Iconic Italian Furniture Manufacturer Cassina Marks 90 Years Of Revolutionizing The Design World – Forbes
For the past nine decades, Cassina has collaborated with the greatest minds in architecture and modern design: Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, Gerrit Rietveld, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Ettore Sottsass, Gio Ponti, Gaetano Pesce and Vico Magistretti, to name a few, as well as contemporary leading lights such as Jamie Hayon, Konstantin Grcic, Piero Lissoni, Rodolfo Dordoni, Mario Bellini, Jean-Marie Massaud, Tokujin Yoshioka, Philippe Starck and Patricia Urquiola, who has been the brand’s art director since 2015. By pioneering this revolutionary way of working closely with such virtuosos, it has reached iconic status in the design world. Just ask anyone in the field – Cassina is probably the first name that comes to mind when discussing Italian industrial design. Going through the pages of its catalogue is like perusing the history books of 20th-century design.
The story begins in 1927, when 18-year-old entrepreneur Cesare Cassina and his brother Umberto, the sons and grandsons of carpenters from Meda – a city close to Milan in the Lombardy region in Northern Italy famous for its design manufacturing – founded Cassina. Initially a small family workshop processing wood for tables for the local market, Cesare introduced upholstery to the business. Ninety years later, their company has become one of the most well-known symbols of high-end design thanks in large part to the strong personality and artistic instinct of Cesare. He wasn’t simply a businessman, but accompanied the creative process, offering young designers like Gaetano Pesce a salary without asking for anything in return, which gave them the chance to continue their personal research. Thereafter, when Pesce had the idea to create a vacuum-packed polyurethane seat, he immediately proposed it to Cassina. Even today, taking a chance on designers by offering them the opportunity to experiment in the factory remains one of the peculiarities of the house. When choosing to work with designers, it isn’t about “shopping” for creations, but establishing a relationship with them, first showing them the in-house capabilities, then allowing them to understand how to take advantage of this tool.
Cassina came of age during Italy’s post-war renaissance in the 1950s, launching industrial design during the country’s economic boom by shifting from handcraftsmanship to serial production, which consisted of identifying the commercial potential of a product by studying its compatibility with specific lifestyles and new ways of living. This approach was made possible thanks to extensive studies on materials and technologies. Gianluca Armento, Cassina’s managing director, says, “For change to exist, you have to be willing to discover the uncertain, and Cassina has always been both brave and innovative in its approach. Since the 1950s, the company has been exploring new production techniques with innovative materials and machinery combined with craftsmanship to best respond with products that fit with the living requirements of the time.” Research and innovation were fundamental to this avant-garde brand in the furniture industry, which provided the best architects and designers with access to the latest technologies, processes and materials coupled with traditional craftsmanship, who were encouraged to see a piece through from initial idea to production for the first time. Through real collaboration between designers and a skilled manufacturer, the resulting products came to represent modernity in Italian design. Since 2005, Cassina has been part of the Poltrona Frau Group, world leader in luxury furniture that includes brands such as Cappellini and Poltrona Frau, which was acquired in 2014 by Haworth Inc., global leader in the planning and production of flexible and sustainable work environments.
Today, Cassina furniture is still made in Meda, with each piece created to last a lifetime. Production is carried out on an industrial scale, but at the same time organized around artisan workstations. For example, wood is worked there using modern machinery but in parallel with the manual skills of the craftsmen overseeing each stage of production, including gluing, sanding and assembly. Its passion for the historical métier of wood workmanship continues to inform its products. Take for instance the 699 Superleggera chair (1957) by architect Gio Ponti, a modern interpretation of the Ligurian chiavarina chair on the Italian coast with slender triangular-section legs bridging solidity and ultra-lightness, which has now been transformed into the 646 Leggera in solid ash with almost circular-section legs and matching structure and seat upholstery colors. In fact, it was Ponti, then specialized in the development of luxury boats, who helped to propel the company. With WWII over, shipowners had to rebuild their fleet. Contacted by Ponti to make several pieces, the Cassina brothers soon made a name for themselves in this market. In the 1950s and ’60s, they furnished 58 cruise ships including the Andrea Doria, Raffaello and Michelangelo. Armento notes, “By furnishing the great transatlantic liners with Gio Ponti, the company was exporting Italian style from a very early stage, becoming an internationally-renowned business.” In turn, it grew accustomed to the production of limited series and, consequently, navigated continuously between artisanal and industrial production. This ability to move from one system to another has become part of its brand identity.
Excelling in manufacturing upholstered armchairs and sofas, Cassina embraced the advantages of innovative injected materials in the 1960s. In 1968, the unconventional Ciprea designed by Afra and Tobia Scarpa emerged; composed of a single block of expanded polyurethane foam and covered with a removable cover, it reinvented preconceived notions of the upholstered armchair. Marking the history of design with unusual structural solutions, the Maralunga sofa designed in 1973 by Vico Magistretti incorporated a simple bicycle chain mechanism that folded to create two differing positions for the backrest. Cassina’s reputation was assured by the I Maestri collection, which pays homage to the masters of design by re-editing furniture masterpieces faithfully respecting the original models but with new materials, while working in close collaboration with the authors’ heirs and official foundations. A man of taste and business, Cesare Cassina had decided to acquire the rights to serially reproduce iconic furniture (unknown at the time) by the greatest 20th-century architects of modernism and distribute it internationally. Like artists, designers’ works are subject to copyright. Upon their death, no one is allowed to manufacture their designs without the approval of their heirs. As early as 1964, Cesare signed an agreement for the rights to exclusively reissue four models designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand, and today Cassina has the worldwide rights to produce practically all of the furniture designed by the trio. It has also obtained the license to reproduce furniture by the likes of Gerrit Rietveld, Frank Lloyd Wright and Franco Albini.
This hasn’t stopped the success of other creations – always the result of synergy between the Cassina Research and Development Centre and talented designers and architects – such as Gaetano Pesce’s famous sculptural I Feltri treated felt armchair, which was manufactured in 1987, or Philippe Starck’s leather sofa system Privé in 2007, which offered an industrialized solution for sophisticated capitonné workmanship. At the last Milan Furniture Fair in April, Cassina presented future classics by the likes of German designer Konstantin Grcic and the French Bouroullec brothers in their first collaboration with the brand. The simplicity, flexibility and interaction of the Soft Props modular seating system with its iron tubular railing contrasted with the Baleno shelves in black thermoplastic rubber which, echoing a whale’s vertebrae, bend under the weight of books and become a wall decoration when combined together. This reveals the diversity of Cassina’s identity, where it’s able to bring together its designers’ very different personalities, showing that it isn’t associated with just one style; instead, its collection reflects a constant concern for innovation and authenticity. Each of its pieces aims to mix a strong identity, impeccable functionality and unrivalled quality of finish – the quest for perfect design, in other words.
Check back next week for Part 2 with my interview with Gianluca Armento, Managing Director of Cassina.
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