von Thomas Edelmann
B&B Italia wird 50 und hilft noch immer Veränderungen auf die Sprünge.
“Fifty years of contemporary design culture” – so reads the guiding principle of a number of activities marking the jubilee of furniture company B&B Italia. A presentation at the Impluvium in the Palazzo dell’Arte at the Triennale is being staged under the motto “The Perfect Density”, which may automatically lead one to think about the type and density of upholstered furniture, but what is really meant here is the density of ideas and projects. Eight themed towers are to host a pulsating presentation with cutting-edge media. The advance presentation by the producer of this show features, at the sides, an oversized image of the company’s founder Piero Ambrogio Busnelli, who died in 2014 and who surveys the scene with his customary detached overview.
Things get a little quieter in the showroom on Via Durini: There, the emotional and yet very informative and appreciative film, entitled “Poetry in the shape. When design meets industry”, is shown at hourly intervals. Those traveling to Milan should be sure to save space for a hefty tome in their suitcases. While the 21st Triennale enquires how to continue with design after the design, the latest cultural-historical self-presentation from B&B Italia heralds “The Long Life of Design in Italy”. It is the follow-up to “Un’industria per il design” (An Industry for Design), an important work of corporate and design literature, which already comprised several hundred pages as long ago as 1982 and offered equally intense portraits of both Busnelli as the man behind it all, and the designers and the most important projects they developed together.
When the scope remained broad
The year of the company’s foundation, 1966, marked a point in time when many of the furniture manufacturers located in Brianza, to the north of Milan, were considering how their business models and their portfolios should look in the future. Inspired by the enterprising Dino Gavina, Cassina developed a comprehensive collection of new interpretations of historic avant-garde furniture, and collaborated with contemporary architects at the same time. The experimental room for manoeuver that some manufacturers opened up and in which designers made a name for themselves at that time appears unthinkable from today’s perspective. At the same time, with brand formation and internationalization, the foundations were laid for the current international activities of many furniture companies; most recently under conditions of heightened competitive pressure, which forces everybody to take note of innovations that have already proved successful among their neighbors.
This was is in contrast to the era of the “mid-century modern”, that now much-admired and aesthetically imitated second pioneering age of design. With the “Superleggera” chair by Gio Ponti, Cassina had already proven its outstanding craftsmanship by the end of the 1950s. At that time only few companies were capable of producing these sorts of lightweight constructions made with painstakingly precision. New forms of collaboration between manufacturers led to the formation of new companies. Thus lighting manufacturer Flos emerged from the collaboration between Gavina and Cassina. The courage and willingness to initiate projects and continually advance them further very much characterized the mood at the day.
Reflexes like a race car driver
The inspirers and the inspired were entrepreneurial characters like Piero Ambrogio Busnelli. He was born in Meda on 13 April 1926, meaning 90 years ago. He grew up in poverty during the war, and when his father died, the eight-person family had to fend for itself. Busnelli was sent to the school for orphans. The local butcher, who had given the family goods on credit, eventually told him they would have no more meat. This was a disaster for the young Busnelli, and was later echoed in his passion for big-game hunting. “He has quick reflexes like a Formula 1 driver”, was how Marco Zanuso described him, “he makes decisions there and then.”
In 1952 he teamed up with his brother to launch an initial shared company. Like the many professions he had previously tried and mastered, this initial venture didn’t fulfil him. His brother, on the other hand, was satisfied with what they achieved – a feeling that remained alien to Busnelli. So he sought further challenges. The design industry was his ultimate dream. How could one move away from the principles of contemporary artisan activity towards the use of new synthetic materials and methods of labor organization? At 40 he joined Cesare Cassina in founding the joint venture C&B Italia as a junior partner. Bob Noorda created the first logo, which was soon reworked by Enrico Trabacchi.
Playing by the rules of industrial production
The first products were based on metal frames, which were coated in plastic instead of the plastic simply being placed on the frame. Larger quantities, reduced costs, consistent brand formation: the rules of industrial production were now to become a matter of course for furniture manufacturers too. Afra and Tobia Scarpa, Mario Bellini and Marco Zanuso were among the first designers, whilst products like the “Coronado” armchair or the “Lombrico” endless sofa defined the first wave of designs with which the company documented its power of technological innovation. Cassina proposed Gaetano Pesce to create the design for the now iconic armchair “Up” within the new firm, then still known as C&B.
From C&B comes B&B
After seven years, Cassina and Busnelli parted company. In 1973 C&B became B&B Italia, giving Busnelli the opportunity to pursue his vision further. Thus, also in 1973, he moved into the company headquarters in Novedrate which had been designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. Nicknamed the “Piccolo Pompidou”, it pre-empted ideas from both architects, who were working in parallel on the Pompidou Centre in Paris. And Busnelli, who spontaneously decided on a design because of its sheer madness in placing the building technology visibly on the outside, suddenly found himself following the tradition of a certain Adriano Olivetti, who likewise left nothing to chance when it came to product, graphic design and company architecture, but rather developed these in cooperation with the best designers of his time.
In 1972 Mario Bellini created not only the mechanical calculator “logo” for Olivetti, but also his informal armchair and sofa range “Le Bambole”. Photographed by Olivero Toscani with New York model Donna Jordan, who was part of Andy Warhol’s circle, the campaign met with international acclaim. B&B Italia opened its first international showroom, designed by Afra and Tobia Scapa, in 1976 in New York.
Contemporaneity written large
Designers and architects like Antonio Citterio established themselves in cooperation with Busnelli. Citterio further developed his modern, always justifiable and appealing design language in evolutionary style. An initial milestone, the “Diesis” range of sofas, is still part of the range today. These days Citterio’s models make up his own designer alphabet, using the first names of famous colleagues from A as in “Arne” to R as in “Ray”. Designs like “City” or “Domus” were not only relevant for the development of B&B Italia, but for the further development of the entire industry.
Thus B&B Italia continually helped to kick-start change in furniture styles – and in doing so helped to make designers famous and popular, from Patricia Urquiola to Naoto Fukasawa to Jeffrey Bernett. Others – like David Chipperfield or Zaha Hadid – who had long since made a name for themselves, found a partner here for the implementation of their ideas. In the second generation of the family company, its innovative roots might not always be immediately apparent. Yet if the prognoses prove accurate, Novedrate and Milan will see many more chapters added to this company’s design history with its innate sense of contemporaneity.