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BOOK REVIEW: MADE IN CASSINA

 

By C. Davis Remignanti

NEW YORK, 1 JULY 2009 — Coffee table books are the fashion models of the publishing industry. They’re meant to be pretty to look at, to bring a bit of style and perhaps glamour to the room, but one doesn’t — or shouldn’t — expect them to be terribly substantive. And on the odd occasion when they do have something to say, one is usually charmed in the same manner as when one encounters a dog that’s been trained to walk on its hind legs. "Oh, look. Isn’t that adorable?"

I should know this about coffee table books by now. My dilemma is that my instinct, when I pick up a book of any sort, is to actually read.


Andrea Branzi: Revers, 1993
Chair with metallized grey lacquered aluminium support structure, curved beech plywood seat. A curved strip of solid beechwood forms the back and armrests. 
Cassina Archivio Storico / Photo: Nicola Zocchi / © Cassina S.p.A. 1993
From Made in Cassina, (Skira, 2009)
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

So when the undoubtedly attractive and stylish Made in Cassina (Giampero Bosoni, editor, published in 2008 by Skira Editore S.p.A., 360 pgs.) crossed my desk, I easily resisted the temptation to skip ahead to the images of stunning Italian furniture design. I instead started to read. And here, in its entirety, is the opening paragraph that greeted me.

Rereading the events, objects and ideas that have given life, shape and development to a productive, cultural and artistic trajectory such as the one exemplified by Cassina means reflecting on the weight and value of a series of stages through which the specific excellence of Italian furniture design was built up as regards both theory and practice. In more general terms, however, it is also an opportunity to examine certain sequences of a simultaneously cultural, ideological, technical and productive nature epitomizing the history of Italian design, which is still regarded as an unquestionable point of international reference by virtue of these factors.

Wow. Or, as my grandfather Giovacchino might have said — looking skyward — "Ma-DON-na."

While one can intuit how, in the original Italian, the text of this book might read perfectly well, this English edition is something of a hot mess. It is partially saved by the fact that the book is a series of essays by different authors, a few of whom either wrote in English or had the ability to rework their own original Italian or German reasonably well. But is it too much to expect that a publishing house of Skira’s reputation would be able to handle translation at least nominally better than Google’s language tools?

Perhaps I should have just looked at the pretty pictures.

Cassina is one of the standard bearers to which most other contemporary European furniture design houses are compared. Started in the 1920s, its initial reputation was as a manufacturer of petite sewing and work tables, rendered in sumptuous materials for a high end market. But the company we know today truly had its roots in the post WWII years as the design moderne aesthetic morphed into the contemporary and machine age movements, rendering Cassina’s pre-1940s designs something of a footnote in the company’s portfolio. Which is a great shame.

I’d be the first to admit that I don’t so much love the look of Cassina furniture in particular (and contemporary European furniture design in general) as I appreciate it. There is something slightly dogmatic about it; something that says "Doesn’t play well with others." With some glorious exceptions, it is difficult to incorporate Cassina furniture into any décor other than full-on Euro-modern. So one either ends up with a room that looks a bit like a Cassina showroom, or there is a dominant Cassina element standing out, obdurately refusing to blend. A bagpipe amidst the symphony orchestra.

I’m rather more drawn to the designs manufactured in the 20s and 30s, though they get almost no press compared to their younger counterparts, and are nearly impossible to find today, either as originals or reproductions. These pieces are also given woefully short shrift in the book, as is the work Cassina did retrofitting the retired Italian warship fleet into luxury liners.


Gio Ponti: Supperleggera chair, 1957
ashwood frame, natural or lacquer finish, seat in India cane  
Cassina Archivio Storico / Photo: Nicola Zocchi /
© Cassina S.p.A. 1993
From Made in Cassina, (Skira, 2009)
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

But all that said, there is an architectural honesty and geometric grace in Cassina furniture that is remarkable, consistent, and, frankly, quite fun. And without doubt, some classic pieces have gained a permanent place in the design lexicon, notably Gio Ponti’s Supperleggera chair (1957), just as some newer designs show the promise of doing the same (most particularly, Andrea Branzi’s 1993 design, the Revers armchair). And despite its flaws, Made in Cassina gives one the opportunity to look at some lovely photographs and gain an appreciation for the design work, whether or not one would actually want to live with it. Ultimately, however, the book, though handsome, is just not what one could call "a good read."

Made in Cassina
Edited by Giampiero Bosoni
Hardcover: 360 pages
Skira, June 2009
Distribution: Rizzoli
ISBN-10: 8861306446
ISBN-13: 978-8861306448
$70.00

C. Davis Remignanti is the Lead Design Consultant for several home décor websites, including Furniture.com, Bricklewood.com and FurnitureFind.com. His annual interior design trends report is a nationwide media resource in the United States.  Mr. Remignanti writes on design and the decorative arts for Culturekiosque.com.  

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