A re-focus on our Modernist design masters reveals the rational, pared back work of Franco Albini, an architect who connected modernity with tradition, history and culture.
Franco Albini’s interest in reviving rural Italian architecture was not about nostalgia but focused on producing works that responded to place. Like his architecture and interiors, furniture was stripped bare of decoration, allowing each design piece to reveal itself through the traditions of craftsmanship and detailed construction.
Working between large-scale city planning, architecture, furniture, industrial and museum design, Franco Albini set up a studio with Franca Helg in Milan in 1931 after working in the studio of Gio Ponti and for the architecture magazine Casabella. He had developed his thinking and reputation for speaking up about the Italian cultural scene and his working collaboration with Helg firmly centred on design in response to social needs. Their aesthetics drew from Rationalism and embraced tradition and research to create new methods of construction. It was an approach that peer and fellow-Rationalist Ernesto Rogers described as designing everything ‘from the spoon to the city’.
But it is Albini’s furniture design that best expresses the architect’s design process and has been a catalyst for rekindling interest in his work. One of Albini’s most famous chairs is the Luisa that won him the important Compasso D’Oro and is now part of the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York, Released in 1955, it took Albini 15 years to resolve and is a cornerstone of his design aesthetic.
Like the designs of Alvar Aalto who worked with birch, Albini’s furniture was designed with the inexpensive raw materials available in post-war Italy at a time when materials were in short supply. Its new language expressed the form also seen in his architecture which, in a very lyrical way, took structure to the exterior of his buildings. It is interesting to note, that as a young architect Renzo Piano worked in Albini’s office in the 1970s and influenced by this approach to structural expression, went on to design the Centre Pompidou.
Franco Albini began his alliance with furniture manufacturer Cassina in the 1940s and with his design partner Franca Helg, designed the Tre Pezzi armchair. A very modern reinterpretation of the classic French upholstered armchair the bergère or shepherdess chair, it is deep set with a back support that traces a perfect semi-circle and a half moon headrest. It holds a clean and distinctly geometric shape while the tubular metal armrests borrow Albini’s handrail detail of Milano's Line 1 Subway. The Milanese Subway designed by Albini and Helg won the La Rinascente-Compasso d’Oro Award in 1964. The team of designers included Dutch-Italian graphic designer Bob Noorda, who created the iconic way finding graphics for the New York subway.
Like the pioneering radio designed by Albini in 1939 that reveals its internal components, Albini’s work, both in architecture and design, reveals a commitment to rigorous craftsmanship, rational consistency, and pure expression. Today Franco Albini’s work is bound by the Italian State and holds National Historical Heritage.
The Franco Albini Foundation was set up in 2007 to disseminate Albini's “method lesson”, preserving his work back to the 1930s.
The foundation is open to the public hosting exhibitions, guided tours and events inside Albini’s original architecture studio. Layered with unique pieces of design both unreleased and mass-produced, sketches, a diversity of design and architecture projects and photographs, interviews and models, it is one of the must-see design destinations in Milan. Visit the Fondazione Franco Albini website for all the latest news here.