Armchair from the Montalcini House, Asti, Italy, 1947
Italian walnut reinforced with steel rods and suede
481/4 in. (122.5 cm) high
Irene De Guttry and Maria Paola Maino, Il Mobile Italiano degli anni '40s-'50s, Rome, 1992, p. 194
As an architect and designer, Gino Levi Montalcini (1902-1974) played a significant and precocious role in the evolution of Italian modernism from the late 1920s onward. Open to ideas from the most disparate sources, his complex, highly charged style defies easy classification. Drawing equally on the rectilinear forms of Rationalism, the austere functionalism of the Bauhaus inherited from his collaborator Giuseppe Pagano, and sinuous, flowing contours of organicist inspiration, Levi Montalcini moved deftly between antithetical codes. In the interwar period, he was among the first Italian architects (and was possibly the very first) to develop a Rationalist vocabulary, evident in his Palazzo Gualino in Turin of 1928-1930.
Member of a celebrated family belonging to the Turin Jewish intelligentsia, Montalcini moved in a circle of painters, writers, architects, scientists and publishers that was one of the most progressive in Italy during the turbulent Fascist period. In the immediate postwar era, when Levi Montalcini was professor at the Politecnico di Torino, his furniture design underwent a stylistic change that was as remarkable as it was original. Inspired in part by Giacomo Balla's futurist experiments in furniture design and more decisively by Carlo Mollino, Levi Montalcini radically revisioned accepted codes. Equally adept at different scales, his work exhibits a tendency to balance tectonic integrity with complex asymmetries. Defamiliarizing inherited typologies characteristic of the upper-middle class milieu to which he belonged, Levi Montalcini, like Mollino before him, imbued
sofas, chairs and objects of daily use with the disquieting aesthetic energies of the European avant-gardes.
Designed for the architect's own residence in Asti in 1949, the sofa and chair were originally part of a five-piece ensemble offered here (four chairs and the sofa itself). Stylistically, they strike a balance between one of the most conventional furniture types of the nineteenth-century bourgeois interior-the one-armed divan for reclining-and formal asymmetries that register an impulse to aesthetic experiment typical of the interwar avant-gardes. Specifically, the inventiveness of the divan recalls certain aspects of futurism and organicism. The closest parallel is provided by a one-armed sofa that Carlo Mollino designed for the Turin apartment of Ada and Cesare Minola in 1944, part of an ensemble that received a considerable amount of attention in Milanese design circles and which is now part of the Bischofsberger collection in Zurich.
Tectonically, the sofa, like the chair, exemplifies one of the most important design innovations patented by Levi Montalcini, the so-called "legno armato" or wood frame reinforced by internal steel rods, used in his furniture after 1946. Typical in this regard is the sharp angle of the back legs, a leitmotiv of Levi Montalcini's furniture that combines strength and formal dynamism. Moreover, this particular structural detail stands out because it lends the pieces a conspicuous profile that prefigures some of the most celebrated Italian designs of the 1950s; similarly, the angular configuration of the sofa as a whole anticipates stylistic experiments carried out in Milan in the 1980s (i.e., Memphis).