There is Vico Magistretti, “The Gentleman”, superstitious as you don't expect, who, worried by the hypothesis of a I work thirteen, asks to invite strangers out of the restaurant to bring them to the table. There is Gio Ponti, who is agitated feverishly in the factory dispensing orders: the Leggera has recently made a bang, but Ponti is not enough, so the great architect asks that the model be lightened again, with a seat in rattan, but the tests cause the head of the carpentry department to crash to the ground. There is the story of a failure signed Carlo Scarpa taken by the hand by Magistretti and happily completed. There are the small and big disappointments, public and private, which from the swing of life bounce on the pages of the history of design. And, above all, there is him: Cesare Cassina, the man belonging to that lineage of (few, very few) entrepreneurs to whom we owe the prestige and beauty of our design.
There is all this, and much more, in the memoir that Adele Cassina has just published for Corraini, dedicated to his years in the family business sold in 1991, when Adele decides to embark on a new adventure with the editorial design brand that still bears her name.
From “finished upholsterer” to visionary entrepreneur
It had to be seen, Cesare Cassina. The first "finished upholsterer" of Meda who at 18 crossed the threshold of the family factory as a partner, called for that role - a bet? A gamble? - from his brother. At the time - was 1928 - the town of Brianza was already the capital of the chair, but in the area there were only master carvers. Cesare had become the first complete upholsterer of the district after an adolescence lived as a commuter between Meda and Milan, where he had learned the trade from the sciur Pedretti who had a shop in the Navigli.
Hands first, then head. A destiny marked twice, the one revealed by Adele in a series of unpublished stories and details. The book, published by Corraini, is entitled with a lot of understatement and a touch of irony Cronache minori dalla periferie del design (Minor chronicles from the periphery of design), and it is an opportunity to retrace the life of an unrepeatable myth and epic, filtered by the sensitivity of a woman who, over time, has experienced the family business with alternating roles.
Great marketing insights
Cesare Cassina is the entrepreneur who at the beginning of the sixties invented together with the Borsani brothers of Tecno and to other furniture entrepreneurs what will be the distribution model of contemporary furniture i, entrusting its visibility and sale to a network of dealers who raise awareness in person, and to whom it offers a concrete example with store opening Cassina in Rome in via del Babuino and in Milan in via Durini. And it is also the entrepreneur who has the intuition of Ottagono's editorial initiative, which, from the house organ of the eight companies participating in the project, immediately becomes one of the most widespread and significant sector in the world of made in Italy design.
"These are the same years in which my father met and befriends Dino Gavina, with whom he gives life to Flos. My father and Dino Gavina were a beautiful case of complementarity: Cesare recognized in Dino the enlightened entrepreneur of Italian design, a genius in the scouting of young talents; Dino recognized my father as an attentive and effective entrepreneur. I even believe that the two wanted to confirm their agreement with a joint venture ante litteram, but this did not go through also because Gavina then had to suffer the escape of some of his followers who abandoned him to move to Cassina, including the great commercial talent Aldo Businaro, Afra and Tobia Scarpa and Gaetano Pesce".
In 1966, instead, what Adele defines "the disruptive success" of C&B, together to Piero Busnelli. "After the unsuccessful attempt to create a complementary company to Cassina - a company that could respond to a wider market with a mass-produced but still quality product at an average price - my father understood that he could not be other than what he had become and committed the paradoxical but winning mistake of pouring out his personal know-how and that of the group of designers who were already working for him in the new adventure. And when the adventure came to an end, also due to his supervening feelings of guilt, he left and in full knowledge allowed Piero Busnelli, the minority shareholder, to take over the majority of Cassina's shareholding in C&B in 1973".
The return to the company is still a source of great enthusiasm for Cesare: "The Cassina Center is inherited from this event, the place of research, the forge where materials are tested and new technologies, but above all the place where my father surrounded from a handful of young people, workers and non-workers, coordinated by Francesco Binfaré, he meets his beloved architects, who by then had already begun to call themselves designers".
Bauhaus round trip
Pages of history, but also pages of a intimate diary that tell of fears, tremors and failures. At the end of the 1960s, Adele and Cesare left for Darmstadt, where in 1961 the historian Hans Maria Wringler had inaugurated the Bauhaus Archive. "There we hoped to find pieces that would physiologically develop the The Masters collection, then started with the only works of Le Corbusier. Once the goal has been reached, the treasure turns out to be less rich than expected. My father and I find some furniture by Walter Gropius in our hands. We look at them, we ponder them but we are not convinced. We do not believe they will hold a candle to the iconicity and success of the LC collection, the rights of which were acquired in 1963". Father and daughter will return to Meda with the chess pieces by Josef Hartwig, designed in 1923, and the fabrics of the director of the weaving department, Gunta Stölzl, and by her students, in particular Anni Albers.
The house of Carimate, from Scarpa to Magistretti
Cassina's relationships with architects and designers are legendary, above all Gio Ponti. In the book, Adele dedicates ample space to more private events , such as that of the villa of Carimate, initially entrusted to Carlo Scarpa: "The father decides to make his real first home in Carimate. All so real, defined and magnificent, but not realized. Dead letter. How come? No one will ever be able to say it with full knowledge of the facts. We know that the motivations that guide the choices are shadowy, elusive and subjective in nature. But I kept some thoughts, some thoughts in a low voice of my father and his endemic regret for not having realized Scarpa's project. Essentially the difficulty of a simple man in the face of a challenge that is perhaps too great, certainly very expensive as well as in money in psychic and emotional energies".
"The project process is then marked by a obstacle course and some hostile atmosphere. I think of the battle for building permits: the municipal laws were added to the no less limiting and conformist ones of the residential consortium... side walls of the villa. He was both attracted and intimidated by it. A real busillis between construction difficulties and unknowns about maintenance over time and the insidious effects of the action of water. It was enough to talk, ask for certain answers and targeted changes, you will think, and so I think now. But due to the times and the mindset of Caesar this path was not contemplated: the work of Carlo Scarpa had to be grasped in its entirety and without the possibility of replication".
Vico The Gentleman will take up Scarpa's inheritance and failure. Design and construction are completed in just two years, 1964-65, and embrace not only architecture and the garden but also many pieces of furniture, partly prototyped for the home and which will be put into production soon after. "I lived in that house a few months ten years after its construction, while the adjoining one where I went to live with my husband Rodrigo and my children was being renovated. I still have in my eyes the beauty of the veranda between the living room and the dining room, an interior/exterior perfect for spring and summer, welcoming and dramatic with its very deep sills, almost sandstone benches suspended over the garden". And yes, you can almost see them.
Cover photo: Cesare Cassina sitting on the armchairs of the Carimate series in the exhibition at the Hospital de la Cruz, Barcelona, 1972 © Archivio Storico Cassina