Vico Magistretti: In Praise of Flexibility
One constant feature of Vico Magistretti’s work is his pursuit of absolute flexibility in the design of the home, which he views in a diverse and complex manner. Heir to the Modern revolution that emerged between the two world wars, throughout his career the Milanese architect worked on optimising housing solutions and on the concept of transformability. He combined this with a principle of standardised production that, in both architecture and design, had become a common goal in the wake of the Bauhaus and similar experiments. For Magistretti, this line of research came about mainly in two closely interconnected areas – interior design and furniture design – interpreting and running through all the various social, technological and economic conditions that arose in the second half of the twentieth century.
The idea of designing in a versatile, adaptable and convertible way first of all needs to be put into context, in order to comprehend its reasons and virtues. One example of the mechanisation process that attempted to replace manual labour with automatic solutions, in sectors ranging from agriculture to industry, is that of the famous “patented furniture” that appeared in the United States in the late nineteenth century. This included beds, armchairs and sofas fitted with mechanisms that could modify their use, in ingenious and sometimes extravagant ways. The Bauhaus pursued a very different form of flexibility and transformability, especially under the direction of Hannes Meyer in the late 1920s. In this case, the aim was to optimise and save, through mass production that would raise the ergonomic and aesthetic standards for every citizen.
Flexibility, in its broader sense, was already an ugent and essential requirement in post-war Italy, which had been destroyed but was ready to come back to life. The country needed millions of new homes, complete with tables, chairs, beds, wardrobes, bookcases and everything necessary to ensure a dignified life: a life on the move (hopefully towards better conditions) and one that needed to be equipped with furnishings that were equally dynamic in terms of concept and function.
It was a tough and exciting challenge. The young Magistretti, who graduated in 1945, immediately took it up, both in architecture and in the new (though not yet industrial) world of design. The spaces he designed for war veterans in the QT8 district in Milan were minimal but well-organised and could be adapted to various configurations. This was the first test for his concept of “minimal” accommodation, which he worked on for many years. In 1946 Magistretti took up the theme of flexibility in the world of furnishings in more literal terms for the Riunione Italiana Mostre Arredamento (R.I.M.A.) exhibition at the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan (the home of the Triennale). This event attempted to offer an agile, economic and potentially expandable response to the need for furnishings, and on this occasion Magistretti designed a series of furnishings, including some bookcases and a small chair called Piccy.
Piccy, Fumagalli, 1946 © Archivio Studio Magistretti – Fondazione Vico Magistretti
For the bookcases project, Magistretti approached the idea of adaptability by working with diagonal braces, uprights, joints and other construction elements that could be used to create various configurations in settings that were different in terms of height and depth. Of the three versions, one in particular stands out: it had movable shelves and was made by the Crespi company in Milan. Piccy, on the other hand, is a folding chair made with a beech structure and a canvas stretched across to form the seat and back. The system, which allows it to be opened and closed in just a few seconds, was so simple and original that it won the Bronze Medal at the 8th Triennale in 1947.
He carried out many other experiments that applied these concepts. The Sending 1 dining table, for example, (which he designed in 1951 for the Atelier Borsani Varedo, later Tecno) with side extensions and folding wings, could be turned from a circle into an oval, with room for 4, 6 or 8 people.
Sending, ABV, 1951, studio sketch © Archivio Studio Magistretti – Fondazione Vico Magistretti
These examples were still part of Magistretti’s running-in period as a designer, and it was only some years later that his designs were produced on a larger scale rather than just being prototypes or small runs. Their importance, however, was considerable, when looked at with hindsight. These experiments reveal his precocious ingenuity and his close attention to the mechanisms, gears and structural elements that – even though he always considered technology as a means and never as an end – demonstrate Magistretti’s skill in creating designs, right down to the smallest details. This is an aspect that was later to be overshadowed – partly by himself, it should be said, in a provocative manner – by the famous story of his “design by phone”: “I like concept design, which is so evident that you can even not draw it. I’ve transmitted many of my designs over the phone.” In actual fact, Vico followed the design process from beginning to end, and the numerous technical patents he filed, together with his sketches and graphic designs, are testimony to his exceptional skill and inventiveness.
It is interesting to note how the themes of flexibility, versatility and transformability remain beneath the surface, like a karst river, re-emerging every now and then in new forms in the designs he made during the following decades. All the while, his reflections on fully equipped minimum accommodation proceeded unabated. In the building in Corso di Porta Romana in Milan (1962-7), for example, the flexibility of the interiors is ensured by continuous strip windows, sliding doors, mass-produced kitchens, concentrated and integrated services, and so on.
From container to content: Vico Magistretti’s work in the field of design was definitively confirmed by the Compasso d’Oro he won in 1967 with the Eclisse and in the 1970s he created several projects that took up these points. In 1972 came Siloe, a sofa bed with an additional hidden pull-out bed and cushions that become pillows, which he designed for the Tisettanta company. But his coup de théâtre came a few months later.
Building, corso di Porta Romana 49-51-53, 1962/67, project of Vico Magistretti, photo by Pegoraro.
It was in 1973 that Magistretti invented the Maralunga sofa, with a simple but brilliant idea that revolutionised this type of furniture forever: by using a movable cushion, the headrest and armrests could adapt to multiple positions. No longer a fixed sofa, but one made of adjustable, versatile parts that could be adapted to any situation. The world had changed a lot since 1946: flexibility was no longer a response to the hardships of the reconstruction period, but rather to a form of middle-class domestic hedonism, which was now part of the collective ritual hypnosis brought about by television, to be celebrated while sitting comfortably on a sofa.
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.” Legend has it that it actually 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: his fist broke the backrest and gave Vico the idea of movement, forever changing the history of the sofa. The mechanism initially consisted of a bicycle chain, using a system patented in 1985. It was to be a great and enduring success: the Maralunga won the Compasso d’Oro in 1979 and is still one of Cassina’s best-selling items, taking the shift from the generation of Carosello TV commercials to that of Netflix in its stride.
Incidentally, even though Vico Magistretti kept well away from certain extremes, the effect of radical design on the conception of the home landscape in those years should not be underestimated. The concepts of flexibility, transformability and the unrestrained use of furniture were all at the heart of the icons of radical design, as can be seen in the 1967 Superonda modular sofa by Archizoom.
Following on from the Maralunga, Magistretti also designed the Veranda series, also for Cassina (1983). Just as the veranda of a house acts as a hybrid space between inside and out, offering many unconventional uses, the armchair and sofa of this series offered a wide range of positions – from sitting to horizontal – made possible by the foldable backrest and seat, which turn into headrests (as in the Maralunga), leg rests and footrests.
The Nuvola Rossa bookcase, designed for Cassina in 1977 and still in production today, reintroduced the idea of a structural wooden scaffolding conceptually similar to that of the 1946 bookcases, but also to the Piccy for the way it can be opened and closed like a deck chair. Despite the name, which takes from one of the characters – Red Cloud – in an Emilio Salgari novel (the profile recalls an Indian tent), Nuvola Rossa was created in natural beech.
The folding furniture of the Broomstick series (1979), made by Alias, adopted a similar approach in the same years. The name was suggested by the American designer George Nelson and, as it implies, the products were made by assembling simple broomsticks. Magistretti had the idea when he needed to furnish his small apartment in London, where he taught for many years at the Royal College of Art. The allusion to DIY practices and the aspect of cheapness might recall some of the experiments on furniture promoted at the Bauhaus, or even Enzo Mari’s famous suggestion of self-design a few years earlier. While the former finds confirmation in a conception of living stripped of all rigidity and weight, in Magistretti we do not find the criticism of the system that we find at the heart of Mari’s project. The Broomstick series was rather an attempt (which failed at the time from a commercial point of view) to introduce a system of simple, collapsible and, above all, amusing furnishings into the middle-class home in their almost Dadaist way of reformulating an objet trouvé.
Lastly, in the 1990s and 2000s, which is to say in the last (and still prolific) period of his career, Magistretti insisted to an even greater extent on the idea of transformability. This was thanks to his encounter with Claudio Campeggi, who in the 1970s had taken over the company founded by his father, stubbornly pursuing the idea of light, flexible, versatile, and multipurpose furniture. For Campeggi, Vico designed Ostenda (1994), an armchair that can be turned into a daybed in an instant and can be moved around on wheels; the Kenia chair, which can be folded and transported by means of a handle like that of an umbrella (the object that, more than any other, Magistretti would have liked to have invented himself); the Ospite sofa bed (1996), which closes in two and almost disappears into a thickness of just 13 cm; and many others.
From the Piccy to the Maralunga, and from the Veranda to the Ostenda, Magistretti created a large and diverse series of transformer designs: furnishings (and also architecture) that can not only transform themselves to meet our daily needs, but above that show us that there is more than just one possible way of living in space, and thus of living our lives.