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Poltronova: Italian Radical Design

Meet Poltronova, an icon of Italian design born in the Tuscan countryside. Discover the history of the brand that gave birth to Radical Design, from its beginnings in the 1960s to its transformation into Centro Studi Poltronova, an archive of historical icons.

Founded in 1957 by Sergio Camilli, ​Poltronova was the very first radical design brand, reflecting the multifaceted nature of Italian design. Founded in Tuscany, a region brimming with art but still quite young from a design perspective, the brand fast became a household name thanks to both the old guard of Italian design, with mentors such as ​Angelo Mangiarotti​Gae Aulenti, Giovanni Michelucci and De Pas-D’Urbino-Lomazzi, and the young Radical Design avant-garde - Archizoom and Superstudio groups. Since the very beginning, ​Ettore Sottsass gave an extraordinary contribution to the artistic development of Poltronova, becoming its art director in 1958.

Today, Centro Studi Poltronova's mission is to keep alive some of the most emblematic pieces of Italian design, internationally renown and loved for their fun, bright and subversive design. A journey through the most radical masterpieces, as seductive today as the moment they first appeared. Explore the colorful world of Poltronova and the most interesting turning points of its history.

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Radical design - the interpretation of revolutionary impulses and new creative visions - is an integral part of Poltronova's DNA. How has this dimension evolved since the 1960s?

Poltronova - known today as Centro Studi Poltronova for Design - is the company responsible for creating objects and integrating them into an industrial process sui generis to reflect the artistic visions of the emerging Radical Movement. In certain cases, these objects have never been excluded from the Poltronova catalog - like the Superonda by Archizoom or the Ultrafragola mirror by Ettore Sottsass Jr. - while others have been reintroduced in recent years, although, in principle, they have always remained a recognizable part of the production line. It is not so much that the radical component has evolved over time, but rather that the tools at the public’s disposal have changed, making people more capable of understanding something that in the 1960s was regarded as avant-garde and visionary not only by the general public but by experts as well. 

From the very beginning, Poltronova has collaborated with world-famous Italian designers, starting with Ettore Sottsass, former Artistic Director of the brand. How did the collaboration between Poltronova and the proponents of the Radical Avant-garde begin, considering that they would contribute to further defining the revolutionary identity of the brand?

As a matter of fact, when Ettore Sottsass Jr. began working for Poltronova, he was far from being a world-famous designer. He had just returned from the war following a long period of imprisonment in the Balkans: he was rather unknown, especially in the design world, having only collaborated with his architect father, Ettore Sottsass Sr. before the war. In fact, Poltronova was the first company to allow him to explore wide-ranging projects. In 1966, following Archizoom and Superstudio’s Superarchitettura exhibition-installation, Sottsass together with Sergio Cammilli engaged young graduates in the company through a talent scouting strategy which, in retrospect, can be considered successful. At that time, these young talents were elaborating curious utopian visions of the world and were far from being either established designers or even just part of a defined and accredited avant-garde.

​Mies Armchair

The Mies armchair was born in 1969 from the idea by Archizoom Associati of using a strip of para rubber or India rubber as a seat. The name emphasizes the similarity of the structure to the projects of Mies van der Rohe, as a tribute to the great master who died that same year.

With its rigorous geometric design, the Mies armchair sums up the philosophy of Archizoom Associati, leading figures of the Italian Radical movement starting in the second half of the 1960s.

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Some of Poltronova design pieces have become iconic, entirely unaffected by the passage of time and still sought after for their ingenious stylistic audacity. One of these is undeniably the Ultrafragola: how did the idea of creating such a singular piece come about?

The Ultrafragola mirror by Ettore Sottsass Jr. is part of the more complex and well-defined Mobili Grigi project which featured an entire bedroom set comprising several pieces, all utterly original. The Mobili Grigi set up at the Eurodomus in the 1970s was a dimly lit space illuminated by neon lights radiating from the furniture itself. It was a highly experimental project for the time, made of fiberglass, neon, and thermoformed PETG. The reason why the Ultrafragola mirror is the only "surviving" element could give pause for thought... It is not difficult to imagine why such an existentialist, metaphysical project far removed from the current bourgeois logic of "good design" did not get any positive feedback from the public and critics at the time. Perhaps, the mirror was the simplest piece as an object in and of itself and for its "pink" color.

Poltronova's adventure started during the late 1950s in Tuscany, a region which, at the time, was still not primed from a design-production standpoint. Today, what does Tuscany mean for you and, more broadly, for the “Made in Italy”?

Unquestionably, it has never been the company’s intention to disregard the artisan DNA which has always characterized its high-quality production. It is worth recalling that - as Sottsass Jr. often pointed out - when the company was founded, it was located in a rather suburban area compared to the more industrial centers in Italy, and this contributed to fostering a freedom to experiment absent elsewhere (see the Mobili Grigi). That said, we believe that, in 2022, national borders are obsolete, and the same holds true, if not more, for regional borders.

Superonda Pois Sofa

Distinguished by a captivating magenta polka dot motif, this sofa is a new, iconic design by Cristina Morozzi, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Superonda, a bold symbol of anti-design first conceived in 1967 by the Florentine radical group Archizoom.

Designed without a conventional frame, it is made of a block of polyurethane cut in two waved pieces that can be combined in different configurations.

Over the years, Poltronova's unscrupulousness has evolved, and with it also its production. What values have endured since the beginning and how has the production techniques of historic design pieces evolved?

Artisan DNA, that is, skilled manual labor, combined with the highest quality raw materials, has always been the bedrock of the company. While the quality of finished products has improved over the years, a strict adherence to the essence of the original project has always been a matter of principle. This is because some technical processes and materials that in the past were highly experimental, today have greatly advanced. Just to give a few examples, the polyurethane foam used for the Superonda at the time was just starting to appear in design, whereas today it is available in a various densities which effectively guarantee its performance. Also, the Plexiglas leaves from the Sanremo lamp today are laser-cut, while in the past they were cut by hand. Finally, for the Ultrafragola, even though each model is thermoformed using the only existing aluminum mold from 1970, it’s evident how the thermoforming technique has greatly evolved since then.

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