La Dolce Vita | Our top 10 Italian design masters

These iconic Italian design masters will forever be immortalised by their innovative designs and their unique creative discipline that challenged and reimagined the world around them. 

Whether they were known for their towering skyscrapers, their lighting or their sofas, they made modernity accessible and embraced a new way of life, continuing to inspire the modern home of today.

 

MARIO BELLINI

Designer Mario Bellini’s long and distinguished career is propelled by his natural curiosity, his guiding principle is to combine functional rigour with finesse.

Best known for his design work with Italian designer Olivetti, he helped to reshape the office landscape into a more playful and colourful space, banishing the muted and intimidating tones of tans and greys that dominated the era.

At Tigmi Trading we are constantly inspired by the innovative ways he reimagined the scape of the home, supporting our ability to modify based on our individual needs, and reimagining the structure of furniture design by creating designs that were well considered and completed with the highest integrity.

Some great examples of this can be seen with the Camaleonda modular sofa set.

Allowing several configurations, as a two-seater sofa with a footstool, or removing the backs to use as a daybed. This design became famous after it was included in the ‘Italy and The New Modern Landscape’ exhibition at the MoMA in 1972.

The iconic ‘Le Bambole’ chair was inspired by the way a paper bag was set on the ground and squashed. Sculptural and bold, all parts are shaped like large cushions - offering comfort and the feeling of a soft embrace for the user.

Now as an elder statesman of design, he has mastered an oeuvre so complex and original it is impossible to characterize his work as pertaining to one style. We imagine that for as long as he is curious, he will continue to create, surprise and delight.

We believe that his work and vision he helped shape our idea of the modern home and gave us the foresight to show us what it could be. The designs he created are ageless, existing not in the past or in the future, but adapting and changing with us each day – much like a living body. 

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VICO MAGISTRETTI

Vico Magistretti once referred to himself as Robinson Crusoe, “I’m constantly striving to make something that makes life easier for myself.” This constant search for ways to satisfy utilitarian needs lead this practical designer to create always with the end goal in mind – even considering the industrial production of each piece before letting functionality and purpose lead the way.

His sense of practicality perhaps imbued by the second world war, which in 1943 bought his university education to a halt and saw the city of Milan destroyed. Although it was the post-war ‘Rationalist’ movement that summoned a new guard of Italian design and saw the rise of Italian industry that was most formative to his career. This unparalleled era bought a sense of opportunity, Magistretti returned to Milan graduating in Architecture and spent the next 10 years designing at least 14 projects as part of the reconstruction operations in the city.

It was not till 1960 when he designed his first product, the Carimate Chair for Cassina that began a new trajectory in his design career. 

Known greatly for his work with Kartell and Artemide with works that were made from synthetic structure, he always preferred to work with natural materials. He considered matters of recyclability and put great importance on creating work that had longevity, “Design is not fashion, for me good design must be for at least fifty years.”

 

“Design is not fashion, for me good design must be for at least fifty years.”

His Maralunga Sofa introduced the idea of an adjustable height and head rest by means of a bicycle chain embedded in the foam cushions. This concept was so avant-garde that Cassina patented the design, despite the fact the concept had almost became ‘state of the art’ which might have opened the way for copyists to follow.

It was his philosophy that the consumer products he designed must offer comfort in use, be of high quality and have a long shelf life – but above all he needed his products to be functional. He held no value in decorative design that served no purpose or functionality.

Often working against the current, it would soon turn around and follow him.

 In 1967 he won the Compasso d’Oro with his Eclisse light – which was the perfect balance between form and function, design and utility and is still in production today. The concept foundation lies in its functionality which adjusts the intensity of the light through its rotating inner shade that ‘eclipses’ the light source. This piece is part of the permanent collection in MoMA and the Triennale Design Museum in Milan.

Steeped in authenticity, his work continues to inspire and provide purpose now years after first conception.

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ANGELO MANGIAROTTI

Angelo Mangiarotti strongly believed that a relationship between the designer and their matter (or material) was essential in truly understanding the fundamentals of design. Forming an affinity between himself and the matter he felt that design should be means to let out the voice of materials - with their own specific language.

This ‘language’ is presented in his design of the Eros table, which structural design incorporated a gravity-based embossing between the table top and the truncated-concial leg on which it stands. Created with a special embedding with no joints or clamps it simply allowed the table to lock in to position, with the additional weight increasing the overall stability of the entire structure.

His conscious design approach inspires us today more than ever - while his work was inventive, he also strongly believed in setting limitations to his design process, never straying from the purpose or the real need of the user.

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WILLY RIZZO

With a style so unique it placed him outside of Italy’s strong design traditions, Willy Rizzo never had formal training in design. Changing from a career as a successful photographer, his initial works were engineered to the taste of his elite and ready-made customer base that were his friends from the fashion and film industries. 

Effortlessly blending neoclassicism with modern styles, his work attracted a swathe of Italian high-society, with his early works commissioned by the likes of Salvador Dali and Brigitte Bardot.  In constant demand, Rizzo set up his own design firm in Tivoli to keep up and over the next ten years he produced over thirty pieces of furniture.

 

His pieces combined clean lines with bold geometric forms, seen in his steel-branded travertine dining tables and bronze table lamps. While he bought modernist principles of functionality and simplified forms, he deliberately avoided mass-production and the influence of modern design of the time that steered towards the use of modern materials and industrial design. His response, or rather oppose, was to use traditional materials and craftsmanship to contend contemporary design trends.

While he is often remembered for his contribution as a photographer, his furniture is still exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum – and his timeless designs are still coveted today.

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MASSIMO VIGNELLI

With a truly innovative approach, Massimo Vignelli was a protagonist in the history of design. His designs celebrated rationality and the elegance of simplicity with an aesthetic rooted in deep cultural sensitivity before being a matter of style or taste.

He conceived design as a form of pureness and reveled in simplicity, using basic geometric forms in all of his work across both furniture design and graphic design.

Vignelli believed that quality was an attitude, a level you reached when your work truly sings to you or touches you. However, he strongly drew a line between the notion of design as art, “Design is not art. Design is utilitarian, art is useful but not utilitarian.” It was important to him to evaluate his clients and differentiate their needs over their desires. He amazed with his ability to digest a load of information and somehow clarify it, an accomplishment he set out achieve in his life and be remembered for.

 

“A good design is a responsible design, expressing an intellectual elegance.” 

While his influence on graphic design stands more prominently over his work in furniture, he was guided by the same principle in both worlds, to access and simplify everything around him. “A good design is a responsible design, expressing an intellectual elegance.”

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FRANCO ALBINI

Franco Albini first established himself as a furniture designer in the 1930’s and went on to become a leading figure of 20th century Italian Rationalism. Much of his furniture was designed to make use of the inexpensive raw materials of the area, in the post war years when other materials were scarce. While his work tends toward formal reduction, it also maintains a charm and warmth that stems from his enduring respect for context and tradition.

During his career he collaborated with leading design manufacturers including Brionvega, Arflex Furniture and Arteluce and was responsible for the design of interiors and buildings including many of Milan's subway stations. His popularity surged in the 1940-1950’s when his work with Cassina paved the way to his signature style, seen in some of his most famous designs in shelving and chairs.

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GAE AULENTI

With a body of work that covers industrial and exhibition design, furniture, graphics, stage design, lighting and interior design Gae Aulenti was also a provoking theoretician who became one of the loudest voices of postmodernism as the 20th century progressed.

Defying the wishes of her parents, she studied architecture at Politecnico di Milaso – graduating in 1954 – one of only two women in the class.

From 1955-1965 she was a contributor and Art Director for an avant-garde architectural magazine ‘Casabella’. During this time her unique design philosophy emerged, and she became an active proponent of the Neo Liberty movement and championed the revival of traditional motifs and individual expression which had been discouraged during the years dominated by modernism.

 

Some of her most important designs were the Sgarsul Rocking Chair (1962), the April Folding Chair (1964) a take on the classic Directors Chair, the Giova lamp (1964), The Pipistrello Lamp (1965) Tavolo Con Ruote Table (1980) and the Sanmarco table (1984) – she felt that furniture should never dominate a room, keeping her chairs and sofas low-slung.

Her architectural career is remarkable for the fact that she salvaged and repurposed a substantial number of buildings that were neglected and set for demolition.  In 1980 she was given the challenge to transform the old Gare d’Orsay railway station in Paris which she accomplished creating the famous Musee d’Orsay.

Rather than selecting one style and applying it to a space, Gae Aulenti believed instead that the space and it’s inhabitants should inform the design around them. She called this work ‘double ambiguity’ working in existing contexts, juxtaposing elements of the past within the present.   

She leaves a legacy of design that is as distinctive, versatile and defiant as the woman herself.

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GIO PONTI

Gio Ponti one of the most influential Italian architects and designers was one of the biggest players of Italian Modernism.

Throughout his successful career he worked as a designer for over 120 companies, as an architect he built in 13 countries, as a magazine editor he produced 560 issues, as an academic he lectured in 24 countries – and all this is just a fraction of his impressive output.

Designing homes from the inside out, penning ‘Ponti’ style – his aesthetic was a modern display of Italian panache that resembled change within the home and adapting to a new wave lifestyle. All carefully designed down to the finest detail, nothing was left down to chance and within them he created a continuous ‘fluid’ space.

His signature furniture piece that exists within the collections of MoMA and Vitra Design Museum is the ‘superleggera’ chair – produced by Cassina in 1957 (translates to superlightweight)

He was a cultural catalyst who celebrated other designers’ work and in his time with Domus and Stile Magazine he used his role to champion designers and artists whom he admired. He was also particularly supportive of young designers – especially if their thinking challenged his own.

 

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AFRA AND TOBIA SCARPA

Meeting first as architecture students in Venice in the mid 1950’s, in the 1960’s the couple had established their own design office in Montebelluna and began to design modern furniture based on the principles of Le Corbusier.

Embracing a wide variety of materials, the pair enjoyed a collaborative career designing glass, lighting and furniture, interiors and architecture. With a decidedly modernist aesthetic, they prioritized pared-back elegance and comfort and their designs complement both classical and modernist design aesthetic with ease.

Winning the Compasso d’Oro for their Soriana Sofa, a low and soft design that invites the sitter to really sink in. Its standout feature is the minimalist chromed wire structure that cinch and push the cushions in to place, adding another element to what would otherwise be an amorphous design.  Other notable projects include the iconic 1960 Bastiano collection for Gavina – later reissued by Knoll and the Papillion Lamp for Flos, one of the first lighting designs to use halogen technology.

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