Part II of a Multi-part Series
Goods made or designed in Italy enjoy a profile and prestige worldwide that far outstrips the country’s manufacturing output. Italy’s glorious design heritage and reputation for style and innovation ‘added value’ to products before the phrase ‘added value’ existed. Made in Italy has become a hallmark of design excellence and it has done so in ways that might often get overlooked, or have become so iconic, that they are simply taken for granted.
Vittorio Ducrot was born in Palermo on January 3, 1867. He was an entrepreneur, designer and politician. His father was a railway engineer who had worked on the construction of the Suez Canal, but died in Palermo of cholera a few months before his son was born. His mother remarried to Carlo Golia, a representative in Palermo for Solei Hebert & C. of Turin, a fabrics and furniture company. In 1895, Carlo opened a furnishings/furniture factory and design office called C. Golia & C. Studio.
After studying in Switzerland, Vittorio returned to Palermo. In 1902 he took over his stepfather’s furniture factory, renaming it “Studio Ducrot”. The studio began to play a prestigious role as a craft workshop and then became an industrial production company. It was among the first in the furniture industry in Europe to mass produce design modernist designs. During this period, Ducrot worked closely with architect Ernesto Basile, painter Ettore De Maria Bergler and other artists. His fame in Sicily spread.
Ducrot furnished the Florio Villa, the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, the Villa dei Principi Deliella and the headquarters of the Vittorio Emanuele Bank in Palermo. In Rome, he did the same for the Palazzo di Montecitorio and the Gran Caffè Faraglia in Piazza Venezia. He designed and created the interiors for the transatlantic steamer Princess Mafalda launched in 1908. Almost 500 feet in length, it was at the time the largest Italian transatlantic liner. The interiors by the Ducrot were richly decorated. The First Class spaces included a ball room, music room complete with grand piano, a smoking room, restaurant, game room and various lounges. He also designed the interiors for the ships SS Giulio Cesare (1920) and the SS Victoria (1930). His furnishing were also used on board the luxurious 880 feet long SS Rex (1931).
Ducrot died in Rome in 1942 and is buried in the family chapel in the Cemetery of Sant’Orsola in Palermo. His former factory in Palermo in now home to the Zisa Cultural Sites, used as an exhibition space for theatrical, musical and cinematographic events. He is perhaps best remembered as a designer who began in the Stile Liberty, but later evolved and embraced Art Deco.
Art Deco as a style of visual arts, architecture and design, first appeared just before World War I. It was a composite of many styles and during its heyday between the wars, it wasn’t referred to by any specific name, even though the form and influence of the style was worldwide. The name Art Deco first appeared in a magazine in 1925, but its popular usage did not come into vogue until the mid-1960s, 25 years after many of its design features had gone out of vogue. The artistic movement influenced the design of buildings, furniture, jewelry, fashion, cars, movie theatres, trains, ocean liners and everyday objects such as radios and vacuum cleaners and even espresso makers. It combined modernist styles with fine craftsmanship and rich materials. During its heyday, Art Deco represented luxury, glamour, exuberance and faith in social and technological progress.
Art Deco was the successor to and reaction against Art Nouveau, which flourished from 1895 until about 1910. It also gradually replaced the Beaux-Arts and neoclassical styles that were predominant in European (and American) architecture. Where Art Nouveau was undulating and whimsical, Art Deco was geometric and determined. It was a composite of many different styles united by a desire to appear modern, often featuring vibrant colors, flowing purposeful lines and exquisite craftsmanship.
During the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, the Art Deco style became more subdued. New materials arrived, including chrome plating, stainless steel and plastic. A sleeker form of the style, called Streamline Moderne, appeared in the 1930s; it featured curving forms and smooth, polished surfaces. Art Deco is one of the first truly international styles, but its dominance ended with the beginning of World War II and the rise of the strictly functional and unadorned styles of modernism and the International Style of architecture that followed
In Italy, the design movement was evident in everything from furniture to advertising and architecture to cutlery. In Turin, Poltrona Frau created beautiful furniture finished in the finest leathers. It was one of the manufacturers to furnish the pride of the Italian maritime industry – the Rex ocean liner in the early 1930s. It also furnished the Italian Parliament. Its most iconic designs include its rounded backrest club chair of 1930 and the Lyra armchair of 1934. Such is their timeless, yet modern elegance that both remain in production today.
The beautifully designed and ubiquitous Moka Pot was invented in 1933 by Luigi di Ponti. The machine was quickly put into production by a mustachioed metal machinist from Piedmont, Alfonso Bialetti. He transformed di Ponti’s so-called “Moka Express,” into one of the most famous, familiar brewers in the world. As a design piece, it is internationally renowned. As an industrial innovation, the aluminum construction was revolutionary in coffee makers at that time and foretold the modernist shift towards the metal’s prominent use in the kitchen.
Alessi was founded in 1921 by Giovanni Alessi. The firm began as a workshop in Valle Strona near Lake Orta in the Italian Alps. The shop was located in an area with a tradition of making small objects from wood, or metal for use in the kitchen. Alessi began producing a wide range of tableware items in nickel, chromium and silver-plated brass. The company’s intention was to produce hand-crafted items with the aid of machines. Its designs really gained stride when Giovanni’s son Carlo was named chief designer. Trained as an industrial designer, between 1935 and 1945, he developed virtually all of the products Alessi produced. Carlo’s mirror polished stainless steel cutlery set from 1938 revolutionized how the world looked at utensils. Sleek and modern, the design was a masterstroke of perfectly-crafted pieces that were durable and easily washable. Its lines reflected both the practicality necessary during the Depression-era, but with an undeniable elegance and grace. 80 years later, the design is still popular.