of Architecture and Design at RMIT University Melbourne, believes that Italians are much more than merely invested in art and design, it’s a cornerstone of their identity.

‘To people who live surrounded by the greatest art, architecture and design in history, in a country where the Renaissance seemed to happen last week, awareness of design is just part of their psychology,’ he says.

‘It’s a very particular sense of what life and culture means: not merely getting through the week, but participating in a civil and elegant society. It counts how you present yourself to the world, how you engage with others, the messages you send by what you surround yourself with. Italian design draw on that awareness continually.’

A prime example is Olivetti, which from its beginnings in 1908, was famous for its preoccupation with art and design, that it developed into a full-fledged corporate philosophy.
Founded by Camillo Olivetti, the eponymous company launched the first Italian-designed and industrially manufactured typewriter at the 1911 Turin World Fair- with the advertising poster suggesting the Olivetti M1 was endorsed by the towering historical figure of Dante Aligheri himself. But it was Olivetti’s son Adriano who mainly developed the company, after visiting the US to study modern manufacturing and industrial practices in 1925. He expanded and restructured the small workshop into an American-style factory, and by 1933 Olivetti manufactured half the typewriters used in Italy.

Adriano was convinced that good design could create good business, and no detail was overlooked as typewriter designs were refined. The intention was to blend art, design, culture and manufacturing into a new kind of business product for the future.

And they succeeded. In 1950, Marcello Nizzoli designed the Lettera 22, the first portable typewriter, that in 1959 would be among the first fifteen products recognised for design excellence in the inaugural Compasso d’Oro, the world’s oldest industrial design awards.

The combination of function and aesthetics continued in 1969 with Ettore Sottsass’ Valentine, that similarly staked its place in the NY Museum of Modern Art. It was sleek, lightweight, styled, and lipstick-red, a race car for the desk top. Although ostensibly intended to bring vibrancy into the 1960s office, Sottsass opined it was invented for use ‘any place except an office…to keep amateur poets company, or to provide a highly coloured object on a table in a studio apartment.’

Another icon represented in MoMA’s collection is Vespa; and although a relatively late arrival to the Italian manufacturing scene, there can be little doubt of its impact.


Created by aeronautics company Piaggio, the first Vespa prototype MP5 gained the nickname ‘Paperino’ (the Italian name for Donald Duck) for its ungainly shape – to the displeasure of Enrico Piaggio. Areonautical engineer Corradino d’Ascanio was called in to redesign the ugly duckling, who together with designer Mario d’Este, created the MP6 prototype. The engine was completely enclosed in a pressed steel unibody, allowing the scooter to have a step-through design and tall splashguard to protect the rider. On seeing the MP6, Enrico Paiggop exclaimed ‘Sembra una vespa!’ (‘It looks like a wasp!’) and in 1946, the Vespa 98cc went into production.

The Vespa’s appeal was near universal, and crossed class barriers effortlessly. It was smaller, cleaner and more comfortable than a motorcycle; it was affordable to run even during petrol shortages, but with enough zip for busy streets, making it as popular with everyday families as with the urban chic. And its styling was as voluptuous and glamorous as a film star, with many seen riding them. In 1952, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck riding through the Eternal City filming Roman Holiday inspired over 100, 000 sales. Vespa had become an emblem of vivacious Italian glamour and style.

But while mass production was always the plan for Vespa, housewares and kitchen giant Alessi grew from the Italian artisan tradition.  Founded by Giovanni Alessi in 1921, it was originally intended to produce handcrafted tableware. And the company remained modest until Giovanni’s son Ettore Alessi began to collaborate with outside designers in 1955, establishing a model that has ensured so many Italian furniture and product manufacturers have remained at the top of the crop.

In 1970, Giovanni’s grandson Alberto began the transformation of Alessi, describing the company as the first ‘Italian Design Factory’, capitalising on its collaborations with design maestros like Ettore Sottsass, Richard Sapper, and Alessandro Mendini.

‘Alessi originated this collaborative model, and built it into a very successful structure for design companies,’ says Richard Blythe. ‘And uniquely for the time, rather then downplaying the designers’ involvement, turned them into household names in the 80s and 90s.’

Still a family business, Alessi’s quest for fine design has added Australians Susan Cohn, Helen Kontouris, Lisa Vincitorio and this year, Adam Cornish- all RMIT graduates- to their stable.

‘There’s a deep commitment to the design process, which is curated right through to end production, and at all levels from bespoke high end pieces to manufactured objects all the way down.’ Blythe says.

‘Alessi maintains a depth of range driven by design, and it’s their design that is the differentiator.’

‘A large part of that is designing objects that have a meaningful connection to everyday life,’ agrees design historian Anna Caione, noting that often, it’s with a note of humour. One of Alessi’s iconic pieces is the delightful Anna G. corkscrew, inspired by Alessandro Mendini’s fiancée Anna- a playful design that aptly catches celebration, dancing, and amore, all the things that go with wine.
Today, perhaps the most visible aspect of Italian design excellence is its furniture manufacturers, of which Cassina, founded in 1927 by brothers Cesare and Umberto Cassina, is an undisputed leader.  Originally producing an eclectic range of small wooden pieces, supplying work for ships, hotels and restaurants helped the workshop build a reputation for upholstered furnishings and quality work.

Toward the end of the 40s, Cassina opened itself to working with outside designers, marking their passage from artisanal to industrial scale. Like Alessi,  this step proved remarkably fruitful, letting some of the most dazzlingly inventive architects and designers of the twentieth century- Gio Ponti, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and more recently, Mario Bellini and Zaha Haddid- create refined, smart and quality objects that became design classics in themselves.

Among these was Gaetano Pesce, who experimented with unlikely materials in his concept of ‘individual units in mass production’- pieces that could be tweaked during production to give a one of a kind, ‘crafted’ cachet. The audacious result was his Feltri chair, made from felt impregnated with resin and moulded into a precarious seeming, but sturdy, chair- another star of the MoMA collection. The striking flared design was a witty yet respectful response to Cassina’s early history crafting luxury ship furniture, and offers a quirky appeal.

Prestige manufacturer Kartell takes a different approach, placing the industrial process squarely at the centre of stunning design. Founded in 1949, the consumer plastics manufacturer became known as a technical innovator, pioneering the revolutionary injection moulding technique that would become its signature.

When it expanded into home furnishings in 1963, Kartell made its mark bringing functional design to daily living; and although plastic was far from a cheap alternative at the time, mass production meant affordability. Designer and Kartell technical director Gino Colombini together with architect and designer Anna Castelli Ferrieri set about bringing a swinging style to even the most utilitarian household objects: carpet beaters, wash basins, and dustpans were redesigned with bright colours and ergonomic shapes, on trend in the vibrant Italy of the 60s.
Manufactured they might be, but Kartell pieces are nevertheless recognised by savvy Europeans as elite design. The epitome of this was Kartell’s 2002 collaboration with French designer Phillippe Starck, to create the Louis Ghost Chair. A daring fusion of baroque luxury and cutting edge minimalism moulded in transparent polycarbonate, the Louis Ghost was an instant design icon- and with almost two million sold, remains one of Kartell’s most successful products.

‘It’s that amalgamation of craftsmanship and manufacturing, the tension of innovation while staying true to history that produces superior design,’ reflects Blythe on the Maserati Alfieri, noting echoes of its design heritage in its silken lines. ‘It’s the touch of the master’s hand.’

‘The care with which we value and select design is an idea that goes to the very heart of culture. It says who we are as people.’

Published Il Tridente, 2016