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Milan: Looking backward

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At Milan Design Week this year, nostalgia was in

Silvia armchair (1960) by Paolo Tilche, reissued by De Padova.
Silvia armchair (1960) by Paolo Tilche, reissued by De Padova.
Tommaso Sartori courtesy dePadova

At this year’s Milan Design Week, what’s old was new again. “It’s all about nostalgia,” says Felix Burrichter, editor-in-chief of PIN-UP magazine and a long-time observer of the international design scene.

And what else could you say about a fair in which the most talked about event among the 450 happenings that were part of Fuori Salone—the exhibitions that took place outside of the massive Salone de Mobile fair itself—was the public opening of a circa-1940 house designed by Italian architect Osvaldo Borsani for his father?

Reissues of 20th-century designs were everywhere this year—from a bevy of reboots from small Scandinavian companies to an edited selection from cutting-edge Italian firms Sawaya and Moroni, Cappellini, and De Padova. B&B Italia bought the licensing rights to the work of Luigi Dominoni, long associated with Azucena, a small but prestigious Italian manufacturer. Even Knoll joined the party. The American furniture company revived a Bastiano sofa by Tobia Scarpa and the famous Hardoy butterfly chair, designed in 1938 by Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy and sold by Knoll from 1947 to 1951.

This year also marked the 100th birthday of influential Italian designer Achille Castiglioni, and the occasion provided the perfect excuse to bring back a handful of the master designer’s out-of-production pieces. Flos filled its showroom with a fulsome homage, adding two lights (“Nasa” and “Ventosa”) to its already extensive Castiglioni collection.

Archival image of Ventosa light (1982) by Castiglioni.
Courtesy Fondazione Achille Castiglioni and Flos
Ventosa light reissued in 2018 by Flos.

Alessi also re-introduced three classic pieces and Zanotta added two reissues to its extensive Castiglioni library, along with two pieces by Carlo Mollino, another 20th-century titan whose Reale table brought $3.5 million at auction in 2005.

Dry cutler set (1982), one of three new Castiglioni reissues from Alessi.

Castiglioni was also honored at Karakter, a Danish company founded in 2014 by Christian Elving. Karakter can be described as a seeker of lost treasures and Elving as a curator with no company archive to draw upon. In its short lifetime, it has brought back forgotten work by Joe Colombo, Angelo Mangiarotti, and Castiglioni’s brother, Pier Giacamo. This year it revived pieces by Bodil Kjaer, an 86-year-old Danish architect who is enjoying a major revival.

Carl Hansen & Son, Holmegaard, and Illums Bollighus, the famous Copenhagen department store, showed their Kjaer reissues at Karakter’s stand. Kjaer’s scene-stealing executive desk, made famous in three James Bond movies (From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice), stole the show.

Karakter also reproduced pieces by Paul McCobb, the mass-produced American designer who died in 1969 and whose work had never before been revived, although it has become exceedingly popular on the auction circuit. (Fritz Hansen also offered a Paul McCobb cocktail table along with reissuing Arne Jacobsen’s Pot chair).

Danish company, Gubi, was another design curator. The company was founded in 1967 by Gubi and Lisbeth Olsen and sold wood furniture, throws, and hand-painted cookie jars. But somehow, in 2001, it got the rights to Bestlite, the classic modern English lighting company, and that was the start of its reissues business.

According to longtime Gubi employee Emily Tolifson, a regional sales manager with the company, the business really took off when son Jacob came on board. “He had a passion for old designs and went to auctions and started contacting families, asking for reproduction rights,” she explains.

Gubi produces work by Greta Grossman, Jacques Adnet, and Gio Ponti, among other famous names from the past. This year, it introduced pieces by Pierre Paulin, Paavo Tynell, and the lesser-known Marcel Gascoin and Carlo de Carli. Gubi also works with contemporary designers, as does Karakter. And according to Tolifson, the company’s business is about 60 percent reproduction and 40 percent contemporary pieces.

Markelius01 table (1930) by Sven Markelius, available in limited edition at Offecct.

There are design lovers and then there are business people. Offecct, a contemporary Swedish furniture company, presented reissues of Frank Lloyd Wright and Swedish architect Sven Markelius at Salone. It stated in its catalog: “Under the name Edition we intend to regularly bring you last-century news in a new limited edition.” A salesperson at the stand explained that Offecct didn’t have anything classic—it was founded in 1990—so it found it necessary to do this.

Why is there such a renewed passion in the past? “It’s very safe,” says Andrea Trimarchi, one half of the stellar design studio FormaFantasma. “It’s the easy way out. “Everyone’s afraid and conservatism is in power,” agrees his partner Simone Farresin.

But it’s also good business. Barbara Lehmann, historical archives curator for Cassina, says that almost half of the firm’s business comes from its I Maestri collection, which began in 1965 with the company’s acquisition of the rights to produce Le Corbusier’s LC1 sofa. Cassina officially launched I Maestri in 1972, adding the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and then Gerrit Rietveld, Erik Gunnar Asplund, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Franco Albini to its lineup.

Taliesin armchair (1949) by Frank Lloyd Wright, now produced by Cassina.

“We chose a maestro from each country to show a different aspect of modernism,” she explains. “We want to conserve the history of design,” she says. “It’s important for the future.”

One piece of furniture that will no longer be under the Cassina trademark is a Gio Ponti armchair first produced 1957. Cassina lost a court battle last year over the licensing rights, so Molteni&C, which has at present an exclusive contract with the Ponti family for all of the designer’s work, will be the only one to manufacture what it refers to as the D.156.3. (This year, Molteni reissued a dining table originally designed for the Time-Life building in New York.)

How do these companies decide what to revive? “In each period there is a mood,” explains Lehmann. “There is the continual oscillation between past and present.”

And presently, it seems, everyone is happier looking backward.