The furnishings-symbols of Italian radical design, like the sofa Superonda by Archizoom Associati1, the lamps Passiflora and Gherpe by Superstudio2, and the Mobili Grigi by Ettore Sottsass—just to mention a few—were all born within a company, Poltronova, buried deep in the Tuscan countryside in the province of Pistoia. You could say it’s a strange story, the result of chance, but chance really isn’t the case here. Instead, there are people: exceptional, stubborn, and visionary people, able to imagine a world that didn’t exist yet.
People like Sergio Cammilli, who established the company in 1957, and like Ettore Sottsass, immediately called to support him in the difficult task of “renewing the furnishing field.”
Regarding Cammilli, Sottsass once wrote: “At the head of the company there wasn’t one of those ‘big guys’ with a ringing voice who spoke in Lombard and ‘rose through the ranks,’ a meteor of energy and boldness who opened companies here and there...and who are eagerly called ‘commander.’ Instead, there’s a slender guy who makes paintings, an intellectual...” It’s Sergio Cammilli, whom everyone called “the Professor.”
Under the artistic management of Sottsass, Poltronova—which paved the way for the nascent Florentine avant-garde groups Archizoom and Superstudio3—would become “the radical factory,” as Andrea Branzi called it, able to give shape to that experimental design which today is found in museums across the world and in design history books.
When he was contacted by Cammilli, Ettore Sottsass was about 40 and had just returned to Italy from the United States where he had worked for George Nelson. Those were difficult times. There was little work, and Sottsass began using an old Fiat Topolino to get from Milan to Tuscany where, besides designing furniture for Poltronova, he made ceramics for Bitossi, where some of his loveliest pieces from those years would be born. “Just imagine a completely destroyed Italy, a hard-hit Italy that was desperately trying to survive at all costs,” narrates Sottsass. “I knew we had to make modern things, something new…but I really didn’t have any clear ideas as to what. [...] Right from the start, I was fixated with adding color to furniture, that is, to the environment, because for me color could offer greater sensations in interpreting the environment itself. [...] I started to become really interested in the sensorial meaning of structure thicknesses, then, with the sensorial question of colors and materials. [...] In 1965, the iconographic elements I had at my disposal came mostly from popular peasant culture. For example, the large feet, the large curves, ceramics.”
These elements can be found in the furniture designed for Poltronova in 1965: the desk Barbarella, the small chest Bastonio, objects to hang, credenzas in wood and ceramics, and a few anthropomorphic looking container furnishings.
In 1966, with the Superbox project—wood furniture covered in color-striped Abet plastic laminate—Sottsass stepped away from what remained of popular tradition. His new references became India and America. The Superbox are furnishings on large bases, isolated at the center of rooms, conceived as veritable “energy catalyzers”: furniture as people, with their own lives, independent with respect to the surrounding environment and laden with meaning. During those years the Austrian architect acted as an ante litteram art director for Poltronova, and in the company’s catalogues his role is described as: “overall aesthetic consultation is entrusted to the architect Ettore Sottsass.”
On December 4, 1966, just one month after the devastating flood that struck Florence, the newly formed groups Archizoom and Superstudio held the exhibition Superarchitettura at the gallery Jolly 2 in Pistoia, where Cammilli was an habitué. This show, considered on an international level as the manifesto of Italian radical design, took its inspiration from early discos (like the Piper in Rome), from music by The Beatles, and from British pop art. The prototypes on display, made in wood and cardboard and painted with very bold colors by members of both groups, would become, thanks to an encounter with the Poltronova company, the furnishings-icons we are familiar with: the sofa-sculptures Superonda and Sofo, and the lamps Passiflora and Gherpe—all works that contributed to creating a renewed outlook on life and a new way of considering the domestic landscape.
“Super-Architecture is the architecture of super-consumption, of super-induction to super-consumption, of super-markets, of super-man, of super-gas” as the exhibition manifesto stated and which, according to Andrea Branzi, “had the effect of a spark in such a dry place that it created a sort of self-combustion.” The flood in Florence caused, therefore, a long wave of renewal, a sort of tabula rasa for a new beginning, in the opinion of the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.
Ettore Sottsass and Fernanda Pivano, his wife and translator of American Beat Generation writers, started associating with the young radicals from Archizoom and Superstudio. They forged very close ties with Archizoom in particular. Sottsass wrote for the magazine Domus the first article on them, presenting their Poltronova projects: “I am quite happy that it’s up to me to talk about Archizoom and their products, given that their works seem very effective in reeking havoc among those interested in this country about things on culture and ideologies, well organized, layered, consolidated, and stereotyped. Someone always has to reek havoc if you want the sense of things to be constantly revealed...” (from Domus 455/ October 1967).
Thanks to the presence of Fernanda Pivano, the atmosphere at Poltronova was imbued with echoes from the visionary American Beat Generation, with its refusal of materialism in Western society and a search for new awareness. Even Allen Ginsberg traveled to Pistoia’s countryside for the exhibition of “Bad Ceramics”4 by Sottsass held at Poltronova, and Archizoom created for the great Beat poet one of their “Gazeboes.”5
Collaboration between Sottsass and Poltronova reached its height in 1970 with the Mobili Grigi, in plastic and fiberglass: mono-colored furniture, with neon lights on top that made the surroundings anything but reassuring. For Sottsass, gray is not the color “that is so perfect in the middle it always becomes gray (like the images of happy society served every evening by Italian TV), and gray surely does not signify something very elegant. [...] Gray is a very sad color, maybe the color my hair will become, that is, a color that wants to make problems for those who would like to use it for advertising detergents, toothpaste, vermouth, cocktails in general, appliances, deodorants, and things of the sort.”
Sottsass designed over fifty projects for Poltronova: some have never seen the light of day, while others are limited series or even prototypes. Very few were actually made: they are too bold, too pioneering to be understood. The same applies to the modular couch Safari by Archizoom Associati and the Luxor series by Superstudio. If the biggest part in this story is played by the key figures, there’s another important component we cannot forget: the tradition of Tuscan craftsmanship and the smaller size of a company quite unlike many in northern Italy. In fact, the experimentation of this “radical factory” was made possible also by local “know how.” As Sottsass wrote in the late 1960s: “When industry reaches places like Tuscany, or India, or Japan, or Mexico, where craftsmanship has become and has remained for centuries one of life’s fundamental principles [...] there are two scenarios possible: industry falls into blown-out boorishness or total vulgarity [...] or industry saves itself and actually tries to save people from industrialization. In this second area there is, or at least aspires to be and makes great effort to be, this factory of furniture with its catalogue. And even if it’s not all there yet, I think it will be soon, and then that’s a great thing: one of those rare things where industry becomes a life principle.” Today, the Centro Studi Poltronova, directed by Roberta Meloni, makes objects from the company’s catalogue and manages the iconography and document archive.