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The Return Of Seventies Furniture

As Salone del Mobile 2016 gets into gear, we take a look back at the design greats of Italy’s underrated golden age

  • Interior home decoration by Mr Willy Rizzo. Photograph © WillyRizzo

In case you hadn’t noticed (and assuming you’ve not yet read any other MR PORTER articles on the same topic), the 1970s are having something of a moment in the style world. Naturally, that means all things 1970s are now ripe for revisitation and reappropriation, including furniture. If you’re from Britain, this should bring to mind some awful stuff: brown floral wallpaper, avocado bathroom suites and woodchip. But there’s much more than that to the decade’s design.

In Italy in the 1970s, wall-to-wall shagpile, brass, bronze, chrome and glass started to feature on the wish lists (and in the homes) of the stylish elite. “Decorators started working with travertine, brass, briar and leather, and applying lacquers in colours such as orange,” says Mr Adriano Albini, founder of Spazio 900, a Milan showroom that specialises in Italian design from 1950 to 1980. “It was a break from the natural wood and Formica of the 1960s, for a more minimalist house.” Today, we’ve reached a similar oversaturation of tasteful, woody, mid-century modernism (the starter flat must-have is no longer a kettle, it’s a G-Plan coffee table), so this kind of thing is looking pretty attractive.

The 1970s were a boom time in Italy, a decade of mass production and innovation that signalled the end of the post-war rebuilding programme. Designers made huge quantities of furniture and sold it through department stores such as La Rinascente, Saks and Neiman Marcus – in those pre-Ikea days, such furniture halls carried the ultimate cachet. Almost no one crossed the frontier between design, art and craft. (The design art scene, with its solo makers supplying limited editions and one-offs to galleries, was still 25 years away.)

As a result, exceptional pieces from the 1970s are in short supply. Most are still in Italy, in Milanese galleries such as Erastudio, Colombari and Robertaebasta. “With their fresh colours and shiny surfaces, pieces from the 1970s are very appealing and very photogenic,” says Mr Mattia Martinelli, director of Robertoebasta. “Those that are museum quality are often very strong and solid, so they can be used in real interiors.”

But despair not. Glorious works from the likes of Messrs Romeo Rega, Gaetano Sciolari and Willy Rizzo are easy to find (and sometimes to live with). Itching to get started? Below, we’ve put together a guide to key designers of the period, some of whom are reissuing classic pieces in 2016. In short, it’s time to fire up eBay or 1stDibs and type in one of the following names.

Ms Gabriella Crespi

  • Ms Gabriella Crespi's Ellissi Collection, 1976. Photograph courtesy Archivio Gabriella Crespi. Ms Crespi’s Cubo Magico coffee tables, circa 1976, on display at Gabriel & Guillaume’s pop-up at the Christofle headquarters. Photograph by Mr Alexis Cherigny

With her Ms Sophia Loren va-va-voom and Ms Greta Garbo mystique, Ms Gabriella Crespi epitomised la dolce vita. In the 1940s, she snared an aristocratic husband and, for 20 years or so in Milan, she created furniture, sculpture and jewellery for the shahs, sheiks and royals who formed her social circle. Then in 1986, she gave everything away and fled to the Himalayas with her Indian guru. Savvy galleries such as New York’s Demisch Danant and Milan’s Rita Fancsaly scooped up Crespi pieces that were drifting around junk shops and under-the-radar sales, and today works such as her Z Desk sell for upwards of £200,000. Ten years ago, Ms Crespi returned to Milan, and Fancsaly is one of the few companies with which the 93-year-old communicates. Together they have produced new versions of the Dama and Ellisse tables, the Z Desk, the Yang Yin bar and the Wave table. All still evoke Ms Crespi’s modernist sculptural lines and luxe finishes. If you’re looking for an original, French dealer Mr Guillaume Excoffier has pop-ups in Beirut and Paris and scours the world for vintage Crespi. “She was one of the design world’s most charismatic characters,” he says. “An icon of her time.”

Mr Willy Rizzo

  • Mr Willy Rizzo’s Piazza di Spagna outdoor line; the TRG revolving table. Photographs © WillyRizzo

With its built-in cigar box and flip-open drinks cabinet, nothing defines decadence quite like a Mr Willy Rizzo coffee table. Mr Rizzo was a photographer by trade, most famously for Paris Match, which was founded by his pal Mr Jean Prouvost in 1949. Mr Rizzo snapped all the greats, from Ms Marilyn Monroe to Messrs Jean Cocteau and Jack Nicholson, but in 1966, seeking a change, he turned to furniture design. So impressed were his famous friends with his chunky coffee tables, space-age lamps and voluptuous sofas that what started as a hobby quickly became a job, and Mr Rizzo worked on new designs until his death in 2013. Today, his widow and two daughters run the studio in Paris and produce new pieces from the vast Rizzo portfolio. Vintage pieces are sought-after but still easy to find, especially in the US where they were once de rigueur in celebrity circles.

Ms Nanda Vigo

  • An example of Ms Nanda Vigo’s Due Più chair. Photograph courtesy of Mr Nicholas Kilner. The fur-lined interior of Casa Lo Scarabeo Sotto La Foglia (“The Beetle Under The Leaves”), Ms Vigo’s collaboration with Mr Giò Ponti, 1965-68. Photograph by Casali-Domus

As a student in Milan, Ms Nanda Vigo knocked on the painter Mr Lucio Fontana’s door and landed herself a job as his studio apprentice. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she created domestic interiors in experimental, monochrome palettes. Casa Blu was all blue velvet sofas, blue glass and mirrors; Casa Nera, a veritable lair in black and gold. But she is best known for her furry interiors for the white Beetle Under The Leaves house, which was designed by architect Mr Giò Ponti in 1964. Today, the 80-year-old designer’s pieces, both contemporary and vintage, sell for between £7,000 and £70,000. Ms Patrizia Tenti, founder of Milan gallery Erastudio Apartment, has collaborated with Ms Vigo on new pieces in recent years, and can also seek out rare, wish-list pieces such as the fabulous, fluffy Due Più chairs that come in black and pink Mongolian fur.

Mr Romeo Rega

  • Brass and glass étagère room divider, by Mr Romeo Rega. Photograph courtesy of 1stdibs.com. Brass coffee tabel by Mr Rega. Photograph courtesy of Mr Jean-Marc Fray Antiques 

More decorator than artist, Mr Romeo Rega’s furniture is ideal for those who want a touch of modernist glamour without breaking the bank. A master at combining brass and chrome, Mr Rega’s unfussy materials and lines first appeared on tables, lighting, consoles and bookcases. Between 1961 and 1989, Mr Rega churned out huge, mass-produced ranges for department stores in Italy and abroad, all signed with his famous double R. In fact, he was so prolific that many prototypes remain unmade. “Rega was innovative and represents a different kind of good taste,” says Mr Excoffier. “He’s easily recognisable, easy to find and affordable.”

Mr Luciano Frigerio

  • Mr Luciano Frigerio interior. Photograph courtesy of Frigerio di Desio. Side cabinet by Mr Frigerio. Photograph courtesy of 1stdibs.com

Mr Luciano Frigerio was the son of a cabinet-maker from Desio, near Milan. By the age of 25, he had trained with many of the master craftsmen of his day. He would visit their workshops when pieces were being made for maestros such as Messrs Giò Ponti, Franco Albini and Carlo de Carli and apply what he had learned to his own furniture. The results were highly original, eclectic pieces, masterful in their use of colour, finish and detail. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Frigerio di Desio showrooms opened in cities all over Italy and Mr Frigerio himself completed many private commissions, among them two hand-carved lecterns for Pope John XXIII, which are still in the Basilica di San Pietro e Paolo in Rome today. “For many, Frigerio pieces are difficult to combine with contemporary furnishings, but they are much appreciated, especially for their use of brass, bronze and briar,” says Mr Albini.