Vaults of Milan
Designing the ‘Good Life’ by Fabrizio Ballabio

4. Cover for Vaults of Milan_Cabinet (working title) by Fabrizio Ballabio
February 25, 2017 Vaults of Milan 1 Comment

A striking and, perhaps, characteristic feature of Milan’s post-war reconstruction was the extent to which design would permeate the most disparate forms of cultural production. In architecture, evidence of this is to be found in the achievements of Angelo Mangiarotti, Gio Ponti or Luigi Caccia Dominioni, whose buildings have sprung from the rubbles of Milan’s bombings to shape the city’s modern urban landscape. Milan’s stylishly designed interiors have been on the front pages of every lifestyle magazine worth notice published in the past sixty-or-so years, demonstrating what writer and design historian Penny Sparke has articulated as Italy’s (ongoing) commitment to the fantasy of ‘the good life.’ The city’s leadership in industrial design is as robust at present as it had been in the early 1950s when the exhibition “Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today” had travelled across the whole of the United States. And this is but a fragment of a broad and freckled picture which should include but is not limited to, endeavours in the realm of fine arts, graphic design, and engineering.
Today, we are as open to discussing the crossovers between these fields as we, perhaps too readily, accept their distinctness as disciplines in their own right. To this account, Milanese architect Marco Zanuso tells us that as late as 1960 not even one of those designers which made the fame of post-war Italy had received a formal training in that particular domain—not Marcello Nizzoli, nor Franco Albini, Gio Ponti, Vico Magistretti and certainly not Achille Castiglioni, Ettore Sottsass, Michele De Lucchi or Mario Bellini. In Milan, a school of design had not been born until the mid-1960s (the IED Istituto Europeo di Design was founded in 1966), which meant that most of the above-mentioned professionals trained as architects or had a background in that field. One could argue in fact, that it is this very slippage in founding a specialised institute, coupled with the rise of productivity in Italy’s postwar ‘miracle’ years, that prompted those disciplinary crossovers and innovative practices so much appreciated today.


Studio Vico Magistretti - Fotografo Matteo Carassale

Vico Magistretti Studio. Photo: Matteo Carassale


A significant role was surely played by companies like Cassina, Zanotta or Kartell, whose enlightened directors would foster novel commissions for practitioners to confront themselves with. The products of these collaborations are found in plenty in the current instalment of the Triennale Design Museum. One should also mention the craftsmanship traditions abounding in the region which, to an extent, were of even greater relevance to architects-designers in developing their buildings-products than what we understand as modern day industrial techniques. Anyone familiar with the work of Gio Ponti might recall the frequent collaborations with ABET LAMINATI or with porcelain manufacturers such as Richard Ginori and La Riggiola. Caccia Dominioni and Ignazio Gardella went as far as founding their own company Azucena to produce furnishings and fittings to be featured in their own projects.



Luigi Ghirri, from the Aldo Rossi’s Studio series, Milan, 1989-1990


It is not difficult to recognise how, at the forefront of this osmotic relation between architectural and design practices, was the question of dwelling. Other than in the shaping of Milan’s industrial bourgeois households, this concern would become subject of countless editorial projects, exhibitions and cultural initiatives, among which MoMA’s 1972 “Italy the new domestic landscape” is the most famous, but of which surely the Triennale’s 1986 “Il Progetto Domestico. La casa dell’uomo: archetipi e prototipi” curated by Bellini and Georges Teyssot was equally as worthy. More than ten years apart, both of these events placed architecture and design practices within and against each other (at times critically), exploring the tenuous boundaries determining either of the two disciplines. It is not accidental that, as the subject of housing has once more gained momentum within cultural debates (for reasons perhaps too broad to be explored here), these age-marking events have become relevant once more. Today, Italy’s upper middle class—arguably the subject and object of much of the postwar design endeavours—is but a shadow of what it had grown to become in the immediate aftermath of the Marshall plan. Whether or not a new generation of Milanese entrepreneurs, museum curators and above all practitioners will take the chance to mobilise this legacy in tackling contemporary issues is a question still unanswered, but which is urgent to reflect on.

—Fabrizio Ballabio

Fabrizio Ballabio is an architect and writer based in London. He teaches History and Theories Studies at the Architectural Association (AA) and the Royal College of Art (RCA) and is a founding member of art collective åyr.

Cover image: Luigi Caccia Dominioni’s studio. Courtesy of Archivio Caccia Dominioni. Photo: Valentina Angeloni.