In 1934 Angelo and Giuseppina Molteni founded a company in Giussano for the production of classic furniture. In the 1950s there were over 200 employees, making it one of the largest European firms and the first in Brianza to have an industrial organization for mass production. The story of Molteni is one of strategic vision and innovative ideas. A paradigmatic case of the Italian ability to create by interpreting the past and representing the spirit of the times.
The exhibition 80!Molteni, from 14 April to 30 June (www.80.molteni.it), has a link to the history of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, built by Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso at the end of the 18th century. The estate was renovated at the end of the 1950s by Ignazio Gardella to contain the collections of the Milanese industrialists Carlo Grassi and Giuseppe Vismara, who intertwined their professional histories with a passion for art. The exhibition is also a way of retracing the history of Italian design and the birth of the Salone del Mobile, which can never be emphasized enough in terms of its importance for the city of Milan.
The exhibition design inserts another level of narrative in a setting full of signs of the past, thanks to the project by Jasper Morrison. Francesca Molteni, who supervises special projects for the company, explains: “Morrison grafts the show onto the work of Gardella with a linear installation, a pure, essential framework that doesn’t clash with an already rich environment. We chose Morrison to have an external observer, someone who could help us to make a precise selection.” The English designer adds: “I took a detail from the bookcase by Ponti [reissued by Molteni in 2012, ed]. And I transformed those particular dividers, like white fins, into separation walls on which the display elements are mounted, also in white.” A formal reference that makes it possible to create a connection not only with the long history of the company, but also with the know-how of Brianza, the most important furniture production center of that period.
The exhibits include 44 products, starting with Gio Ponti and proceeding in chronological order, including the cabinet by Werner Blaser, winner of the first Selettiva del Mobile of Cantù in 1955, the exposition that put that territory in the international spotlight. One room is set aside for Dada, the company acquired in 1979, while two spaces are for Unifor, founded in 1969, which thanks to standardization of office furnishings, and pieces like the Modulo 3 by Bob Noorda in 1968, immediately proved its international appeal.
“We were among the first to think about a group of complementary companies producing furnishings in a synergic way,” says Giulia Molteni, director of marketing and communications for Molteni&C and Dada. “In 1969 the brand Citterio was added to the group, introducing the first modular office dividers, with the Programma 3 by Tito Agnoli. But that was not the only technological advance: Molteni was one of the first firms to invent furnishing components, with the 505 bookcase in 1970, a system with a loadbearing post that is the evolution of Iride, the modular set of containers designed by Luca Meda in 1968. Or the 7volte7 wardrobe, one of the first coplanar models.”
“The encounter with Luca Meda in 1968,” Francesca Molteni continues, “marked the passage to modern furniture, leading to collaborations with talents like Tobia Scarpa and Aldo Rossi. The exhibition is integrated with the website 80.molteni.it offering multimedia coverage of the history of the company and honors, with testimony from people involved in those experiences like Werner Blaser, Manlio Armellini of Cosmit [with him, Angelo Molteni was one of the founders of the Salone del Mobile, ed], Giuseppe Nera, the director of production, the designer Tobia Scarpa, as well as the president and managing director of the group Carlo Molteni, and the president of Unifor, Piero Molteni.”
“Doing specific research on production,” Giulia Molteni continues, “has helped us to rediscover our DNA. Wood is the starting point: we were the first to put the entire production cycle in-house, from the purchasing of logs to cutting – also for other companies in Brianza – to the finished piece. We have purchased machinery in Germany to dry the cut wood, and a press to make plywood. The industrialization began with the furnishings in period style, which in contrast with local practice were produced in series. This permitted careful quality control, which has always been one of the company’s obsessions.
”Francesca adds: “The experience with the Gio Ponti archive has allowed us to discover lost treasures and to understand the importance of a systematic approach to history and information. With the rediscovery of the company archives, on the other hand, we have gone through a sort of self-examination, bringing projects and professional figures back to the fore that might otherwise have been forgotten.”
The Molteni archive has been put into digital form in keeping with the regional system of Lombardy, and will be online with other archival resources, providing a tool of research for universities. The exhibition project, which will come to a conclusion on 30 June, will be followed by the creation of a corporate museum at the Giussano headquarters, part of the circuit of the Musei d’Impresa. This too will be designed by Jasper Morrison. The Museum, the Foundation, the Glass Cube and the QallaM pavilion are all episodes in the same story of corporate identity the Molteni family has organized with the idea of creating a legacy for use from outside and above all for Brianza, which though it is the homeland of wooden furnishings has no company museums, no documentation of its know-how.
“Operations like these,” the sisters conclude, “make it possible to analyze errors and directions, and to appreciate the importance of human and professional relations. It is here that the energies of design and culture arise in order to move forward and pass on a major legacy to the next generations. Our hands are our true resources, but sometimes we are not able to put them in the spotlight. The new energies lie in our past and in the capacity to project it into the future. We still have a lot to say about a concept of Italian design that has to address new markets without being afraid of getting copied or contaminated. And the requires innovations not just in terms of style, but also in terms of technologies and design, ready to grasp the differences of cultures and needs, widening the Italo-centric vision of habitation.”