The work of Italian architect and designer Achille Castiglioni and Dutch architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld goes far beyond what you first see in a chair, a table, a light or a building. Here Heidi Dokulil goes inside the studios of two of the world's original design thinkers. The origin of a piece of design and the environmental and social conditions under which it is created are increasingly the questions that individuals and companies are asking about what they buy and what they produce. A hundred or more years ago, people would have likely known the local cabinet-maker, shoemaker and tailor personally until the industrial revolution created the anonymous author designing for an anonymous consumer. Quick turnaround and a throwaway approach is today facing an important and necessary turnabout. At a time of financial unrest and environmental imbalance, it seems that the provenance of design has provided some solid ground in shaky times for consumers to not only feel good about what they purchase, but to also feel a personal connection to something that will last. Who designed it, its history, the quality of materials, and the inventive experiments and processes along the way are the personal stories that have meaning and are drawing attention.

The work of Italian architect and designer Achille Castiglioni and Dutch architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld goes far beyond what you first see in a chair, a table, a light or a building. At Studio Museum Achille Castiglioni in Milan, Achille's daughter Giovanna Castiglioni and wife Irma have opened up the doors to his studio, allowing the public to tour rooms overflowing with drawings, models, prototypes and objects that inspired and amused his inquisitive nature, the blueprint to a man considered one of the most important designers in postwar Italy. In 2004 the Rietveld family, grandson Egbert and great-grandson Ries Seijler, opened Rietveld by Rietveld in Utrecht to produce original works of Gerrit Rietveld, one of Holland's most important architects. They are focusing on designs that have never gone into production before -- ideas that are as contemporary today as they were when first designed in the early 20th century.

It is these families, as well as manufacturers such as Zanotta, which produces work by Castiglioni, and Cassina, which includes Rietveld in its Masters Collection, who are actively addressing a need to feel connected to what we buy, quality of workmanship, unique skills and invention, and the personal stories of the designers and makers behind the work.

A tour of Studio Castiglioni with Giovanna Castiglioni in Milan

On the ring-road around Milan's Castelle, is the studio of Achille Castiglioni. A neoclassical facade, courtyard and steep stairs lead you to a series of rooms overflowing with surprises. Walls are lined in labelled archive boxes and tubes for plans. Prototypes sit on tables with models and material samples, notes and photographs, and a huge glass cabinet - almost bursting open - is filled with objects, each one linked to an idea or a project.

It's too much to take in at first, but as your eyes focus, you become aware of how many things Achille Castiglioni was interested in, and his heightened sense of curiosity about objects that he famously described as “anonymous”.

Achille worked in these five rooms for more than 60 years, first with his brother Pier Giacomo, and from 1968 with assistants, two of whom still work there today. Following Achille's death in 2002, an agreement between the Castiglioni family and the Triennale di Milano resulted in the studio being opened to the public in January 2006 for tours, as well as to help archive the entire collection of 287 industrial design projects, 201 architecture projects and 486 exhibition projects with sketches, technical drawings, articles, invoices, contracts and letters from each project.

“Achille never thought about opening the studio [to the public]," says Giovanna Castiglioni, “but it was a natural step when we decided with my mother, brother and sister to share Achille's way of thinking and his work. He told me that if I enjoy my job I can enjoy my life, so I decided to start three years ago when my mother asked me to help her run the studio. We have to say thank you to my mother for her good character and generosity, because she allowed this place to open. It is very hard for her to remain here, because she had a wonderful relationship with my father.”

Giovanna is Achille's youngest daughter and a geologist who has shifted careers to manage the studio with Dianella Gobbato, who began working there as Achille's assistant in 1986, and Antonella Gornati, who began working there in 1981. Together, over the past three years, they have welcomed more than 13,000 visitors. “I think every tour is special, and for me, every one is different,” she enthuses. “I try to tell different stories each time, so it depends on the curiosity of visitors. I love to talk with people. It's also very nice for me to receive different designers such as Ingo Maurer, Mario Bellini, Jasper Morrison and a lot of younger designers; students who have a young mind interest me.”

Every tour starts with the prototypes and workshop, with explanations of the process right from the beginning. “Achille was so careful with process and ideas and he loved to follow every project from the beginning to the end, so he had a wonderful relationship with the workers. Curiosity was so important for him, so I always try to share with students and others that if you are not curious you can forget it,” says Giovanna.

“We also like to explain through anonymous objects. When visitors come to the meeting room I can show them the slinky coil or a special bottle from Japan so they can feel the wonderful stories behind them. Anonymous objects are also very important.” The studio is a place of surprises. “For some people who come, they never knew they had an object designed by Castiglioni, so for me it is really wonderful when they discover something in the studio that they have at home. I love this,” smiles Giovanna.

The Castiglioni family supports the day-to-day running of the studio, working closely with different companies that produce projects designed by Castiglioni. “Flos helps us every time and we have collaborations with Alessi, Bonacina, Cassina, Zanotta and others. So between the family, the companies and the Triennale di Milano, we can continue to open the studio,” says Giovanna. “We want to preserve the archive and we would like to put old projects into production. We hope to work with companies that want to believe in these projects again. In a few months we would like to show the last projects that Castiglioni designed with a collaborator of his. It is a little piece that you put on the desk -- a secret -- so don't ask me yet!”

In the workshop with Egbert Rietveld, grandson of Gerrit Rietveld

In May 2004, exactly 40 years after the death of Gerrit Rietveld, his family opened Rietveld by Rietveld to continue his work beyond the five models currently available with Cassina: Red Blue chair (1918), Zig Zag chair (1932-35), Divan table (1924), the upholstered chair (1935) and the curved Utrecht sofa (1953).

At the time, both Ries Seijler, Gerrit's great-grandson and Egbert Rietveld, his grandson, were members of the Rietveld Foundation. They felt that although there was growing interest from new companies to produce the work of Rietveld, the groups approaching them were too commercially focused and lacked passion for the craft.

“Before we actually founded the business we talked with family members, of course,” says Egbert. “The next thing we did was choose some models parallel to the search for a furniture maker. The first choice was the Steltman chair, our mutual favourite, and therefore also our logo. The Berlin chair and Military table, chair and stool were chosen for the visual link to Gerrit Rietveld's Red Blue chair.”

The family work with several small furniture companies that make the models to Rietveld's exacting designs. Egbert is responsible for the production drawings, choices of materials and colours, while Seijler manages the day-to-day running of the company. Every change is discussed with the Rietveld Foundation, and the foundation has the power to withdraw a license if they don't approve the prototype or first production model.

“Grandfather Gerrit didn't like furniture-making that much,” says Egbert. “By 1924 most of the work, if not all, was done by Gerard van de Groenekan. By that time real drawings had to be made so that he could explain what he wanted. Initially, I thought it was just making copies of his work, but that is certainly not the case; it is a struggle to make it the way he wanted it. During the process I learned a lot. I had to find solutions for strange details. By comparing many drawings with the real ones and looking at the differences, things became clear. What he really wanted is important, not the actual old model in the museum. If you have a close look at those early pieces, you can find changes in time, a development. With that knowledge, I assumed there would be more drawings of one model, which was true in most cases. It feels like cracking a puzzle and that is frustrating and wonderful, thrilling even, at the same time.

Unlike the Castiglioni family, the Rietvelds do not manage the extensive archive or host tours of the famous Schröder House, concentrating instead on developing the work from the collection of furniture never before produced. The Rietveld archive itself is held by three organisations in Holland: the NAI in Rotterdam (the Dutch Institute for Architecture), the Rietveld Archief Centraal Museum Utrecht, and the Schröder archive, also in the Centraal Museum Utrecht, where schools and universities can access the collection.

“At schools and universities, students learn a little of his work, but it seems to me that the global attention on his work, especially his furniture, is limited to the De Stijl period. He made so much in the years after that - the Calvé bench is a beautiful example. That park bench was designed for a garden of Mien Ruys; many people who are familiar with the work of my grandfather are surprised to hear it was his design.”

Today Egbert is in the last stages of developing the Calvé bench to go into production for the first time, and is also working on the Steltman chair. These are important projects that will extend the life and designs of Gerrit Rietveld beyond the archive and into contemporary design culture.

“I want to make the Steltman chair in reinforced concrete and then ground terrazzo, so it must be cast in one piece in a hopelessly difficult mould. The first prototype has come out in one piece, so it works. The grinding is good, but not perfect yet. Nevertheless, I'm very pleased with the result, or better, the fact that it is possible.”