Family founded and driven by innovation, the early years of B&B Italia go back to 1966 when Italian manufacturers were in the midst of inventing a brand new industry – design.
B&B Italia celebrates 50 years this year with the launch of ‘Poetry in the Shape: When design meets industry’, a film that documents a history made possible by luck and fortune and new partnerships at the end of the Second World War.
Unfolding in Italy in the 1950s, this market shift saw the everyday object become the meeting point between design and industry, with innovation in manufacturing its pathway. It was the first time in such an organised way that industrial companies and design studios began working together.
Small specialist firms, each producing a limited number of pieces with high design value, kickstarted a local design industry in counterpoint to Italy’s large scale industrial roots. Achille Castiglioni, Mario Bellini and Carlo Scarpa formed alliances with manufacturers Flos, Artemide, Kartell, Zanotta and B&B Italia, amongst others, laying the robust foundations for the Italian design industry today.
B&B Italia was founded in 1966 by the Busnelli family. From the start, the design leaps they made involved complex production processes that required the fabrication of innovative manufacturing equipment. By pushing the boundaries of science, technology and design, they were opening up new typologies and also creating a sensation.
In the early days pushing boundaries involved collaboration with the chemical industry who saw an opportunity to nudge the capabilities of new materials with some of the world’s most inquisitive designers and manufacturers.
At the 1969 Milan Furniture Fair Gaetano Pesce’s UP Series, a project collaboration between the designer, B&B Italia, and Swiss chemical giant Bayer, made headlines internationally.
Exploring the capabilities of air-sensitive foam, the first UP5 armchair was vacuum-packed inside a pizza-sized box and when unwrapped slowly expanded to the delight of the audience. The magic of the idea and the underlying science that pulled it off, connected design with the public in a new way. So successful was this design that B&B Italia relaunched it in 2000, and added the miniaturised UP Junior range - the UP J - in 2014.
B&B Italia has always understood the impact of good design and its ability to connect with people beyond functionality. In 1970 they were working with Mario Bellini on ideas for a sofa pared back to a simple cushion.
What they developed was the Le Bambole sofa, a free-form product with an internal structure of elastic fabric membranes, while outside the sofa was completed wrapped in upholstery. Described by Bellini as the first sofa 'built from fabric’, it was an icon of the 70s, won the Compass d’Oro in 1979, and represented what B&B Italia’s 1975 advertising campaigns called ‘the technological coups’.
During the early years, other key designs included Lombrico by Marco Zanuso, a continuous sofa made in modules and aimed at public spaces like airports. It was also the first project to develop modularity as a never-ending system.
While the Coronado sofa designed in 1966 by Afra and Tobia Scarpa achieved Piero Ambrosia Busnelli’s goal to fuse design and production methods, an idea founded on craft traditions transformed through industrialisation.
Huge leaps in materials research and manufacturing established B&B Italia’s identity early on. From the start they invested in design and technology, but also communications across advertising, photography, film and publishing.
It was a time when fashion, film and furniture began working together and experimentation and creative freedom was on a high. This meant design was being streamed to the masses through magazines, newspapers and movies.
UP5 and UP6 by Gaetano Pesce made it onto the big screen first on the set of the 1971 Bond classic 'Diamonds are Forever'. The movie was filmed inside John Lautner’s iconic Elrod House in Palm Springs under the direction of Academy Award-winning production designer Ken Adam, an industry legend whose sets were once described by The Guardian as just as iconic as the movies themselves. Since then B&B Italia's collections have also featured in the 'Quantum of Solace' and, most recently, in their own film ‘Poetry in the Shape: When design meets industry’.
B&B Italia’s latest screen debut gives a rare glimpse inside company headquarters in Novedrate, Lombardy, half an hour north of Milan. We explore the Research and Development Department with designers including Patricia Urquiola, Antonio Citterio, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, see technology in action, and hear first-hard the Busnelli family history that has transformed design from within.
“In his life, my father took any challenge,” remarks Giorgio Busnelli in an opening scene of the film. It's a remark that reveals Piero Ambrogio Busnelli’s trailblazing belief in design and innovation and a philosophy that continues to play out half a century later.
This is the first in a series of stories reflecting on the remarkable 50 year history of B&B Italia.