Mid-Century Italian Modernism

The mid 1950s saw designers both in the U.S. and abroad approaching Mid Century furniture style from a variety of angles. Along with American designer’s offerings such as Charles and Ray Eames’ molded plastic shells and classic leather and rosewood lounge chair came a “second Renaissance” in Italian furniture. Milan had become a hotbed of creative activity, fueled in part by a design competition held every third year, the Milan Triennales, which featured outstanding examples of textiles, furniture, glass, ceramics and metalwork. Post-war Italian furniture was characterized by a wide use of materials, and the Italian designers’ stock in trade was a deliberately anti-functional appearance featuring asymmetry and floating, spindly elements.Cassina, a company founded in 1927 by brothers Cesare and Umberto Cassina in Meda, a small city north of Milan famous in the design community for hand production of classic and stylized furniture, brought technical perfection to the works of modern designers such as Carlo di Carli, Gianfranco Frattini, Federico Munari, Gio Ponte and Ico Parisi.Carlo di Carli (1910 – 1999), Italian architect and designer, graduated from Politecnico di Milano in 1934 and afterwards worked with Gio Ponti and Renato Angeli. 1940 began di Carli’s collaboration with the Milan Triennale, where his position on the Board allowed him to forge relationships between crafts, universities and the Trienalle. His largest body of work in architecture and design came after World War II through the 1970s, and in 1954 he won the Compasso d’Oro the first year of the prestigious Italian industrial design award. di Carli’s most significant architectural projects include a combination residential and office complex at 7 Via dei Giardini in Milan (1947 – 1954), the Sant’Erasmo theatre and the Church of Sant’Ildefonso (1955). In 1961 he became a professor at Politecnico di Milano and by 1965 had ascended to the position of Chairman of the Faculty of Architecture. di Carli ArmchairArmchair by Carlo di Carli, 1949Gianfranco Frattini (1926 – 2004) was born in Padua. Like Carlo di Carli, Frattini graduated with an architecture degree from Politecnico di Milano, though almost 20 years later. Frattini then worked in the office of Gio Ponti, his teacher and mentor. Following that early work experience, Frattini opened his own practice in Milan. Unable to find suitable lighting and furniture for his architectural projects, Frattini became an industrial designer by default when he began to employ his own designs for these items. He collaborated with design companies Artemide, Knoll, Arteluce and Fantoni, and many others. While working with Cassina, Frattini produced over fifty designs. Cesare Cassina created several tools and pieces of machinery to bring Frattinni’s designs to realization. Frattini’s designs have become iconic--his Boalum lamp, co-designed with Livio Castiglioni-- is part of the collection of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and his glassware is featured in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Also a Board member of the Milan Trienalle, he forged relationships with master wood crafter Pieroluigi Ghianda. Among his many professional awards was the Compasso d’Oro.Frattini armchairGianfranco Frattini armchair for Cassina , 1955  Boalum lampBoalum lamp for ArtemideGio Ponti (1891 – 1979) was an architect, furniture designer, artist, publisher and industrial designer.. After serving in the rank of captain during World War I, Ponti attended the Politecnico de Milan, graduating in 1921. Shortly afterwards he began a partnership with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia. Projects during this time include a house on Via Randaccio in Milan, Bouilhet villa in Paris, and the Casa Rasini apartments in Milan. Around 1933 he moved on from Lancia and teamed with Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncini whose first major commission was the headquarters for Italian chemical firm Montecatini. Several other commissions followed, including offices for Fiat and the University of Padua. In 1956 construction began on the 32 story Pirelli Tower. Ponti later went on to work in partnership with Alberto Rosseli and Antonio Fornaroli, and international commissions ensued. Ponti’s industrial designs included stylish glass bottles for Venini a furnishings line, Domus Nova for Rinascente department stores, chair designs for Cassina, such as the Distex and Superleggera, which was stylish and so strong it could be lifted by one finger, and lighting for Artemide and Fontana Arte. Ponti founded Domus magazine, and after a six year hiatus to edit Stile magazine, returned to Domus, which he edited until his death. Ponti was also a member of the Faculty of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano for 35 years. In 1934 he was awarded title of Commander of the Royal Order of Vasa in Stockholm and also won the Accademia d’Italia Art Prize, as well as a gold medal from the Paris Academie de Architecture.Superleggera chairSuperleggera chair for CassinaDistex lounge chairDistex lounge chairIco Parisi (1916 – 1996) was one of the most important Italian furniture designers of the 1950s. Not wanting to be pigeonholed into a singular medium, Parisi considered himself a Renaissance artist who could create as a painter, photographer, architect filmmaker or industrial designer. While in his teens, Parisi trained in construction in Como, Italy where he lived with his father, an art teacher. In 1936 he formed the architectural group Alta Quota and Gruppo Como in Como, and after serving on the Russian front, Parisi and his wife Luisa Aiani a student of Gio Ponti, received a prestigious commission to design furniture for the Milan State Library, after which they started La Ruota, an interior design studio where they designed glasswork, ceramics and jewelry that became part of the Linea Italiana, as well as furniture for Cassina, Longhi and Cappellini. La Ruota was also the genesis of collaborations with artists such as Melotti, Fontant Munari and Somaini. Parisi’s biomorphic designs of curvaceous wood and metal shapes were acclaimed in Milan and elsewhere. Parisi and his wife designed furniture lines for M. Singer and Sons in New York, as well as Altamira and Mobili Italiana Moderne. The Model 813 Uovo, or “egg chair” for Cassina was hailed by Gio Ponti in a letter to Parisi : “My dear, your egg chair is a marvel. You are a master, and all that is left for me is to retire and live in Civate in oblivion”.Parisi completed his studies in architecture under Alberto Sartoris at the Institute Atheneum in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1950, and in 1956 joined the Association for Industrial Design. The Parisi’s association with Cassina produced nominations in 1955 for the Compasso d’Oro for their Model 691 and 839 chairs, and a Gold Medal at Colori e Forme Nelle Casa d’Oggi in 1957. Parisi and his wife continued to work with Cassina through the 1980s.Egg chairIco Parisi Egg Chair for Cassina, 1951  Parisi coffee tableCoffee table with magazine rack by Ico ParisiSave

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Design’s Fourth Dimension - Harvey Probber (1922 – 2003)

By the 1940s, Mid-Century modernism had hit its stride. Of a group of early pioneers of talent and initiative, which included Hans Knoll and Jack Lenor Larsen, a great emerging designer was Harvey Probber, born in 1922 in Brooklyn. While still in high school Probber decided to try his hand at furniture design and at 16 sold his first design—a sofa—to Superior Upholstery for $10. He commuted into Manhattan to acquire additional customers at the wholesale showroom New York Furniture Exchange. Largely self-educated in furniture design, construction and frame making, Probber’s only formal education was evening classes at Pratt Institute-- working by day as designer at Trade Upholstery for $35 a week.After a two-year stint in the Coast Guard in the 1940s, Probber had a brief secondary career as a cabaret singer. When it became clear that furniture making provided the steadier income of the two careers, he started Harvey Probber, Inc. in 1945, after which Probber became one of the country’s premier designers. His work embraced an opulent and elegant approach through the use of exotic woods with hand-rubbed finishes, lacquered pieces, bright colors and rich upholstery fabrics-- a departure from Bauhaus-influenced designers’ often, spare approaches to materials. “Probber was a modernist in beautiful materials” said Evan Lobel , owner of Lobel Modern Gallery in Manhattan.Rosewood and mahogany dining tableHarvey Probber ebonized mahogany and rosewood oval dining table and chairs Lounge chair with ottomanLounge chair with ottoman In 1947 Probber brought his line to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a center for the furniture manufacturing industry. In 1948 he opened a showroom at 136 Fifth Avenue in New York, and within a decade Harvey Probber, Inc. had become a leader in contemporary furniture in the U.S. Several of his designs were chosen for MOMA’s Good Design exhibition in 1951, including his elastic sling chair.Most notably, Probber was largely considered “a pioneer in the application of modular seating” (quote attributed to Stanley Abercrombie and George Nelson, 1955). In Probber’s own words, “the key to salvation was in bits and pieces of plane geometry… they were meaningless alone, but when fused to conventional shapes, profoundly altered their character”. Nineteen elements, in the form of wedges, half circles, quadrants and corner sections which could be assembled into any desired configuration by clients in his showroom became known as the Sert Group, named after Spanish-born architect Josep Lluis Sert (who later became head of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design). Probber furthered the concept by the introduction of “nuclear furniture”, tables and pedestals, which, like his seating, could be clustered into varying and flexible configurations.Four piece modular sofaFour piece modular sofa, Harvey Prober, Inc. In 1957 he purchased an abandoned textile mill in Fall River, Massachusetts. He equipped the facility with a metalworking shop for fabricating stainless steel , an upholstery shop and laminating press for plywood and curved wood pieces thereby creating a start-to-finish manufacturing facility. Again, Probber employed a modular approach in that clients were allowed to customize almost any design in the collections according to specific requirements of size, color and finish. In the 1960’s he introduced a line of case goods, -- with many variations on one basic design, such as finishes, bases and hardware—differences which were largely cosmetic, and therefore economic to produce.By the 1970s Harvey Probber, Inc. had abandoned the residential market for the more lucrative field of contract furniture. One of his designs was a crescent shaped conference desk-- of which a custom made variation was made for then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s personal use. Probber won two Best of Neocon Gold Awards from the Resources Council of the Institute of Business Designers, one in 1977 for his Houston executive swivel chair, and another in 1981, and continued to explore his passion for modular seating.In a 1958 interview, Probber described “the quality of aging gracefully” as design’s fourth dimension.  

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Mid-Century’s Appeal

While Mid-century generally describes the Postwar Era from 1945 to 1965, the definition has grown to include the 1960s through the early 1970s. Encompassing such diverse fields as architecture, furniture and lighting design, mid-century modern style has ascended a steady rise in popularity and created a dedicated following through popular television shows such as cable tv’s Mad Men and websites such as MidCenturyMobler and MotleyLA. Springing out of a postwar boom which adopted technology and materials from the war era, designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Milo Baughman and Isamu Noguchi became household names while creating exuberant, organic designs for the rapidly proliferating, affordable and simply built one-story homes such as Gregory Ain’s Park Planned Homes, which were distinguished by strong horizontal lines, a smooth flow between rooms, an abundance of natural light, and little distinction between the indoors and outdoors. Gregory Ain Park Planned HomesPark Planned Homes, Altadena, California; Gregory Ain, Architect Similarly, furniture designers’ new credo became “form follows function”-- a phrase originally attributed to architect Louis Sullivan, and popularized by Germany’s Bauhaus School during the period after World War I.“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,Of all things physical and metaphysical,Of all things human and all things super-human,Of all true manifestations of the head,Of the heart, of the soul,That the life is recognizable in its expression,That form ever follows function. This is the law.”Principally, the shape of a building or object should be primarily focused upon its intended functional use. Where function does not change, form does not change. Employing playful curves and geometric shapes, mid-century furniture’s designers’ approach was in the appreciation of geometric forms, the limiting of one design into unity and an absence of ornamental features of previous eras’ heavy shapes and busy details. Historically, the only materials available in the production of furniture were wood, stone and metals. Production of furniture was a slow and expensive process, with the resulting piece affordable by few. The 20th century brought with it a rapid and revolutionary era in furniture design, the fundamental philosophy morphing aesthetically from visually heavy to visually light. This lighter esthetic—both conceptually and in practice—became the hallmark of mid-century design. By stripping down decorative elements and emphasizing simplicity, modernist design promoted the time-managing, efficient manufacturing ideals of the postwar era. Functionalism—the idea that affordable, mass produced design was accessible to everyone-- spoke to the future-- and not the past--as its touchstone. Materials such as plywood, fiberglass, chrome-plated steel and acrylic were now part of the designer’s vernacular. Authentic materials abound—and you won’t find an object masquerading as something it’s not. Even as a relatively unsophisticated child I instinctively responded to the simplicity and honesty contained within a pair of Robsjohn Gibbings side tables in our living room.Robsjohn Gibbings mahogany stepped side tableSingle mahogany stepped end table by Robsjohn GibbingsMilo Baughman LoveseatEarly Noguchi Cyclone side table for Knoll Milo Baughman loveseat, 1970Eames Lounge and Ottoman Eames Chair and Ottoman of molded and shaped plywood and leatherNoguchi Cyclone tableMid-century’s appeal, bridging the gap between the organic and the man-made, perhaps stems from a renewed desire for a simple, calming and direct aesthetic in reaction to a hurried, modern world.

Sustainable Art Brings More To Your Home

HibiscusBella VitaI love working with fine artists. I could listen to them talk about their work all day. What’s special about the artists featured at EcoFirstArt is the way they challenge themselves. Our artists put extra restrictions on their work by using only eco-friendly and recycled materials…whether it means limiting a color palette to organic pigments, clay and minerals, confining sculptural material to found objects, painting exclusively with rescued house paint from recycling centers, or sculpting wall art from hand-carved sustainable wood. Our artists embrace these challenges and more to stretch their creativity and discover not only new modes of expression, but innovative new production processes as well. Button DogBurning Sun SculptureThe result is something really special to put in your home. On a table, hanging from your wall or standing under a spotlight, you can have art that’s beautiful, sustainable and makes you feel good. As for me, I’m never done shopping and dreaming, always looking for excuses to acquire some new treasure. Recently I commissioned a small piece of art glass from a local craftsman to install in a problematic window on my stairway. I am dying to see the finished product and will share it with you in a future blog post. So whether you’re an art maker or an art lover, try expanding your horizons and explore eco-friendly art that will sustain your soul and the earth.

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What does “recycled furniture” bring to mind?

Parisi SofaLivin' PopIf you think of Eco-friendly furnishings as funny, quirky or somehow less than beautiful or elegant, then maybe you’ve missed a whole chapter in sustainable design. It’s exploding onto the interior design scene in sneaky and wonderful ways. I dare you to look at any of EcoFirstArt sofas and declare that they “look recycled.While I’m game for anything made from anything, at EcoFirstArt, you won’t see water-bottle specials or weird materials whose only redeeming feature is their upgraded second life . You’ll see beauty, elegance, imagination, sleek design and comfort. And if you want quirky, you’ll find unique, wildly creative pieces that delight the imagination. It’s all here and it’s all sustainable.The ManhattanWhether it’s from our site or somewhere else, I encourage you to read, explore and shop around for beautiful recycled furnishings. They’re only getting better and all things being equal, if you could choose sustainable over non-sustainable, wouldn’t you?

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Keeping Work In The USA

Irie Cedar RockerWhile we Americans were busy making money in the ‘80s and paying lip-service to the green movement, our manufacturers got busy shipping more of their craft overseas. The pendulum, I’m happy to say, is now swinging back towards sustainable design. Artisans are taking charge and making furniture their way. And they’re doing it right here at home. I have been encouraged and enriched by the crafts people I deal with at EcoFirstArt. Their talent drives our business and their work is superb.We have woodworkers from Colorado to Kentucky, upholsterers from Michigan to Texas, and artists from California to Vermont, just to name a few. Listen to what furniture maker Jason Lutz and artist Kim Fonder say about their craft and selling their products through EcoFirstArt.Bella VitaWhen I hear from one of our artists or furniture makers that EcoFirstArt provided a tipping point for them to keep working as artists and support themselves, I am thrilled that we are realizing one of our key missions: to support independent artisans and keep jobs in the USA. These artists are working to sustain the environment and EcoFirstArt is proud to help sustain their enterprises.Wherever you are shopping for your home, try adopting a goal of buying goods made domestically and by small artisanal companies. It will feel good and you’ll doubtless have an adventure along the way!

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Bringing Together Artists From All Fields

Tuxedo Sofa in the manner of Edward WormleyOne of my greatest joys at EcoFirstArt is getting to know and work with furniture makers, artists and other artisans across every area of home furnishing and décor.Butterfly Pendant LampI knew I was on to something when the idea resonated with Elle Décor magazine west coast regional director Joanne Medeiros. Joanne and Elle Décor* recognized the “unusual assortment of talent and visual eyes” that bring new interpretations to green or sustainable design.And why not? Your furniture, lighting, accents and art can all be sustainable.Joanne also confirmed my belief that good design and sustainable design are synonymous. Most importantly she confirmed that this belief is not just held by industry insiders but by today’s young consumers who want to furnish their homes sustainably and leave a legacy for their children.tableAncestral GlowThe artists and crafts people our collection represents are too numerous to list. There are mid-century sofas, transitional and contemporary upholstered furniture, sleek tables and chairs, unique sustainable wood pieces, amazingly innovative lighting and accents made from every sustainable material you can imagine, and art that is as varied as our artists.

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Good Design IS Sustainable Design

Sustainable design… what else is there? I made the green shift long ago and now, when it comes to home furnishings, I don’t think of eco-friendly as an extra bonus or a nice-to-have. I think of it as a necessity. And if you picture landfills brimming with cheaply made sofas and cracked plastic deck chairs, you’ll agree.Eco First Art Edward Wormley For DunbarEco First Art Wooden ChairThe American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) reports that sustainable design is the fastest growing segment of our industry and “recognizes that sustainability should be an essential part of the interior designer's professional responsibilities.”Not only do I believe it’s the right, no – the only, thing to do… I believe it’s something we’re entitled to. It’s part of a healthy lifestyle to have beauty in your home. Beautiful furniture, lighting, accents and art don’t have to cost a fortune and now, they don’t have to be anything other than sustainable.Eco First Art 3 KidsStarting EcoFirstArt was one of those decisions that just keeps getting confirmed every time I see a new exhibit, read an article or discover an artist. It’s a concept has come. EcoFirstArt supports high design, it supports the environment, and it supports an alternative economy of local artisans. We’re slowly but surely bringing back jobs to the U.S. by contracting with designers, artisans and visual artists who produce hand-crafted, eco-friendly furniture, lighting, accents and art. Come see our beautifully sustainable furnishings today.