Gillo Dorfles


Talking about Gillo Dorfles and hearing him talk about design is like listening to someone narrate the history of 20th century Italian and international culture.
Born in Trieste in 1910 to his father from Gorizia and his mother from Genoa, he attended university in Milan and Rome (degree in medicine with specialization in psychiatry). Afterwards, also in Milan – except for long stays in other parts of the country and frequent trips abroad (as visiting professor at the universities of Cleveland, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and New York) – Dorfles became a freelance teacher and then a regular professor of aesthetics at the universities of Milan, Trieste and Cagliari.
He carried out an intensive career as art and essay-writing critic beginning in the 1930s (“Rassegna d’Italia”, “Le Arti Plastiche”, “La Fiera Letteraria”, “Il Mondo”, “Domus” – of which he was associate editor – “Aut Aut”, etc.). In the early post-World War II years he also continued to paint, and together with Munari, Soldati and Monnet he founded MAC (Movimento Arte Concreta, Concrete Art Movement). A one-man show was dedicated to him at the Wittenborn Gallery of New York in 1954. Afterwards he won numerous awards, including the Compasso d’Oro and the Gold Medal of the Triennial. He soon became one of the pioneers in studying our country’s design. He passed away in 2018, at the age of 107.

Q. What does looking at the Zanotta catalogue and the many pieces designed by the top designers from the 1930s on – still in production today – suggest to you?  
R. I believe the Zanotta production is particularly important as it has followed Italian design from the official beginnings through the work of important artists, including Gae Aulenti, Enzo Mari and the Castiglioni brothers. At the same time, the company has set up a dual production line I would call “anomalous”, that which included the creations of figures such as Carlo Mollino. The homage paid to the great Mollino – who is still one of my favourite and let’s even say “venerated” artists – is proven by a series of excellent pieces such as the Reale table designed in 1946. In this, Zanotta demonstrated it does not follow just design as was done in the classic fashion (i.e. restricted by form and function), but to have explored other paths. I above all refer to works dating to, I would say, the “Middle Ages” of design, like those of Gabriele Mucchi and Giuseppe Terragni, authors not mentioned quite enough by those who talk about design in the most customary fashion. I would in particular point out the Genni armchair by Mucchi, which dates to 1935, and the Sant’Elia armchair by Terragni, designed one year later. They are basic pieces of historic design in terms of functionality and aesthetic research that were ahead of their time. The “revolutionary” chairs by Terragni anticipated their era from the technical viewpoint as well. Also pieces like the Sella by the Castiglioni and the Maggiolina by Zanuso come to mind, which still today are exceptional works in terms of modernity and expression. And I think of the exemplary simplicity of a Sciangai or the originality of the entire Servi family by Achille Castiglioni. Just like a few other essential – and at the same time “abnormal” – works like Mezzadro and Allunaggio! Two objects that for that day were absolutely out of all contexts, truly trend setters.

Q. How would you assess the series of “artistic furniture” that Zanotta started 20 years ago with the Edizioni, and that today numbers dozens of new, unprecedented pieces by artists? 
A. Yes, then there is this whole trend that I find interesting. The works by Dalisi above all, such a free and imaginative artist, one whom I love dearly and of whom I keep several sculptures in my house with pleasure. His original and brilliant shapes, such as the Mariposa or the Metopa, are still considerable pieces. I would certainly not say that these are similar to the classic pieces of design, but they reveal the understanding of a type of design tied to artistic research. There are sound and delightful examples of them. As there are of certain works by Mendini for Edizioni Zanotta. That on which I would instead make some reservations – as I have already done on several occasions regarding various large producers of our best design – is that field of production where painters and artists are involved. I wonder: to what extent can we accept the intervention of this type of artists, who in their field are undoubtedly brilliant and very fine, in industrial design? Everyone knows that my argument dates to the days of Alchemy and Memphis, but has become more accentuated with subsequent experiences (I’m thinking of MetaMemphis). Well, we have seen many examples of furniture and accessories designed by artists like Pistoletto and others who have perhaps made charming pieces, but that have nothing to do with design, with full respect for their graphic and painting qualities. I personally do not consider them expressions of design. On the contrary, they risk misrepresenting its basic assumptions, although they successfully attract the attention of a certain type of public. They are more a sort of marketing operations, I would say. And in other cases, stimulating explorations but ends to their own means. However, the matter concerning that furniture on the borderline between art and design that came out of the creation of authors strictly tied to design education, such as Munari, Dalisi and Mendini, is a different story. A paradoxical example comes to mind, like the chair “for very short visits” that Bruno Munari designed for Zanotta: it is precisely an art object in the shape of a chair!

Q. Is there any Zanotta piece in its new collection that has aroused your interest?
A. Approaching recent years, I would say that one preference goes to the Tonietta by Enzo Mari, which is – in my opinion – one of the most successful chairs, that along with the complete series of chairs designed by Roberto Barbieri, starting with the Lia. Praise also goes to the Wire tables by Arik Levy. They are anomalous in structure, but highly effective and sound.

Q. What is your opinion of the latest International Furniture Show? 
A. In general, I think that the trend this most recent Furniture Show set is satisfactory. We saw specimens that are even innovative, of good design, furniture and systems that were capable of freeing themselves from the restrictions of every pseudo-Bauhaus rigour on the one hand, without falling into ornamentalism on the other. So I believe that a new design that well points to the constructive line of the object without making it either “sterilized” or “too severe” is taking shape.

(interview with Gillo Dorfles for the online magazine Zanotta Happenings, 2007) 

(note: the products Mariposa, Metopa mentioned in this article have been discontinued)