written by:
illustrated by:
June 15, 2011
Originally published in Beach Houses We Love

From Marble to mobili, Italy has been a, if not the, design mecca for the last century. Here's why.

1 / 61
Futurist Manifesto 1909 illustration
1909The "Futurist Manifesto" is Published.
2 / 61
Boccioni sculpture illustration
1913Boccioni completes his sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.
3 / 61
Alessi logo illustration
1921Giovanni Alessi founds the Alessi Company.
4 / 61
Novecento Movement 1922 illustration
1922Beginning of novecento neoclassical architectural movement
5 / 61
First triennale 1923 illustration
1923First Triennale di Milano (originally held in Monza as a Biennial exhibit).
6 / 61
Razionalismo Gruppo 1926 illustration
1926Founding of Gruppo 7, a collective that promotes Italian razionalismo.
7 / 61
Domus Magazine 1928 illustration
1928Domus magazine is founded.
8 / 61
Renato Guiseppe Bertelli illustration
1933Renato Giuseppe Bertelli completes his sculpture Profilo del Duce.
9 / 61
Bialetti Moka 1933 illustration
1933Bialetti Moka coffeemaker introduced.
10 / 61
Luminator Lamp illustration
1933Pietro Chiesa and Gio Ponti design Luminator lamp.
11 / 61
Terragni Casa del Fascio Rationalismo illustration
1936Completion of Terragni: Casa del Fascio, quintessential razionalismo.
12 / 61
Fiat 500 1936 illustration
1936Fiat 500 Topolino introduced.
13 / 61
Seggiovia Chair illustration
1940Franco Albini designs Seggiovia chair.
14 / 61
Molto Piaggio Scooter 1943 illustration
1943Moto Piaggio 5 scooter debuts.
15 / 61
La Pavoni Espresso Machine Redesign illustration
1948Gio Ponti redesigns La Pavoni espresso machine.
16 / 61
1950 Ski Rack by Kartell illustration
1950Kartell debuts its first product: the K101 Ski Rack by Carlo Barassi and Roberto Menghi.
17 / 61
Gala Chair by Franco Albini illustration
1950Franco Albini designs Gala chair.
18 / 61
Missoni textile rug
1953Ottavio and Rosita Missoni found the legendary Missoni fashion house.
19 / 61
Mezzadro Stool by Castiglioni Brothers illustration
1957Castiglioni Brothers design Mezzadro stool.
20 / 61
Superleggera Chair by Gio Ponti
1957Gio Ponti designs Superleggera chair.
21 / 61
Animali Puzzle by Enzo Mari illustration
1959Enzo Mari designs 16 Animali puzzle.
22 / 61
Torre Velasca illustration
1959Torre Valasca is built in Milan.
23 / 61
Gatto Lamp by Flos illustration
1960Achille Castiglioni designs Gatto lamp for Flos.
24 / 61
Valentino advertistement illustration
1960Fashion designer Valentino Garavani becomes known for "Valentino red."
25 / 61
Salone de Mobile 1961 logo illustration
1961First Salone Internazionale del Mobile (International Furniture Fair of Milan) is held.
26 / 61
1962 Ferrari 250 GTO illustration
1962Ferrari releases 250 GTO.
27 / 61
1962 Sapper Zanuso Brionvega
1962Sapper-Zanuso design a TV for Brionvega.
28 / 61
1964 Nesso Lamp by Giancarlo Mattioli
1964Giancarlo Mattioli designs Nesso lamp.
29 / 61
Superarchitettura Show poster 1966
1966Superstudio holds Superarchitettura show.
30 / 61
Eclisse lamp by Artemide illustration
1966Vico Magistretti designs Eclisse lamp for Artemide.
31 / 61
1969 Valentine typewriter by Olivetti
1969Olivetti introduces Valentine typewriter.
32 / 61
Up Chair by Gaetano Pesce 1969
1969Gaetano Pesce designs UP chair.
33 / 61
Boby Storage Trolley by Joe Colombo
19700Joe Colombo designs Boby Storage Trolly.
34 / 61
Brion-Vega Cemetery by Carlo Scarpa
1970Carlo Scarpa begins design of the Brion-Vega Cemetery.
35 / 61
The New Domestic Landscape poster illustration
1972MoMA holds Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibit.
36 / 61
Autocostruzione by Enzo Mari
1973Enzo Mari designs Autocostruzione chair.
37 / 61
Magis 1976 logo illustration
1976Eugenio Perazza founds Magis.
38 / 61
Guilio Cappelini portrait illustration
1977Giulio Cappellini becomes creative director of Cappellini.
39 / 61
1981 Memphis Group Salone de Mobile illustration
1981Memphis Group makes their debut at Salone del Mobile.
40 / 61
Altair Vase by Ettore Sottsass
1981Ettore Sottsass designs Altair vase.
41 / 61
Italian desk 1986
1986Bolidismo movement is founded.
42 / 61
Tolomeo Lamp by Giancarlo Fassina and Michele De Lucchi
1986Michele de Lucchi and Giancarlo Fassina design Tolomeo lamp.
43 / 61
Parigi Chair by Aldo Rossi
1989Aldo Rossi designs Parigi chair.
44 / 61
Merdolino Toilet Brush by Alessi
1993Stefano Giovannoni designs Merdolino toilet brush for Alessi.
45 / 61
Madonna Girlie Show costumes by Dolce & Gabbana
1993Dolce & Gabbana create costumes for Madonna's "Girlie Show" tour.
46 / 61
Dolly Chair by Antonio Citterio for Kartell
1996Antonio Citterio designs Dolly chair for Kartell.
47 / 61
Rodolfo Dordoni Minotti portrait
1997Rodolfo Dordoni becomes creative director of Minotti.
48 / 61
La Mandarina Pen by Giulio Iacchetti
1997Giulio Iacchetti designs La Mandarina pen.
49 / 61
Moscardino Forks by Matteo Ragni
2000Matteo Ragni and Giulio Iacchetti design Moscardino fork.
50 / 61
Meditarraneo Fish Bowl by Carlo Contin
2002Carlo Contin designs Mediterraneo fish bowl
51 / 61
Uto Lamp by Lagranja Foscarini
2005Lagranja designs UTO lamp for Foscarini.
52 / 61
Brush-ring by Paolo Ulian
2005Paolo Ulian designs Brush Ring toothbrush.
53 / 61
Helix Corkscrew by Alessandra Baldereschi
2006Alessandra Baldereschi designs Helix corkscrew.
54 / 61
Shanghai Sofa by Carlo Colombo
2006Carlo Colombo designs the rectilinear Shanghai sofa system.
55 / 61
Piero Lissoni illustration
2008BY Lissoni launches with the cooperation of Boffi.
56 / 61
Skitsch Salone de Mobile sofa illustration
2009Skitsch debuts at Salone del Mobile.
57 / 61
Fergana Collection by Moroso
2009Patricia Urquiola designs Fergana collection for Moroso.
58 / 61
Venice Architecture Biennale 2010 illustration
2010Venice Architecture Biennale attracts over 170,00 visitors.
59 / 61
Sessantuna Table by Gaetano Pesce
2010Gaetano Pesce and Cassina celebrate Italy's 150th anniversary with Sessantuna.
60 / 61
Alberto Alessi portrait
2011Alberto Alessi becomes curator of Milan Triennale.
61 / 61
Italian design icons

Italy was a design powerhouse throughout the 20th century. Regional fabrication techniques made it an innovation hub, and Italy’s staggering emphasis on family-run businesses has more than once staved off the short-sightedness of profit-driven design in favor of risk and beauty. But with the Futurists looking dated, and the dolce vita icons of the postwar boom–—think Olivetti’s groovy typewriters and all those putt-putting Vespas–—wafting a whiff of kitsch, what’s in store for Italian design now?

It’s been almost a century since the first iconic products started flying off assembly lines. Bialetti’s 1933 octagonal Moka coffeepot ushered aluminum into the kitchen. Alessi’s cold-pressed steel wares, made in Piedmont, followed. In the 1950s and ‘60s, family-run production houses embraced postwar materials and technologies creating a golden age of dazzling household objects. B&B Italia, Kartell, Flos, and countless others embraced the unexpected: Gaetano Pesce’s mammary-inspired inflatable UP chair; Anna Castelli Ferrieri’s stacking storage cylinders; and the Castiglioni brothers’ now-ubiquitous Arco lamp with its marble-footed, sweeping cantilever.

But today, thanks to feckless leadership and a sluggish economy teetering on the brink of crisis, the Italian stallion is looking rather like a gelding. Many small-scale manufacturers are struggling into oblivion, while others have yielded to corporate mergers that too often embrace the bland over the bold. Some notable exceptions—Moroso, Flos, Venini, to name a few—keep harnessing their inimitable production experience to explore cutting edge materials and deliver world-class products. And with an increasingly global pool of talent, Italian design doesn’t necessarily mean Italian designers.

The good news is that struggle is often a catalyst, as was surveyed in 2006 at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum in the exhibit The New Italian Design. The next generation of Italian designers is cosmopolitan, irreverent, and sometimes angry. Guilio Iacchetti, one prominent voice among them, coined the term “disobedient objects” to describe works that the Italian website Designboom says “strengthen the democratization of design” and “suggest deviations, short circuits, and contrasts.” Don’t be surprised to see the glossy sheen of history replaced with a prickly sense of engagement. The next crop of Italian icons may well confront us with ethics, politics, and a healthy dose of irony, but odds are they’ll still be immaculately made in Italy.


Click here for a slideshow timeline of important events in Italian design.

Click here for a slideshow timeline of important events in Italian design.


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