Fendi’s extraordinary new home in a Roman palace of modernism called for some exceptional furniture to fill it, so the brand brought to life six unrealised masterpieces. A swinging leather chair disguised as a killer whale, giant psychedelic beaded toadstools and flamboyant saddle-stitched leather furniture inspired by Brazilian outlaws – all of these were unleashed during Design Miami in December, the most colorful of the international design fairs. Location has a lot to do with it. The annual event, which takes place in Miami’s South Beach, is infused with an exuberant Latin American spirit, and many gallerists show expressive large-scale pieces reflecting the city’s abundance of space and light.
Among the Instagrammable scene-stealers this year, though, there was a more understated aesthetic at play – albeit one that also featured monumental proportions. This came courtesy of the European brand created by Adele Casagrande, showing at Design Miami for the sixth year running. Its capsule range of generously scaled furniture was presented under the title L’altra metà del sogno (The other half of the dream), a moniker alluding to the project’s symbiotic relationship with the luxury Italian brand historic new HQ.
Last October the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana – a striking six-storey travertine-marble cube punctuated by 216 arches; a beacon of Mussolini-commissioned rationalist architecture – became the brand’s Roman home.
The stark architectural monument, known colloquially as the Square Colosseum, was initially intended to become the centrepiece of Mussolini’s Esposizione Universale Roma (now known as the EUR district), designed in 1937 for the 1942 World’s Fair, but was derailed by the Second World War. “The building was never finished,” explains Silvia Venturini, the twinkly-eyed matriarch of the maison. “That’s why we created this furniture, to close the circle.”.
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Like the new headquarters, which languished for years before Italian multimillion-euro 18-month renovation, the furniture is also a resurrection, a realisation of 1930s designs by the architect, designer and painter Guglielmo Ulrich (1904-1977), which were originally commissioned for the palazzo. “We opened our new headquarters with an exhibition of the many projects, such as lighting and furniture, by different artists that were never made,” says Venturini. “There were pieces by Giò Ponti, but we thought Ulrich was more of a discovery: he was prolific but less well known.”.
Venturini is a keen, knowledgeable collector herself. “Being a true Italian, I am a little bit spoilt in design,” she admits. The brand’s previous Design Miami collaborations have included limited-edition furniture with the cutting-edge Italian duo Dimore Studio in 2014 and stainless-steel creations with veteran French designer Maria Pergay in 2013. It was while researching Ulrich’s work that she realised she already owned pieces by the late Milanese architect. “I have two coffee tables from an antiques dealer and had no idea who they were by at the time. I just bought them because they were beautiful. They’re very minimal, clean and pure but interesting.”.
Ulrich may not enjoy such widespread recognition today as his contemporaries such as Ponti (who, incidentally, was a great admirer of his work), but he is a significant figure in the history of Italian design. He carved a successful career with innovative, award-winning furniture such as the elegant Trieste chair manufactured by Saffa. He was revered for his impeccable craftsmanship, an enthusiasm for experimenting with rare materials and an ability to develop clean, modern designs that referenced historical influences while feeling contemporary and luxurious.
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These revivals were clearly tailored for the epic volumes of the palazzo. Described as “a homage to the new Rome”, it featured large illuminated monolithic blocks as a backdrop for the tables, armchairs and S-shaped sofa.
The design most likely to appeal to a 21st-century aesthete is the gently reclining solid-walnut S01 armchair. It is not for Venturini, though: “It’s beautiful, but to sit on it every day, that would be uncomfortable,” she says. “When I was a little girl, in my mother’s house there was a television room for the children with just wooden chairs. I would beg her, ‘Can we have a sofa, can we have something comfortable?’ And she would say, ‘Ah no, this is beautiful, you don’t understand.’ “.
All the pieces are destined for the ground floor of the palazzo, which is open to the public. It may be seven decades on, but this amazing brand resurrection of the Square Colosseum and Ulrich’s furniture proves that good design remains just as powerful as the day it was conceived.
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