Vico Magistretti and Cesare Cassina as a figure of the essential relationship between designer and manufacturer
“The underlying premise of design is chatter: you need to chat a bit to see what’s needed.” So said Vico Magistretti, the master-singer of a design that begins with a two-way discussion: “My design work has always been closely linked to production. I’d like to point out that – at least in my experience – design has always been 50 percent the work of the manufacturer and 50 percent mine, and indeed I never create my designs in my studio.”
This is how many of the masterpieces of Italian design came about: from the encounter between two people, from their conversations, from their mutual curiosity. These were fortunate but by no means coincidental encounters, for they were part of a cultural and productive process that gave rise to a world of design unlike any other in the world. “What happened was that industry came to us because they’d realised that things were changing. And that’s no small matter,” explained Magistretti when talking about those years. “There was an extremely powerful network of small artisans in Milan who were invaluable because they allowed us to create our models, knowing if they could or could not be removed from the mould, and that’s one of the reasons why Italian design is still going strong today.”
One of the entrepreneurs at the forefront in this was Cesare Cassina. The two started working together in the early 1960s. At the time, Magistretti was a forty-year-old architect with a career, who had already designed some iconic buildings (including the Torre al Parco, opposite the Triennale’s Palazzo dell’Arte), which had helped transform the Milanese skyline in the early years of the economic boom. Cassina, with about ten years more experience behind him, was at the head of a furniture company in Brianza, founded in 1927 with his brother Umberto, and he was trying to make a leap forward in terms of quality and quantity.
Though from two different perspectives, Vico and Cesare shared a vision of the relationship between modernity and tradition, which they each applied to their approach to design. For Magistretti, creating something new meant maintaining a bond with history, as he had been taught by his teacher Ernesto N. Rogers, an intellectual and architect at the Studio BBPR: “Being modern means being a link, with one eye on the future, and the other on the past.” For Cesare, who came from generations of artisans (there are reports of certain Cassina master craftsmen engaged in carving the pulpit of the cathedral in Como back in the eighteenth century), this approach meant applying the care of one’s tradition to the logic of mass production.
Cesare Cassina and Vico Magistretti at the Cassina party for the company's 50th anniversary, 1977 © Archivio Storico Cassina
“The underlying premise of design is chatter: you need to chat a bit to see what’s needed.”
The first professional encounter between Vico and Cesare came about at the 12th Triennale di Milano in 1960, where the display included a special armchair designed by Magistretti in the late 1950s. This chair was created for the Carimate Golf Club, a building immersed in the green of Brianza, with large terraces giving onto the golf course. The architect originally wanted to use Alvar Aalto’s chairs for the Club House but they cost too much. So he designed a small armchair that took inspiration from the traditional trattoria chair, but refined its details and had it painted bright red, using an aniline paint usually used for toys. The result was so highly appreciated that he decided to make it for the general public. Carimate, as the chair was named, was handcrafted by the Fratelli Mario e Luigi Comi company in Meda and distributed by Artemis. However, in 1962 Magistretti contacted Cesare Cassina and granted him a license to manufacture and sell it across Europe (except in Italy and the UK). Based on the original model, Cassina created an entire series over the following years: Carimate with and without armrests, a stool, a bench chair and even a system of bunk beds.
The Carimate was the first of many creations in the series, which included a broad range of chairs, armchairs, sofas and tables, which were given progressive code numbers: 122, 765, 772, 781, 896, 897, 905, 922, 928, 937, and so on. And then, of course, there were sofas – the Maralunga (1973), Fiandra (1975), and Paddock (1977) – the bookcase Nuvola Rossa (1977), the Sindbad series (1981), the Veranda series (1983), the Edison table (1985), and many others.
A special project was immediately added to the design: Cesare Cassina’s house, in Carimate itself (1965), not far from the Golf Club. In those years, Vico was designing other stunning villas surrounded by nature, such as the Casa Schubert in Ello and the Casa Bassetti in Azzate, and he gave the very best of himself. The overriding feature of the villa is the extreme simplicity of the square plan, covered by a pitched copper roof – recalling Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses – protecting the facades, which are plastered in white with geometric openings. The materials used also included bricks laid on edge for the external flooring and Douglas fir for the interiors. A curved external wall, forming the arc of a circle, flanks the house, producing an interaction between the abstract nature of the architecture and the organic nature of the landscape. The interior, which is rationally divided into functional spaces that give onto the large garden, is furnished with items that Magistretti designed for Cassina.
Vico and Cesare worked together on their projects. There are plenty of anecdotes about their partnership, which give an insight into a relationship based on mutual esteem and friendship, as well as an informal but effective way of working. “Cesare Cassina was a great man. He spoke only in dialect, but had exceptional acumen and intuition,” recalled Vico, who every now and then would hear a knock on his studio window, on the mezzanine floor at the corner of Via Conservatorio and Via Bellini. “I remember when, from that window, Cesare Cassina would hand me the models I had given him a week earlier.” It saved time, which could be put to use thinking up new ideas. Italian design still had to be invented: “There was a sense of urgency, a kind of frenzy, so these people... took risks, they loved taking risks, and we both took risks, because in the end – and that’s the best thing about this job – if the objects didn’t work, they didn’t sell.”
Many projects came from the two of them, such as the Maralunga sofa, which was famous for the way it revolutionised this type of furniture by making it possible to transform the parts. No longer a fixed sofa, but made up of adjustable, versatile parts that could be adapted to any situation. Vico recalled how the project “came from an armrest with a cushion attached to it. Looking at it and making it sway, I thought of making a movable cushion for the headrest of a sofa and I exchanged a glance with Cesare Cassina. That’s how the Maralunga sofa came into being – one of the best-selling items of Italian design.” According to other versions, Cesare’s contribution went well beyond a glance. It all started with a punch: a punch thrown by the entrepreneur against a prototype sofa designed by Magistretti, which didn’t convince him. The power of design: the punch broke the backrest and gave Vico the idea of movement, forever changing the history of the sofa. Satisfied, the architect commented: “yes, that’s great, now it seems perfect.”
They used the formal “lei” form to address each other, but it was like an informal “tu”, remembers his daughter Adele Cassina. They had travelled extensively together, especially to London (where Vico advised Cesare on his attire), and they knew each other’s quirks. Magistretti, for example, was very superstitious and made no secret of it. In the early 1970s, at a dinner organised in Vico’s honour by Cassina in Rome, Cesare realised there were thirteen guests. “Run off and find a fourteenth!” he ordered his daughter. Adele stopped some passers-by: the first ones ran off, but one stopped, listened, and accepted. “Cassina, who’s that fellow? I don’t know him,” Vico asked, unaware of his narrow escape.