6 aprile 2023
by Annalisa Cretella

Kartell's ode to design


A colorful and imaginative universe, where research and innovation have always been at the forefront, ever since the historic Italian design company Kartell opened, over seventy years ago. Chairs, tables, and lamps that have become fixtures in our homes and have earned over 100 awards. A selection of the most significant and iconic creations is kept in the Kartell Museum, in Noviglio, near Milan. It was started in 1999, immediately winning the Guggenheim prize for best company museum. Measuring 2,500 square meters, it is an ode to design that takes you back in time with objects such as Gino Colombini’s 1959 ‘lemon squeezer’ winner of the Compasso d'Oro industrial design award, the Mr. Impossible chair by Philippe Starck, the FL/Y pendant light by Ferruccio Laviani, chamber pots for children from the 1960s, and the first ski rack, from 1949. Life through everyday objects.

Marketing and retail director Lorenza Luti, granddaughter of the company's founder, is our special guide opening the doors to this temple. Her maternal grandfather Giulio Castelli had the idea for this space, designed by grandmother Anna Castelli Ferrieri together with Gardella. Her father Claudio Luti, son-in-law to Giulio and Anna, took over the company in 1988. Three generations whose brand name has reached worldwide, starting from Noviglio and opening 15 production plants in northern Italy. The grandparents created an extremely rich archive: “they kept everything. We have around 8,000 products, a thousand on display, 15,000 photographs and just as many drawings.” We get started by wearing comfortable shoes.

Three generations whose brand name has reached worldwide, starting from Noviglio and opening 15 production plants in northern Italy

“There is a permanent chronological and thematic itinerary that allows you to see the most interesting products created by Kartell throughout its history. There is also a part dedicated to temporary exhibitions.” Right at the entrance, we are met with the first object ever designed, “the K101 ski rack, light and easy to remove, created in collaboration with Pirelli.” Lorenza tells us that her grandfather was a chemical engineer and had studied in college with Giulio Natta, who later won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his studies on plastic materials such as polypropylene.” This knowledge was initially applied to everyday objects for the home.

This is how the first plastic bucket, drainer, and tub came about. “All three of them won the Compasso d'Oro. They were made by great Italian designers, such as Gino Colombini.” Later came Gae Aulenti, Antonio Citterio, Ferruccio Laviani, Piero Lissoni, Patricia Urquiola, and Vico Magistretti, and then Philippe Starck, and Ron Arad. All of them were “allowed to make their own mark,” while respecting the Kartell identity.

Along the way, after the housewares, we move on to lighting with Castiglioni's lamp of 1959, and then furnishings, which “got their start in 1964, with the world’s first chair made entirely from plastic material.” Designed by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, it was a small kids’ chair. Interestingly, “it took 4 years to make it, to figure out how to build the mold.” The adults’ chair ‘Universale’ designed by Joe Colombo, came the following year. This type of experimentation is still ongoing, “chairs remain our core production” always with an eye to research. The “Composable, informal, modular, stackable piece of furniture, perhaps the most dated object that is still in production today” is a must-see. Who doesn’t own one? “It's been our longest bestselling product” for over 50 years, now modernized with recycled and biomaterial in pastel colors, “joining the shiny and colorful original ABS version, which is still in our catalogue.”

When Claudio Luti took over the company in 1988, he made his debut with the first chair designed by Starck, the Dr. Globe, a plastic chair that doesn't look like a plastic chair. Polypropylene loaded with talc and mass-colored is used. It is the pioneer of a family of contemporary furniture. Another Kartell icon from those years is Ron Arad's bookworm bookcase. “That bookcase was inspired by one of his iron artworks,” Lorenza Luti reveals. “My father had seen it in London, liked it very much, and figured out how to mass produce it with a plastic material. This object still enjoys a huge success.”

There is a backstory to every project, including Starck's colorful dwarf. It was supposed to be a special ad hoc project as a vase holder or stool for a hotel, but it was so popular that it was added to the collection and became one of Kartell’s most recognizable icons, of which there are many. We should mention the Louis Ghost chair, turning twenty this year, but the starting point of transparent furniture was La Marie, also designed by Starck. “They are made from the polycarbonate 2.0 patented by our company; it is very resistant, so much so that it was used to make shields for the American police, and it's green, as about 70% of it comes from cellulose and paper waste. “We have the exclusive right to this material in the furniture sector, which we have applied to all polycarbonate products.”

Can we speak of sustainability in this museum where we are surrounded by plastic? “Yes, of course” and stretching back in time as well. “The museum displays the first experiment in recycled plastic, a wastebasket created in the late eighties. But no one wanted it, because it wasn't beautiful then, and it smelled awful,” Lorenza admits laughing. “Starting from there, we began to research materials, and in the last ten years, we have converted nearly all our products into recycled material. We also have a chair made with coffee capsules that is in production this year, in partnership with Illy. We use their plastic scraps and convert 100% of them into a chair. Last year we had the Citterio chair prototype, which is now on the market. In addition, we will be exhibiting the new armchair by Starck at the next Milan Furniture Fair, named Eleganza. This is an innovative object featuring terracotta red legs and upholstered with Missoni fabrics.”

The museum displays the first experiment in recycled plastic, a wastebasket created in the late eighties. But no one wanted it, because it wasn't beautiful then

Furthermore, in view of the most important design event, the museum is setting up “the temporary exhibition ‘Kartell Luce Viva.’ Curator Elisa Storace managed to delve into the theme of lighting design by collecting 25 lamps from the present and the past, bringing out excitement and function. It will be divided into five sections, the light that reveals, the light that illuminates, the light that illuminates and becomes the protagonist, the light that tells a story by decorating a room, and the living light, and it will feature Geen-a, inspired by Laviani’s mother Gina, who was an avid reader. It is our first reading lamp.”

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