A little over a week ago B&B Italia formerly acquired Azucena, the furniture brand created by architects Luigi Caccia Dominioni, Ignazio Gardella and Corrado Corradi Dell’Acqua in 1947. This was not a complete surprise as earlier in the year B&B Italia had launched several pieces from the Azucena collection under the B&B Italia umbrella during Salone del Mobile. The first pieces that will be released under this new arrangement are the Catilina armchair, the Cavaletto table, the Fasce Specchiata and Fasce Cromate coffee tables, the Imbuto and Monacella floor lights, the Nonaro outdoor collection and the Toro and ABCD armchairs. There will be twenty pieces in total - all designed by Luigi Caccia Dominioni.
Up until recently the Azucena brand (to call it a brand is somewhat misleading as it was more of a personal portfolio of work by the three founding architects, created out of necessity for their various architectural projects) had an open collection of around 150 objects consisting of lighting, furniture, door hardware and interior accessories. All the items were made by various artisans located in Brescia through to Veneto. Up until 2014 the brand was headed up by the nieces of Dominioni - Marta Sala and her sister Anna. In 2015 Marta Sala left to set up her own brand, Marta Sala Editions and the Azucena brand has drifted along without a great deal of focus ever since. With the death of Dominioni, the last of the company’s founders in late 2016, the future of the brand was unsure.
It was never a particularly commercial venture - even in 2013 when the brand relaunched and opened their new showroom by Dimore Studio in a courtyard off via Manzoni in central Milan, the sales pitch was very gentle and the location not immediately evident - no street frontage, no signage. By sheer fluke a few years before I had walked around their previous showroom hugely ignorant of what I was looking at but acutely aware that the objects on display were completely unique, somehow modern, yet classic, while remaining thoroughly unconventional.
In 2011 Azucena launched the Entre-Deux - a hinged, curved metal screen by German designer Konstantin Gric. It was one of the few contemporary pieces Azucena has put into production in recent years. This uncompromising industrial piece managed to find a place among the elegant designs of Dominioni, Dell’ Acqua and Gardella and create a sheltered spot where soft velvet arm chairs and fine metal lamps could come together with discretion. That word ‘discretion’ has been the hallmark of the Azucena brand and it has remained a much loved brand for designers and architects in the know but few outside that circle will have heard of it. That’s all about change.
Luigi Caccia Dominioni, who designed the vast majority of the pieces for the Azucena brand, is a household name in Italy - particularly in Milan - and is considered along with Carlo Scarpa, Giuseppe Terragni, Giancarlo De Carlo and Pier Luigi Nervi to be one of the founding fathers of Italian modernism in architecture. Graduating from the Politecnico di Milano in 1936 he set up a studio with fellow Politecnico students, Pier Giacomo and Livio Castiglioni and the three worked together (joined by Achille Castiglioni a few years later) until the outbreak of World War II. Returning to Milan after the war Dominioni set up a new architecture and design office with Ignazio Gardella and Corrado Corradi Dell’Acqua, which they called Azucena after the gypsy in Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore (it was also the name of Dell’Acqua’s daschshund) Dominioni was a prolific and highly accomplished lighting and furniture designer, mixing the industrial with the luxurious and exploring how to manipulate traditional shapes and proportion in new and interesting ways. Along with his partners Ignazio Gardella and Corrado Corradi Dell’Acqua, he designed hundreds of pieces from 1947 until his death, a few weeks shy of his 103rd birthday in 2016.
Dominioni designed numerous apartment buildings in and around Milan, the most famous being one which became his own home in Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio (shown above) along with the well known apartment in Via Massena (1959 -1963) - (a detail of which is shown below), an apartment at Via Ippolito Nievo 8, (1964-1965) and multiple buildings in San Felice in Segrate on the outskirts of Milan - a project he undertook with Vico Magistretti. Once you start looking into it however, you discover projects by Dominioni all over Milan - offices in Corso Europa, the Convento di Sant' Antonio dei Frati Francescani, in the Chinatown district (1959-1963) and the powerful sculpture at the centre of Piazza San Babila, just to name a few.
Why the history lesson? Well, it seems to Design daily that it is important for an historical brand like Azucena that the designs aren’t viewed as mere commodities or interesting furniture products but rather they are placed in the context of how they came about and when and what they were designed for. In the case of Azucena, the pieces were not designed to fulfil a desire for a new collection but through the genuine need for objects to complete an architectural project. Most re-issues suffer from the plight of a general lack of context and while the Azucena pieces have never gone out of production, so are technically not a reissue, the same issue applies. They are welcome additions because they deliver an insight into a completely different zeitgeist but far too often they are used to add novelty and a vague sense of history to a brand’s existing collection - often without the general public even being aware of whether its new, old or just a little out of step with everything else that’s on offer.
With Azucena it’s important that B&B Italia don’t allow the pieces to populate their showrooms too readily. Design daily is not such a purist as to suggest that new and old should not mix together as that would turn the Azucena designs into museum pieces but at the same time it is necessary to showcase them for what they are; a uniquely personal offering from a specific era by a important architecture studio. B&B Italia has it’s own story and important place in the history of Italian design - products from the Azucena archives should not become mixed up in that. It’s a tough situation as without successful brands like Boffi taking over DePadova and B&B Italia taking over Azucena, one wonders whether these smaller brands would survive but there is something that is lost in the transaction - that spirit that the original brand exuded. From a positive point of view, the items will reach a new audience and the beauty and idiosyncrasies of Azucena will be seen by more than the architecture and design community.
A fear of the over commercialisation of something intrinsically honest and special is what initiated this blog post. Any brand can cherry-pick great designs from the past, but only a few can nuture the legacy correctly. The Acuzena collection has been carved up with the work of Ignazio Gardella and Corrado Corradi Dell’Acqua being reissued by Tato - an obscure but passionate little label founded in 2013 by Filippo Cristina, with the rest going to B&B Italia. The products under the Tato banner are mostly lights by Gardella such as the famous Arenzano table lamp but also includes the playful modular armchair Angolo by Dell’Acqua and a number of his accessory designs. It remains to be seen which approach maintains the Azucena legacy most successfully.
In the mean time it is worth noting that Marta Sala, the niece of Dominioni, continues to create exceptional design pieces through her Marta Sale Editions brand with Lazzarini & Pickering being her architects of choice. Her passion existed while she was at the helm of Azucena but she obviously required the artistic nourishment of commissioning contemporary design rather than being the gatekeeper of a historical design collection. Many stylistic elements from Azucena continue in Marta Sala Editions.
From October all of the first twenty Azucena pieces relaunched by B&B Italia will become available and will be installed within B&B Italia showrooms worldwide. The new Azucena website www.azucena.it will be live from October.
For a look at what’s to come, check out this recently created short film by Felix Burrichter and Davide Trotta here