How RossoVico was born: the distinctive brand and obsession of Vico Magistretti
For those who knew him, one of the distinctive features of Vico Magistretti was his red socks, which he showed off as a tongue-in-cheek concession to his typically Milanese restraint. This detail was well suited to the public image he wished to convey of himself, which was that of an authoritative professional but also a man who was capable of not taking himself too seriously, accepting a certain degree of light-heartedness in the rationality of his profession, and thus also in his life. His socks were a sign of independence and unconventionality, as his friend Italo Lupi has suggested.
It is more than just an anecdote: if we look closely at his work, it would seem that red plays a much more important role. Magistretti used it with a frequency and degree of attention that we might call exceptional, both in his completed architectural works and in the objects he designed, and even before that as his favourite colour in his everyday design work.
Vico Magistretti, foto, © Ramak Fazel, courtesy Viasaterna
Red in architecture and design
His use of red appears right from the earliest days of his long career, upon his return from exile in the country whose flag has a cross on a red ground (Switzerland), where he studied under Ernesto N. Rogers, his never-forgotten teacher. For what can be considered his first project – the installation of the exhibition on the Reconstruction in Arengario (1945) – Vico designed a series of red panels hanging on a tubular structure, clearly inspired by Mondrian’s and van Doesburg’s compositions (and their use of red). It was no coincidence that the partners in this project included Albe Steiner, who in the same period used red on the front page of Il Politecnico (1945) and in many other works. The red is that of the avant-gardes, and it has great political symbolism. It is the red of the hoped-for post-war modernism that gave such vitality to the sketches for the never-completed project for a large mechanical sculpture to be installed at the Fiera di Taranto (1948). And it is the red of the Palazzo dell’Arte (in the proposed rearrangement of the outdoor spaces in the run-up to the 8th Triennale in 1946), and of the church of Santa Maria Nascente at the QT8 (1953-5), and of many others.
Bright red also appears in the Casa Arosio in Arenzano (1956-9), a work that caused a sensation. In this case, the entrance gate at street level is red, which – like the socks – creates a chromatic foil for the Mediterranean white of the little building above. Also the slender structures of the church of the Madonna della Neve in Ravello, Rescaldina (1957-9) are painted red. Many years later, red appeared in the Faculty of Biology of the University of Milan (1978-81), where vertical and horizontal touches – magnificently photographed by Gabriele Basilico – stand out against the grey prefabricated concrete panels, revealing a remarkable capacity for graphic composition. The origins of this propensity for red can certainly be traced back to the cultural (and, to an even greater extent, iconographic) background of an architect who was born in 1920 and who learnt by looking at the masters of the avant-gardes and of the Modern Movement. Red also arrived, of course, on the graphic wind that blew in from Russia, on a long current that went all the way from Malevich to El Lissitzky, Rodchenko and all the Vkhutemas in Moscow. In Milan, however, it arrived filtered by the experience of the Bauhaus, to which Vico often refers in his writings, conferences, and interviews. In Weimar and Dessau, red had played an important role in the teachings of Wassily Kandinsky (who had summed up some of the themes already explored by Goethe and had provided the artists of the time with a system of correspondences between form and colour), and in the works of Johannes Itten, Josef Albers and Lázló Moholy-Nagy.
Red came to Milan through Herbert Bayer’s printing house and other Bauhäusler, and – crossing Switzerland, a country that has red as its national colour – it proved to be fundamental for the graphics of Boggeri, Max Huber, and their colleagues. Then, of course, there is the red of Dutch neo-plasticism, which appeared in the 1945 exhibition, and which Vico looked at very closely from a volumetric, spatial, and chromatic point of view.
In terms of design, Vico’s Red, or “RossoVico”, is a clear constant, starting with the Carimate (1959), in which he used an aniline red (then used for toys) to give a new look to the typical rustic chair, the “trattoria” chair, making it as dazzling as a Ferrari. The Carimate was created for the Golf Club in the locality of the same name in Brianza (1958-61), which is characterised by its red window frames that accentuate the centrifugal sweep of the terraces that open up to the landscape, mindful of the lesson taught by Frank Lloyd Wright (we also find red windows in Fallingwater, although in a darker tone), and by De Stijl. As with his socks, a single touch is enough to change the tone of the entire figure.
Another artist who was swept off his feet by “Carimate red” was Renato Guttuso, who painted it in a number of versions as an icon of the period and as a new archetype of Italy in the 1960s. However, red acquired more pronounced political overtones in the Sicilian painter’s work – those of the Italian Communist Party, for which he designed the symbol in 1953, with its hammer and sickle, and the inevitable red flag.
Red in both avant-garde and tradition
In the 1960s, red was very much present in art (Magistretti admired the works of Afro, who at the time was creating his Il grande rosso, during the years of Alberto Burri’s Grande Rosso in plastic), as well as in the urban life of Milan. The red used for the metro Linea 1, chosen by Franco Albini and Franca Helg, conveyed the idea of a Milan on the move, fast-moving and very modern, suggesting an image of simplicity and rationality that was a far cry from what visitors were greeted with in Paris, for example, where the entrances to the metro are celebrated by Guimard’s vegetal and dreamworld lines.
But, by expanding the chromatic range, red is more than just modernity. Together with Mondrian, in Magistretti’s vision there is also the red that was used in the eighteenth century by the Milanese painter Giacomo Ceruti (whom he much appreciated) for the clothes of gentlemen, common folk, and high- and low-ranking military personnel, such as the soldiers (with red socks!) playing cards in the street in the Still Life with Shrimps now in the Pinacoteca di Brera, or for the tunics of Roman soldiers. Considering Magistretti’s love of Latin, the purple red of Ancient Rome should also be included.
In this play of associations, however, the most interesting reference appears to be much closer to home: in front of his studio (where he lived for many years), Vico could admire the “Milanese” reds of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Passione.
In the Carimate, red is an expedient to bring an archetype (a peasant chair) up to date, but this colour can also change its tone, becoming darker and tending towards brick, evoking an entirely different kind of memory – from the Amsterdam School to the Castello Sforzesco – which was also explored by the other young architects who revolved around the editorial office of Rogers’s Casabella.
Indeed, we should speak of “reds”, not just red alone. Magistretti was well aware of this and shifted between the “Carimate red” and the brick red in Via San Gregorio in Milan, where the proximity of the last surviving section of the old Lazzaretto suggested the “pomace” colour of the facade (prefabricated concrete panels with a grit finish), to which he added some Venetian reds in slightly brighter tones.
Alberto Burri, Rosso Plastica, 1963 © Fondazione Burri
There is a curious story about the Torre al Parco (1953-6), just opposite the Triennale, which he designed and built with an external cladding of porphyry chippings in two tones of red and dark brown. When the work was almost complete, “to the great regret of the architects, the owner company demanded” that the cladding be replaced by grey plasterwork which, according to Magistretti, “profoundly alters the planned play of colours, removes much of the desired volumetric dynamism and significantly alters the original character of the project, also as regards its surroundings”. Vico’s reds, in this case, were deemed too daring for real estate in Milan at the time.
To come back to design: many other pieces relied on this colour after the Carimate. The desire to modernise the middle-class interior can also be seen in the red versions of the Teti, Telegono and Eclisse lamps, the roundness of which recalls the red forbidden fruit, as well as in the red of the Selene and in all the other plastic objects, in which – unlike the aniline chair – the colour it is not applied but is part of the material itself. That is no small difference.
At this point, it is worth reflecting briefly on the significance of red in the history of Italian design in the late twentieth century. In the immediate post-war period, red was the dazzling colour of speed (the Berlinetta Cisitalia 202, 1947) but also the colour chosen by brilliant architects such as Vittoriano Viganò (Tre Pezzi, 1946), Franco Albini (Luisa, 1949), Marco Zanuso (Lady, 1951) and Carlo Mollino (the Auditorium Rai in Turin, 1951) for armchairs in which red alludes to the colour of the avant-gardes and, at the same time, though each to a different extent, to the memory of furnishings from the past, of velvet seats, of theatre sets (the Scala opera house, of course). Red acquires a different value when wryly used by the Castiglionis in the tractor seat of the Mezzadro (1957), or when rethinking the vacuum cleaner in the Spalter (1956), in the works for Brionvega by Zanuso and Sapper, in Cini Boeri’s Serpentone (1971) and in the countless plastic objects made in the 1960s and 1970s.
As we approach 1966, an annus mirabilis for the world of design, red partly revived the political overtones it had had in the immediate post-war period, but along different lines and using new methods. This can be seen in the red version of the Superonda by Archizoom (1966), the first sofa without an inner frame, freely configured from a block of polyurethane. Or in Gatti, Paolini and Teodoro’s Sacco (1968), which was similarly committed to revolutionising middle-class life. While Studio65’s Bocca Rossa (1968) and Drocco and Mello’s Rossocactus (1972) look to pop, Ettore Sottsass’s Valentine (1969) – a Lettera 32 disguised as a 1968 revolutionary, according to Giovanni Giudici – and the red version of Gaetano Pesce’s UP (1969) bring out the evocative, and also subversive, power of a colour that, in those years, dominated the vision of students and workers.
Vico, who certainly has a close-up view of the student demonstrations, nevertheless kept well away from such attributes, even though, for his generation, red had been the colour of the freedom that was won 1945. From this point of view, the significance of red in Magistretti’s work seems to be relegated to his position as a “bourgeois architect”, on which he built his image and professional success.
Talking of red
After the overdose of red in the 1960s, Vico continued to use it also in the following decades. This can be seen in the Kobe bed (1983) and in the Nuvola Rossa bookcase (1977), which was inspired by a novel by Emilio Salgari, even though it is actually made of natural beech. Red is one of the colours that most appears on the covering for the Sindbad sofa (1981) in which Vico explores a combination of colours, as he later did in other furnishings such as the Vidun table (1986). In the latter case, the red of the aniline on the beech highlights only one part of the object and is close to the tones he used in architecture, just as it is for what he designed for some models of Schiffini kitchens (Timo, 1980).
He then used a particular tone of red (“goose beak red”) for the frame of his Edison table (1985) – which consists of joined gas pipes – in one of its most successful variants.
The power of the Magistretti Red was seized upon and exploited, particularly for advertising his objects. This is a crucial aspect, not just for Vico’s work, but more in general for the way Italian design was positioned and presented to the world.
Red became the banner of Artemide’s corporate identity, as we see in Vico’s design for its showrooms in about 1972: stacks of Demetrio tables in red plastic, red chairs, red Tetis and walls of the same colour.
Vico’s Red thus becomes the visiting card for a cultural – and, shortly after, commercial – expansion, of which we are still reaping the benefits today.