by Marco Romanelli. While the history of Italian design has managed to celebrate its heroes, we can see that some key figures have been left somehow in the background. They certainly include Osvaldo Borsani, Gino Sarfatti and Gastone Rinaldi. What have these three people in common, apart from having worked around the same period and often for the same shows? That’s quite easy to answer if you match their names to those of the companies they founded: Borsani and Tecno, Sarfatti and Arteluce, Rinaldi and RIMA. That’s almost self-evident: the history of Italian design has not been generous with those children of hers who wanted to be designers and businessmen at the same time, as if being one’s “own principal” were no guarantee for the purity of the results. While no word has been said yet by the institutions about the genius of Rinaldi, after the fine exhibition curated by Giuseppe Drago in Brescia in 2015, it was precisely the Triennale di Milano that celebrated the talent of Sarfatti (as the complete works of this artist of light were coming out) in 2011 and now at last celebrates that of Osvaldo Borsani (1911-1985). Actually, to give a preview of the outstanding layout designed by Norman Foster and Tommaso Fantoni, we can say that “the transparency” sought by the two designers seems to repay Borsani at last for that dark place and for that poor understanding we mentioned before.
Here’s then, on the ground floor of Palazzo dell’Arte, one of the famous bends designed by Muzio and usually masked in the layouts, he is emphasised, brought into focus: as if displaying an unconscious process of rediscovery, not just of the Palace but also of the designer who’s on display there. A lot of the exhibition can already be sensed from the outside hall, “as simple and effective as a Sol Lewitt”, Alessandro Colombo wrote in Giornale dell’Architettura, and it is: at the entrance, a “castle” of white transparent cubes welcomes visitors and announces the philosophy of the exhibition, with a multilevel construction that hosts the original pieces along the concave side of the trail and a rich “collection of paintings” along the convex side in front. Items and drawings from an extremely long time, 1925 to 1985, tell us not only about Osvaldo Borsani’s career and evolution as a designer, but also the changes in the tastes of the Italian upper middle-classes that were grappling with a far from easy transition from the latest period styles to modernity. For many years, Borsani himself built items that, though greatly fascinating, were deeply rooted in the “20th-century-style” manufacturing tradition of the Brianza region. We can see these pieces, still produced by ABV (Atelier Borsani Varedo), in the exhibition too, and feel a deep nostalgia for their retro aesthetics that reminds us of our granny’s parlour. However, there’s one feature that is suggestive of the author’s sensitivity as something quite different from that of many of his peers: it’s his ability to interact with artists. Since the Forties, the items designed by Borsani have added up, not juxtaposed, to Lucio Fontana’s ceramic plates, Arnaldo Pomodoro’s metals or Fausto Melotti’s and Roberto Crippa’s designs. This is perhaps the first symptom of that change that blew up when he opened Tecno and took part in the X Triennale 1954, where Borsan looks perfectly contemporary, actually “futuristic”, capable of designing genuinely iconic pieces, such as the famous D70 “pivoting-wing” sofa or the P40 “multiple-setting” lounge chair. Pieces that are not just outstanding in their design, they are also an amazing litmus test of a sociologically changed world. From then on and for many years, Borsani’s career was perfectly consistent and creative (let’s just mention the AT16 coat stand, 1961, an unprecedented sculpture standing between the floor and the ceiling, or the expressionistic force of the “Canada” lounge chair, 1966) and got entwined with important people, especially Eugenio Gerli, another forgotten master, with whom he jointly designed other outstanding pieces.
But, going back to the exhibition, which as we said before is truly “impeccable”, it is the extremely long “collection of paintings” wall that is the most impactful, which goes to show the amount of hard work that has gone into archival research as well as the attempt to display these findings in a coherent, visually powerful way. If we really wanted to engage in nit-picking, maybe just not to give up on the constructive role of critique, we might point out that there may be some problems of attribution for the less expert ones, unless hey consult the precious booklet that is given out at the entrance, at seeing pieces that have not been designed by Borsani but have been still included in the sequence of furnishings as they have been produced by ABV or Tecno, and maybe also that the layout at the “end” of the exhibition sort of “dies away”. I think, however, that in this case you have to wear your psychologist’s hat and explain that probably this is because nobody would ever want to “end” a story of life and design that is so important, and so effectively told.
La Triennale di Milano
Viale Emilio Alemagna, 6
16th May - 16th September 2018
Tuesday - Sunday: 10.30 am - 8.30 pm
Curated by: Norman Foster and Tommaso Fantoni
Layout: Norman Foster Foundation and Archivio Osvaldo Borsani
Catalogue by Giampiero Bosoni (Edizioni Skira)