From Brianza out into the wide world
by Thomas Edelmann
Apr 13, 2015
Workers at the Giussano factory of "Mobilificio Angelo Molteni", 1947 - Photo © Molteni&C

Ein prototypisches Designunternehmen: Molteni, vor 80 Jahren in der Brianza gegründet, mittlerweile von der dritten Generation der Familie geleitet, präsentiert sich im Umfeld der modernen Kunst.

Poor soil for agriculture, fantastic conditions for the furniture industry: Since the region north of Milan has always been considered as good as infertile, traditionally craftsman have located to Brianza. The area offered plenty of space for expanding companies that wanted to benefit from the close vicinity of the discerning consumers in Milan and Lombardy. Together they formed that typically Italian “distretto”, with suppliers and manufacturers working closely together, and down through the decades companies thus grew that emerged as world-famous furniture brands.

In 1934, Angelo and Giuseppina Molteni founded their crafts workshop in Giussano in Brianza, and now Molteni is celebrating its 80th anniversary. During the Salone del Mobile (and afterwards thru to June 30) the company will not only be presenting novelties at the trade-fair grounds, but also under the motto of “80!Molteni” will display historical documents and furniture in the midst of the spaces in Ignazio Gardella’s 1950s Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM) in the neoclassicist Villa Reale – the show is curated by Jasper Morrison and boasts graphic design by Studio Cerri & Associati. The exhibition is also in memory of architect Gradella, one of the masterminds of Italian “Razionalismo” in Milan, that highly contradictory school of architectural design that in part admired Fascism, was later rejected by it and became the leading school of architecture in post-War Italy. It was Gradella who dreamed up the GAM’s typical interiors, which were recently redecorated and now house the collections of Carlo Grassi and Giuseppe Vismara, two art-loving entrepreneurs.

Alliance with design

“Quality, research and innovation” are the concepts the exhibition-makers have relied on to present the entire Molteni Group with its four companies. The crafts workshop of the 1930s soon morphed into a company with an industrial production system and an international distribution circuit. “1968 brought us the alliance with design,” is how Carlo Molteni explains the hitherto most important upheaval in Molteni’s corporate history. It was an upheaval in which, as a representative of the second generation at the helm of the company, he himself played a decisive part. In the immediate post-War years, with the swiftly growing need for furnishings, Molteni moved into industrial furniture making. It initially produced conventional bedroom and period furniture. Not until 1968 did it turn consistently to design.

Mature technical refinements that serve the user without being obtrusive remain its specialty to this day. The list of those who have worked for Molteni and its brands includes Werner Blaser and Richard Sapper, Michele De Lucci, Afra and Tobia Scarpa. Today, designers such as Patricia Urquiola and Arik Levy, Ron Gilad, Rodolfo Dordoni, Jean Nouvel as well as Foster + Associates represent the Molteni&C brand, not to forget Gio Ponti – the re-edition of his historical designs from the 1930s to the 1970s creates a persuasive contrast to the contemporary product lines.

Well-considered acquisitions, international growth

From the late 1960s onwards, Carlo Molteni, with a PhD in Economics under his belt, transformed the crafts workshop into an internationally active industrial corporation at home in all the relevant fields of furniture making. And what is extremely unusual today is that Molteni is a manufacturer that relies on complete backward integration: all stages of production from development through to final assembly are if possible handled in-house. The end of the 1960s heralded the phase of targeted acquisitions and international growth. In 1969, Citterio, a company specialized in room dividers, was bought up, followed the next year by office furniture makers Unifor and in 1979 by kitchen producers Dada.

“The part is in the whole and the whole is in the part,” writes French philosopher Edgar Morin. The quotation is to be found as the heading of the Molteni Group corporate profile. It fits the company and its structure well – the four Italian manufacturing hubs that serve markets in four continents, and the individual designs that eschew short-term fashionable trends and whose quality derives from the interaction of concept, form and detail. The intense collaboration with selected architects and designers, often for decades at a time, plays a key role here.

Meda and Molteni

For many years, Luca Meda (1936 – 1998) worked as Molteni’s art director. The Milan Triennale 2014 devoted an exhibition to his life and work. He is characterized as an artistic man with strong artisanal skills who favored both factory output and small series. Meda, born in Chiavari in Liguria, grew up in Milan and studied at the Accademia di Brera and, at the end of the 1950s, at Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, too. He designed living-room, office and kitchen furniture for Molteni – items for every room in the house. He created systems such as the “505” unit line designed in 1972 – it continues to evolve to this day. In 1988, he was the brains behind the new type of cupboard with wing doors “7volte7”. And his “Vela” (1986) and “Banca” (1994) kitchens and his “Misura” (1984) office furniture line strongly influenced Molteni’s development and the approach taken by the entire interior furnishings industry. In the late 1980s he paved the way for Molteni to adopt a moderate form of postmodernism. From the 1960s onwards, Meda was a close friend of Aldo Rossi, who had in the late 1950s already started to question how Modernist architecture saw itself and the principles underlying it. Together with Aldo Rossi Meda then designed the “Piroscafo” shelf system (“steamship”), which with its small window and refined details brings to mind the early days of industrialization.

In the 1990s, the Molteni Group set about strengthening its distributions system worldwide. It is now on the ground in over 60 different countries. Yet Molteni remains a family company, as can be seen from the weekend workshops in Giussano, to which members of staff get invited – along with young designers. Collaboration with architects such as Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and Hannes Wettstein has sparked unique, often innovative items of home or office furniture. Dada is in fact developing a special collection together with haute couturier Giorgio Armani. Molteni also plays a role when it comes to individual contracts for ship interiors or high-end real-estate projects, in close cooperation with architects and designers. The brand is just as likely to be found on cruise liners, in hotels or in Cartier boutiques as it is in the leading hotels of the world or at the workstations of The New York Times.

80! Molteni
Galleria d’Arte Moderna
Via Palestro 16, Milan

April 14 – June 30, 2015
Opening Party: April 14, 9.30 p.m. (by invitation only!)

  • Prototype of a chest of drawers by Werner Blaser, 1955 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • Prototype of a chest of drawers by Carlo De Carli, 1964 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • Classical furniture from Molteni, 1964-65 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • „Iride" von Luca Meda, 1968 - Foto © Molteni&C
  • "Carteggio" by Aldo Rossi, 1987 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "7volte7" by Luca Meda, 1988 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • Drawing by Aldo Rossi with his chair "Parigi",
    1989 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Parigi" by Aldo Rossi for Unifor, 1990 - Photo © Mario Carrieri
  • Luca Meda, Carlo Molteni, Dieter Pesch and Aldo Rossi in Cologne during the furniture fair, 1990 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Secretaire" by Richard Sapper for Unifor, 1990 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Piroscafo" by Luca Meda and Aldo Rossi for Molteni&C,
    1991 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Banco" by Luca Meda for Dada, 1994 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Less" by Jean Nouvel for Molteni&C, 1994 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Alfa" by Hannes Wettstein for Molteni&C, 2001 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Graduate" by Jean Nouvel for Molteni&C, 2003 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Skin" by Jean Nouvel for Molteni&C, 2007 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • The project "QallaM" at the company grounds of Molteni&C,
    2010 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • The Gio Ponti Collection from Molteni&C, 2012 - Photo © Molteni&C
  • "Vela" by Dante Bonuccelli for Dada, 2014 - Photo © Molteni&C