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.

  • 
  1909The "Futurist Manifesto" is Published.
    1909The "Futurist Manifesto" is Published.
  • 
  1913Boccioni completes his sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.
    1913Boccioni completes his sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.
  • 
  1921Giovanni Alessi founds the Alessi Company.
    1921Giovanni Alessi founds the Alessi Company.
  • 
  1922Beginning of novecento neoclassical architectural movement
    1922Beginning of novecento neoclassical architectural movement
  • 
  1923First Triennale di Milano (originally held in Monza as a Biennial exhibit).
    1923First Triennale di Milano (originally held in Monza as a Biennial exhibit).
  • 
  1926Founding of Gruppo 7, a collective that promotes Italian razionalismo.
    1926Founding of Gruppo 7, a collective that promotes Italian razionalismo.
  • 
  1928Domus magazine is founded.
    1928Domus magazine is founded.
  • 
  1933Renato Giuseppe Bertelli completes his sculpture Profilo del Duce.
    1933Renato Giuseppe Bertelli completes his sculpture Profilo del Duce.
  • 
  1933Bialetti Moka coffeemaker introduced.
    1933Bialetti Moka coffeemaker introduced.
  • 
  1933Pietro Chiesa and Gio Ponti design Luminator lamp.
    1933Pietro Chiesa and Gio Ponti design Luminator lamp.
  • 
  1936Completion of Terragni: Casa del Fascio, quintessential razionalismo.
    1936Completion of Terragni: Casa del Fascio, quintessential razionalismo.
  • 
  1936Fiat 500 Topolino introduced.
    1936Fiat 500 Topolino introduced.
  • 
  1940Franco Albini designs Seggiovia chair.
    1940Franco Albini designs Seggiovia chair.
  • 
  1943Moto Piaggio 5 scooter debuts.
    1943Moto Piaggio 5 scooter debuts.
  • 
  1948Gio Ponti redesigns La Pavoni espresso machine.
    1948Gio Ponti redesigns La Pavoni espresso machine.
  • 
  1950Kartell debuts its first product: the K101 Ski Rack by Carlo Barassi and Roberto Menghi.
    1950Kartell debuts its first product: the K101 Ski Rack by Carlo Barassi and Roberto Menghi.
  • 
  1950Franco Albini designs Gala chair.
    1950Franco Albini designs Gala chair.
  • 
  1953Ottavio and Rosita Missoni found the legendary Missoni fashion house.
    1953Ottavio and Rosita Missoni found the legendary Missoni fashion house.
  • 
  1957Castiglioni Brothers design Mezzadro stool.
    1957Castiglioni Brothers design Mezzadro stool.
  • 
  1957Gio Ponti designs Superleggera chair.
    1957Gio Ponti designs Superleggera chair.
  • 
  1959Enzo Mari designs 16 Animali puzzle.
    1959Enzo Mari designs 16 Animali puzzle.
  • 
  1959Torre Valasca is built in Milan.
    1959Torre Valasca is built in Milan.
  • 
  1960Achille Castiglioni designs Gatto lamp for Flos.
    1960Achille Castiglioni designs Gatto lamp for Flos.
  • 
  1960Fashion designer Valentino Garavani becomes known for "Valentino red."
    1960Fashion designer Valentino Garavani becomes known for "Valentino red."
  • 
  1961First Salone Internazionale del Mobile (International Furniture Fair of Milan) is held.
    1961First Salone Internazionale del Mobile (International Furniture Fair of Milan) is held.
  • 
  1962Ferrari releases 250 GTO.
    1962Ferrari releases 250 GTO.
  • 
  1962Sapper-Zanuso design a TV for Brionvega.
    1962Sapper-Zanuso design a TV for Brionvega.
  • 
  1964Giancarlo Mattioli designs Nesso lamp.
    1964Giancarlo Mattioli designs Nesso lamp.
  • 
  1966Superstudio holds Superarchitettura show.
    1966Superstudio holds Superarchitettura show.
  • 
  1966Vico Magistretti designs Eclisse lamp for Artemide.
    1966Vico Magistretti designs Eclisse lamp for Artemide.
  • 
  1969Olivetti introduces Valentine typewriter.
    1969Olivetti introduces Valentine typewriter.
  • 
  1969Gaetano Pesce designs UP chair.
    1969Gaetano Pesce designs UP chair.
  • 
  19700Joe Colombo designs Boby Storage Trolly.
    19700Joe Colombo designs Boby Storage Trolly.
  • 
  1970Carlo Scarpa begins design of the Brion-Vega Cemetery.
    1970Carlo Scarpa begins design of the Brion-Vega Cemetery.
  • 
  1972MoMA holds Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibit.
    1972MoMA holds Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibit.
  • 
  1973Enzo Mari designs Autocostruzione chair.
    1973Enzo Mari designs Autocostruzione chair.
  • 
  1976Eugenio Perazza founds Magis.
    1976Eugenio Perazza founds Magis.
  • 
  1977Giulio Cappellini becomes creative director of Cappellini.
    1977Giulio Cappellini becomes creative director of Cappellini.
  • 
  1981Memphis Group makes their debut at Salone del Mobile.
    1981Memphis Group makes their debut at Salone del Mobile.
  • 
  1981Ettore Sottsass designs Altair vase.
    1981Ettore Sottsass designs Altair vase.
  • 
  1986Bolidismo movement is founded.
    1986Bolidismo movement is founded.
  • 
  1986Michele de Lucchi and Giancarlo Fassina design Tolomeo lamp.
    1986Michele de Lucchi and Giancarlo Fassina design Tolomeo lamp.
  • 
  1989Aldo Rossi designs Parigi chair.
    1989Aldo Rossi designs Parigi chair.
  • 
  1993Stefano Giovannoni designs Merdolino toilet brush for Alessi.
    1993Stefano Giovannoni designs Merdolino toilet brush for Alessi.
  • 
  1993Dolce & Gabbana create costumes for Madonna's "Girlie Show" tour.
    1993Dolce & Gabbana create costumes for Madonna's "Girlie Show" tour.
  • 
  1996Antonio Citterio designs Dolly chair for Kartell.
    1996Antonio Citterio designs Dolly chair for Kartell.
  • 
  1997Rodolfo Dordoni becomes creative director of Minotti.
    1997Rodolfo Dordoni becomes creative director of Minotti.
  • 
  1997Giulio Iacchetti designs La Mandarina pen.
    1997Giulio Iacchetti designs La Mandarina pen.
  • 
  2000Matteo Ragni and Giulio Iacchetti design Moscardino fork.
    2000Matteo Ragni and Giulio Iacchetti design Moscardino fork.
  • 
  2002Carlo Contin designs Mediterraneo fish bowl
    2002Carlo Contin designs Mediterraneo fish bowl
  • 
  2005Lagranja designs UTO lamp for Foscarini.
    2005Lagranja designs UTO lamp for Foscarini.
  • 
  2005Paolo Ulian designs Brush Ring toothbrush.
    2005Paolo Ulian designs Brush Ring toothbrush.
  • 
  2006Alessandra Baldereschi designs Helix corkscrew.
    2006Alessandra Baldereschi designs Helix corkscrew.
  • 
  2006Carlo Colombo designs the rectilinear Shanghai sofa system.
    2006Carlo Colombo designs the rectilinear Shanghai sofa system.
  • 
  2008BY Lissoni launches with the cooperation of Boffi.
    2008BY Lissoni launches with the cooperation of Boffi.
  • 
  2009Skitsch debuts at Salone del Mobile.
    2009Skitsch debuts at Salone del Mobile.
  • 
  2009Patricia Urquiola designs Fergana collection for Moroso.
    2009Patricia Urquiola designs Fergana collection for Moroso.
  • 
  2010Venice Architecture Biennale attracts over 170,00 visitors.
    2010Venice Architecture Biennale attracts over 170,00 visitors.
  • 
  2010Gaetano Pesce and Cassina celebrate Italy's 150th anniversary with Sessantuna.
    2010Gaetano Pesce and Cassina celebrate Italy's 150th anniversary with Sessantuna.
  • 
  2011Alberto Alessi becomes curator of Milan Triennale.
    2011Alberto Alessi becomes curator of Milan Triennale.
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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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