Tobia Scarpa: gently studying the secret bond between things

Meet an uncommon architect and designer: something of a poet who descends inwards to discover “us”.

This article was originally published in Domus 10523, January 2020.

“Here in the garden plants come, go and argue. I leave them to it. They are welcome. At times, their behaviour amuses me — less so my wife Valeria, perhaps because she is the one that cares for them, pruning and indulging them. Years ago, a Russian friend, a scientist, claimed that the plants in his kitchen cried when he cooked crabs alive. He showed that the plants understood when they were dying. At the time he was struck off, but things have changed, the moment has come for a different understanding of what reality truly is. It is complicated, going beyond what we see and think”.

Tobia Scarpa is an unusual architect and designer, more closely resembling a poet than an industrial designer, looking deep within to better understand ‘us’.

“My love of poets stems from my particular upbringing. My grandfather was a high-school teacher. My mother came from a family of tradespeople with a painter of extreme elegance in its midst. I am a lot like both her and my father, who in reality was also a painter, a fact I discovered on analysing his sleepless nights spent cancelling the drawings he had made during the day, meticulously highlighting the details. It was his secret essence, wonderful drawings that defied logic to find beauty. It was the architect Scarpa making way for the poet Carlo”.

Tobia Scarpa and Walter Mariotti during the interview. Photo Valentina Petrucci

Eighty-five but more like sixty, the survivor of unimaginable family sorrows, Tobia Scarpa’s is a shining yet secluded career. The creator, with his first wife Afra, of Italian greats — the Miss chair, the Vanessa bed, the Cornaredo, Erasmo and Soriana armchairs, the Libertà chair, shown at the Louvre — he has participated in the restoration of masterpieces of Italian architecture such as the Palazzo della Ragione in Verona, and has worked with Benetton, designing the first factory and the iconic shops in Frieburg, Paris and New York.

Above all, Tobia has striven to honour the talent that he inherited from his father Carlo, ceaselessly studying the secret bond between things. Gently and with a childlike curiosity. “I had no formal education, but I never stop trying to learn. I inherited my father’s sensitivity and duty, not his talent. Fathers are a complex matter. Mine never did anything materially, but he held the secret of work. Not all children take from their fathers, it is a mysterious mechanism, a duty, shaped by time, that is hard to bear. My father taught me everything I know, albeit informally. He took me with him to collaborators. I recall an intelligent group of glassworkers, with whom he made the most beautiful things that Venice could produce.

Carlo had learned the craft of glass working intellectually, which allowed him to communicate with the absolute best.” For Tobia, not only is everything unique, but reality is much greater, more immense than it seems. This is why myth is important, the only source of guidance for the creation of positivity.

“Life is complex, something that the ancients understood well, but then the philosophers came to ruin everything, save for the Pre-Socratics, who were on the right side. Thought is also unique. People tend to separate things, trying to make life easier, but this is wrong. We are lucky, life has been portioned, so we don’t have to make decisions, but everything we do should have a beginning and an end, each distant from the other, like with plants. They speak, move and argue with each other. Just like that walnut that has sprung up here”. In Scarpa’s mythology, history plays a central role, but in a manner that differs from contemporary ideas. “I was born in Venice, but I am more Veneto than Venetian. Venice has a history of its own, a series of episodes, but it basically remains a Roman foundation on which the Venetians built their destiny. On the contrary, the people of Veneto came from inland, in an area full of water. The first settlers needed to stay in this area because of dangers elsewhere, it was certainly safer than taking on the cave lions that roamed Veneto at the time. Now things have changed completely. The Venetians are gone, and Venice lies empty. The Venetians loved their city, keeping it healthy and solid throughout its history, but now the city is nothing more than hotels, outsiders and foreign students. We are at the point of collapse, even in technical terms. The salt erodes bricks and mortar, and above all the spirit”.

Tobia Scarpa and Walter Mariotti during the interview. Photo Valentina Petrucci

Lunching on a crab, recalling his Russian friend, Tobia defines himself: “Looking back, I do not see a designer, I have done nothing. My first design was a chair, but I had no idea how to sell it, and I hated the industrialists too focused on making money, lacking the balance between selling and producing. I have never worked for myself. If I had wanted to become important, I would have done things differently; instead, everything has happened by chance. This is what is wonderful about objects when they are simple and show their inner strength. Otherwise, they fall into decay. I have taken my path, trying to learn and stealing what I could. I need to reduce things to understand them, a positive thing to do — getting to the root of things, seeing how they interact, but it is hard to do with certainty”.

Opening image: Tobia Scarpa during the interview. Photo Valentina Petrucci

Latest Cofee Break

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram