Franco Albini, mobili, 1938–1959

A retrospective appreciation of the structural ingenuity produced by this lost Italian master.

Originally published in Domus 729/July 1991

This report looks at and brings back into focus the pieces designed for interiors or for production (almost always by Poggi of Pavia) by one of the leading—and most forgotten—Italian architects. Like few others, Albini has the outstanding capacity to decline all the themes of design.

A meditated, critical review of the foundations of the modern movement, together with a careful balancing of innovation and tradition, are the key to the significance and importance of Albini's oeuvre. For it is characterized both by typological innovation and by a resumption of traditional methodologies and themes. As far as furniture design was concerned, he very soon established nearly all the types upon which he was to work for a lifetime. Albini's works can thus be appreciated only by singling out the basic types that generated them, which I would like to define as 'structural', The chairs, for example, are a constant variation on a single type already noticeable in the drawings for the Wohnbedarf competition of 1940.
Chair for Villa Pestarini, 1938. Armchair for Villa Neuffer, Ispra 1940. Folding chair of painted tubular metal and playwood (9th Milan Triennale, 1951). Above: TL3 table, for Poggi.
Chair for Villa Pestarini, 1938. Armchair for Villa Neuffer, Ispra 1940. Folding chair of painted tubular metal and playwood (9th Milan Triennale, 1951). Above: TL3 table, for Poggi.
The masterpiece "Luisa", conceived for mass production, the final version of which dates from 1955, was derived from previous experiments: the chairs designed for villetta Pestarini in '38 (white maple frame, back and seatrest frames in green painted iron with springs and spiral in steel hooked onto them) and for Minetti House in '39, the wood and wicker easychairs for Neuffer House at Ispra in '40, and the chairs for Hotz Institute of Cosmetic Dermatology in Milan in '45. The low process of variation and transformation continued with the "Adriana" experiment, a heightening of Albini's desire to lighten, to empty and to render ephemeral. In it the seat and backrest are divided into two separate and suspended parts, respectively. The list continues with a small wooden folding chair (1946), the tubular metal chairs for the University Institute of Venice (1958), and the easy-chairs for the Chamber of Genoa's City Council Hall in '55. The "Tre pezzi" armchair, a concave space with reassuring armrests, of '59, although the initial logic was carried to a more complex outcome and its variants exist in perforated plywood, bent wood and finally, iron tube, likewise descends from the same type source.

Luisa  armchair (1949 prototype, 1955, manufactured by Poggi.
Luisa armchair (1949 prototype, 1955, manufactured by Poggi.
Albini's postulate is, as always, very simple: the frame, stated in all its lean essentiallty, where the section of the material used is reduced to the utmost, bears the backrest and seat which rest on or are hinged to it at only one point. The peculiarity, for example in the "Luisa" chair, of components that 'widen' their section for connection with another component (and hence to take the greater strain borne at that point, an element also found in the unfaced frames of many of Albini's buildings), is not an ingenuous formal transposition, not a plain confusion of syntax impassing from architecture to furniture design and vice versa. Instead, it was the result of a structural and visual correctness and clarity in the use of materials. Characteristic, therefore, that can be traced to a unity of style.
Albini's postulate is, as always, very simple: the frame, stated in all its lean essentiallty, where the section of the material used is reduced to the utmost, bears the backrest and seat which rest on or are hinged to it at only one point.
Folding chair for Poggi, 1951. 1954, stacking chair in chromium-plated tubing, playwood and leather webbing. Chair in pinted metal tubing and bent plywood for the University of Venice, 1958, manufactured by Poggi. Luisella chair for Poggi, ca. 1961-62.
Folding chair for Poggi, 1951. 1954, stacking chair in chromium-plated tubing, playwood and leather webbing. Chair in pinted metal tubing and bent plywood for the University of Venice, 1958, manufactured by Poggi. Luisella chair for Poggi, ca. 1961-62.
A second clearly evident structural type is the union, with cross-piece and braces, of two X-shaped bearing elements—in a refined re-elaboration of the carpenter's worktable trestle. His first application of this principle to design are the armchair for the "living room of a villa" at the 7th Milan Triennale in 1940, the armchair for the apartment of Albini himself (1940), and the sofa for villa Neuffer—all of which are archetypes of the Fiorenza armchair. Also to be remembered are innumerable other applications of this type. Depending on the occasion, they take the form of a wood and glass coffee-table in 1945, of a cradle, an infant's swaddling table in 1938, or a sale counter. Along the same lines, the "TL2" table of 1951 attain the peak of design clarity. Totally collapsible, it is assembled soleIy by means of screws, two of which extend to become bracing bars, meeting at the centre of the lower cross-piece.<
Sailing Ship bookcase, 1938, for Poggi.
Sailing Ship bookcase, 1938, for Poggi.
A third structural type can be identified in a sort of "pedestal" Formed by a heavy base, generally cylindrical or trunco-conical, it bears a support with a variable form and section. Instance are the sturdy and isolated piece bearing the top of the "Stadera" or of the "TL30" table (marble base, metal stem), of 1957, or the slender, unitary and repeatable support for the canvases in the arrangement of the Galleria Comunale di Palazzo Bianco, 1951, the display panels for the installation of the "History of the Bicycle" exhibition at the Milan Triennale of 1951, or the Centro Internazionale delle Arti e del Costume at Palazzo Grassi in '52.

In some measure, this third group actually stems, conceptually and spatially, from the fourth type with we are concerned here: the upright standardo A simple vertical rod composed a rigorously modular three-dimensional grid with horizontal display units, in the Aerodynamics for the 15th Milan Fair in 1914, the interior of the INA pavilion at the Levante Fair at Bari in 1935. And in the exhibition of Antique Jewelry at the 6th Milan Triennale in '36, they already a sumed the more customary features of Albini's idiom, with the addition of horizontal rods to bear a suite of lamps, and so on gradually up to the "Veliero" bookcase for Albini's own apartment, a simplification of his design philosophy, an object in which we again find the constructivist roots of his earlier, architectural work. The two uprights are correlated by a complex tensostructure. From this are suspended the elements which in their tum hold up the glass shelves. The appearance is almost one of emptiness, reduced to four slender curved bars, juxtaposed and jointed to form a lighter-than-air 'casting'.
The Sailing Ship bookcase, in Albini's apartment in Milan, 1940. Sampo-Oliveti shop, Paris, 1958. Exhibition at the Brera Art Museum, Milan, 1941.
The Sailing Ship bookcase, in Albini's apartment in Milan, 1940. Sampo-Oliveti shop, Paris, 1958. Exhibition at the Brera Art Museum, Milan, 1941.
In the "TL3" table each leg acts as a stanchion, in this case a single block almost completely turned except for the point in which it is hooked to the horizontal cross element, where it retains its square section. The maximum development, although on a different scale, of this spatial grid was achieved by Albini in the Hall of Honour at the 1954 Milan Triennale, where the uprights, formed by scaffolding trellises, supported the showcases at the bottom, and were then lengthened to forro a large structure that left suspended in mid-air the introverted outer casing for the temporary auditorium. In the horizontal grid of wires which, in many installations, almost immaterially enclose the space, can be recognized a further and consequent Albinian spatial characteristic, declined in manifold ways: with thick cables suspended from a summit, resting in mid-air on a polygonal frame, and held in tension by spherical counterweights that lightly touch the floor in the design installation for the Centro Internazionale delle Arti e del Costume at Palazzo Grassi in 1952; with veils of white gauze at the exhibition of Decorative Art in Stockholm in 1953; with wallpaper partitions descending spokewise from a common summit rotating and moving away from each other in the "History of the Bicycle" show of '51.
Trestle table, 1951, for Poggi.
Trestle table, 1951, for Poggi.
The use of the uprights further refined in the design for the exhibition of Scipione and of the "Black and White" at the apoleonic Rooms in the Brera Art Gallery in '41. The struts, resting on the ground but apparently suspended from a horizontal grid of wires, which "measures" and encloses the space above, serve to bear other horizontal standards, aerial supports for the paintings, and display shelves. The upright, which is composed now of juxtaposed bars and united by cross stiffening brackets that give it rhythm from the inside, becomes a decidedly complex element in the Sampo-Olivetti store masterwork in Paris, 1958. In this case it is fitted with supports for the triangular shelves, and stanchions serving as ground supports and lamp attachments. The bookcases "LB7" of 1957 and "LBlO" of 1962 are an example of the applications of the upright to mass production (a separate contribution would be required to cover the particular meaning of the "mass" concept in Albini's work).
Working drawing of the armchair for Albini's living room, Milan, 1940. Fiorenza armchair. Armchair and sofa for Poggi. Fiorenza armchair, for Arflex
Working drawing of the armchair for Albini's living room, Milan, 1940. Fiorenza armchair. Armchair and sofa for Poggi. Fiorenza armchair, for Arflex
Similar spokelike solutions, giving rise to a sharp spatial tension, can also be found in the house at Somma Lombardo (the wooden beams in the roof of the cylindrical tower), or in the museum of the Tesoro di San Lorenzo in Genoa (the horizontal ribbings of the ceiling). Yet another innovation in Albini's conception is the "suspending of people and things", not only explicitly shelves, display stands, stairways, walkways, armchairs, but also implicitly within every individuaI object. In the "Fiorenza" arrnchair, for example, the seatrest is hung by straps trom the frame. In the Adriana chair the two parts composing the seat and backrest are likewise joined by straps; in the rocking-deckchair (a reinterpretation of Le Corbusier's chaise-longue) the canvas supportino the sitter is tied to the frame with plaited ropes, and the cushion is sospende from a counterweight. Finally, in the armchairs "Margherita" and "Gala", the sitter is supported by an improbable frame of bent rattan cane bundles.
The Three Piece chair at the exhibition on Franco Albini, 34th Venice Biennale, 1968. Version with walnut frame. Version with larger backrest. Commissioners's chairs in the Genoa City Council Chamber, 1955 (with Franca Helg).
The Three Piece chair at the exhibition on Franco Albini, 34th Venice Biennale, 1968. Version with walnut frame. Version with larger backrest. Commissioners's chairs in the Genoa City Council Chamber, 1955 (with Franca Helg).
Margherita armchair in raftan cane presented at the 9th Milan Triennale of 1951.
Margherita armchair in raftan cane presented at the 9th Milan Triennale of 1951.

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