For some designers and architects it takes years before the impact of their work takes hold. In the case of Franco Albini, it is more than 30 years since his death and his furniture is now finding a new audience.
He designed a transparent radio in 1938, was Cassina’s first architect-designer in 1946 and won many prestigious design awards. But unlike his near contemporaries – Ponti, Mollino, Sottsass – Franco Albini has never really been counted among the superstars of Italian design. One of Italy’s most consistently innovative mid-20th century designers, Albini was, however, a major player in the wider narrative of modern design.
Born in 1905 near Como, Albini graduated in architecture from the Milan Polytechnic in 1929 and worked briefly in Gio Ponti’s studio before setting up his own Milan practice with Renato Camus and Giancarlo Palanti. The late-1920s were pivotal years for European modernism, with architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer in Germany and Le Corbusier in France establishing a new aesthetic and functionalist agenda that was to propel the course of 20th-century design. Albini’s visits to Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion and Le Corbusier’s studio in 1929 and the era’s lively climate of change and experimentation were crucial influences in the formation of the rationalist ideology that defined his subsequent career.
During the 1930s – the height of fascist Italy - Albini gravitated towards a small group of progressive Italian architects, the Rationalists, who were questioning the continuing relevance of traditional styles. Not surprisingly, their ‘internationalist’ ideology conflicted with the fascist regime’s totalitarian adherence to the twin ideals of nationalism and tradition. Set against this regressive background, Albini nevertheless pursued his investigation of the new design language through furniture, lighting, interiors, exhibition and low-cost housing projects.
Like his avant-garde European contemporaries, Albini articulated this experimental vocabulary using industrial materials – glass, metal, concrete - and the spare geometric interplay of form and line. It was during this decade that he designed his extraordinary transparent radio cabinet - radio components reassembled between two sheets of glass – and his tensile bookshelf - both radical explorations of the interplay of structure and function, of design stripped of extraneous detail. A similar, though more humanist, aesthetic guided Albini’s room installations in the 1936 and 1940 Milan Triennales -- important forums for modern design in the constrained political atmosphere of fascist Italy.
The two decades following WWII were Albini’s most successful and productive years. Coinciding with the reintroduction of democracy and Italy’s unprecedented industrial renaissance (the “Italian Miracle”), this second half of the architect’s career was notable for many collaborations with manufacturers including Cassina, Knoll, Bonacina, Arteluce and Arflex. While innovation and functionalism were still defining criteria, the strict rationalist agenda of his earlier work was relaxed and integrated with a more organic aesthetic that embraced the new legitimacy of traditional vernacular materials. Albini’s most recognisable designs in this new idiom were his cane seating for Bonacina (Margherita and Gala armchairs, 1951), but upholstered furniture for Cassina in the mid-1940s and for Arflex and Poggi in the early-1950s also explored the intersection of the traditional with the modern. One of Albini’s most elegant deviations from the curvy seating of these years was his wooden Luisa chair of 1955, its architectural lines a perfect union of ergonomics and aesthetics. Designed in collaboration with Franca Helg, who had joined Albini’s studio in 1951, it signalled the beginning of a long and fruitful design partnership.