A collection of open air memories: outdoor furniture at the fair


Garden furniture exhibition area, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1962

Relaxation at sunset, the scent of cut grass and veiled shading: the perfect ingredients for outdoor living spaces have been accompanying us for decades. We continue our journey into the past through previously-unseen images from the Fondazione Fiera Milano Archives

The springtime always makes us feel like getting out of the house, shucking off our winter clothes to be active, working out to keep in shape or getting bathing suit ready… Not to mention fixing a picnic in a proper wicker basket, or even just sitting on a bench enjoying warm sunshine after the long winter months, staying as long as it takes to read the newspaper right through to the last page! 


This year, the passing of the “short day” season benefits from one of our reactions to lockdown: an unexpected flourishing of new “setups” on terraces, balconies, and yards; inflatable pools, lounge chairs, freestanding hammocks, barbecues and rolls of artificial grass, all simulating the outdoors on the home front!


It’s really nothing new: as kids, who did not put up a tent in the living room at least once, made from couch cushions if not a real tent complete with poles and pegs, or some slung sarong purloined from the summer clothes pile? These makeshift constructions were such fun, even if they might bring a withering look from mom or a loving smile from grandma.


Garden furniture exhibition area, Terrazzo Belvedere, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1961

The need to be outdoors burns strong within us. Remember all those hours playing hide-and-seek and tag in the yard until it was dark, just for the joy of being outside? Even mother would get short shrift when she called us back in, guaranteed a stock reply of, “Just ten more minutes!”


Make no bones about it, recent redevelopment of public space has left a major imprint on neighborhood life in many cities. Benches, participatory activities, miles of bike lanes, colourful paving and street furniture of all shapes attract people to experience their streets and squares differently, sometimes with unexpected results.


Is it perhaps because we’re Italian and we like being social? Of course it is, yet it’s equally true that since our living space decreased, we have experienced a far greater need to be outside as more people seek an outdoor outlet, even a small balcony with a mini table for eating breakfast alfresco.


Sector dedicated to camping tents and garden furniture, Largo X, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1969

City-dwellers marked collective occasions or made up for the lack of them with mini gardener’s sets and bulbs planted in boxes hung on the railings. Those lucky enough to live outside the metropolis and own a handkerchief of garden lost their marbles and started collecting the latest generation of tools, bush-cutters, lawn-mowers and tillers worthy of the head gardener at Boboli or Villa Carlotta, furnishing their new outdoor home like some kind of royal residence, greenhouses and wrought iron gazebos included.


After all, Italy has form when it comes to purveying top garden furniture, whether it be made of wrought iron or harmonic steel, treasures of metalworking or suspensions worthy of nineteenth-century carriages sharing the stage with rush, wicker, rattan, and bamboo, living fibres that held no secrets for designers of the calibre of Vico Magistretti and the Italian companies still making them today.


Garden furniture exhibition area, Terrazzo Belvedere, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1961

The skilful hands of artisans still plying their trade (I recently visited one in the Veneto region) despite cutthroat competition sell a limited number of highly prized, indestructible pieces, design-made strictly to order. There may be a wait, but it’s worth it: what could be better than falling asleep with the cat on your lap in a handwoven rocking chair?


A return to quality outdoor furniture is welcome because, in all honesty, Italy has also made some dubious and tasteless things, harbingers of inflatable, illuminated palms in courtyard entrances, cheap, poorly designed plastic chairs, and faux-straw armchairs that leave a mark on your butt in the time it takes to quaff an aperitif in a bar with an exotic name – too exotic for Cattolica or Villasimius.


I spent my childhood lounging around on a pair of folding chairs at my grandmother’s house, put out on the porch after being pulled out of the garage for the summer, cleaned up despite being well covered for their wintertime repose. Both seat and back were made from tubular, plastic string, a good replacement for straw, soft, elastic, and cane-shaped too. I have no idea why I write about those chairs in the past tense – they’re still very much in use!


Photography by Gianni Berengo Gardin, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1985


Visitor sitting on an outdoor armchair, Garden furniture exhibition area, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1962


Panoramic view, Terrazzo Belvedere, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1961


Furniture and garden games, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1971


Visitor sitting on a deckchair, Terrazzo Belvedere, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1962


Furniture and garden games, Fiera Campionaria di Milano, 1969

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