I first met Antonio Citterio in the early nineties through our long term relationship with Italian manufacturers B&B Italia and Arclinea where he directs the design developments for both companies. His design skills never cease to amaze me and meeting up with him every year and experiencing his new work inevitably ends up being the highlight of the Milan Furniture fair in April each year for me.
This ubiquity can be explained in part by his background – he was born in 1950 in Meda, an epicentre of Italian design ( Gio Ponti lived next door! ) just as post war Italy was succeeding in integrating a history of artisanal creativity with the realities of corporate expansion and the funding of research and development.
By the time the young architect left university in 1976, he was surrounded by proponents of post modernism but even though he associated with the Memphis group, he followed his own path. His well grounded point of reference remained the modern movement. Citterio stuck with functionality and the aesthetic rigour of simplicity – this must not only have taken extraordinary courage at the time but indicates a a focus that was to determine the direction of Citterio’s designs and career for years to come.
The Diesis Sofa, created in 1979, was one of Citterio’s first major successes – his design ethos is evident – as though the sofa was thought of as ‘comfort framed’ – a narrow steel, industrial style frame holding up thick cushioned seating and pillow-like side arms with no extraneous details. It is almost as if the sofa floats a few inches above the floor and the frame disappears. Over the years the Diesis has become a true classic and a favourite of architects across the globe and without doubt in my mind, the greatest sofa design ever.
This was the beginning of a series of sofa systems designed for B&B Italia, the company that pioneered cold formed polyurethane foam moulded on to a solid steel frame as a manufacturing technique creating master collections such as Sity, Harry, Charles, Frank, Ray and others that embody ‘Islands for Living’ all designed by Citterio.
The sofa was no longer a long bench like creation but a deep, low, shaped fixture often with an incorporated chaise, suitably arranged so that individuals can work, play, nap and entertain in their own separate spaces. Thanks to Antonio, we no longer sit on a sofa in a row like we are waiting for a bus. A perfect example of Citterio’s other furniture masterpieces is the Mart Chair ( 2003 ) – again the simplicity and familiarity of a structure with a skin, hiding a complex construction. The comfort is created by the shaped saddle leather which improves in looks as it ages. When I first saw the Mart in Milan I was taken aback by its radical curves which are a little unusual. Each day of the Fair I would note a new feature or nuance to the design and by the end of the week I was wildly singing its praises and calling him a genius.
This six day process I go through each year from liking a design to loving a design is so important in selecting new products for our New Zealand showrooms as it gives me the confidence that the design will inevitably become a “classic” which the Mart has since achieved. The office systems that he created for Vitra are characterised by their flexibility. They highlight Citterio’s ability to view design as a system, where single elements are conceived both individually as components of an overall environment. He understood well ahead of the rest that design products would in future be integrated into the global market and needed to be readily adaptable. The traditional bathroom was treated similarly – in his designs for Hansgrohe Axor, the bath, basin and mirror are integrated so that a small home can accommodate a bath. The joystick became a model for a tap and cruciform tap handles combined a decorative feature with improved functionality. Most importantly he designed the washbasin without cupboards underneath, just exposed pipes and clean open steel shelving – an industrial look that we are now accustomed to.
His revolution in kitchen design also came about from functionality – the Arclinea kitchens that he designs originated from looking at the materials and layouts of commercial kitchens plus examining how the kitchen was evolving into a social hub in the home with the chef interacting with family and guests while creating culinary masterpieces. His use of new materials such as Armour and Steelia have revolutionised kitchen surfaces – permanent good looks, easy maintenance, commercial grade hygienic, anti scratch and sophisticated colours.
Being a fanatic for great kitchen design I enjoy the pleasure that our clients show when they see for the first time the ingenious design elements and attention to detail that Antonio has placed on every part of the kitchen such as the cleverness in simple things like the Convivium and Italia handle detail.
Citterio’s areas of innovation over the years have also included lighting, homewares, heating, numerous architectural details and exciting building designs.
He continues to produce new extraordinary designs every year but what makes them so noteworthy is their simplicity and classic forms even though they are technologically innovative – Citterio has remained true to the design ideals that he chose back in the 1970s and for me he continues to rank number one in the world for furniture, kitchen and bathroom design.