Italian furniture on display at K11 mall

A Marilyn Monroe-inspired sofa and other classics will go on show, some for the first time in HK

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 9:26am

Imagine you were curating an exhibition of iconic Italian furniture and design, and were told that one of the most recognisable pieces ever created might not make it in time for opening day?

That's the dilemma faced by Calvin Hui, curator of "From 20th Century to Eternity", because of a last-minute decision to stage the show, which was compounded by the fact many such collectibles require extra documentation.

Hui was especially concerned about the Bocca, the outrageous lip-shaped sofa designed in 1972 by Studio 65 to resemble the pout of sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. Because of its unexpected classification as a rare piece of art, rather than furniture, its inclusion among the exhibits was initially in doubt.

But, as Hong Kong visitors to the exhibition at the K11 Art Mall in Tsim Sha Tsui will see from tomorrow, the fire-engine-red love seat made it in time for its debut here. It was shipped separately from the rest of the collection to make sure it cleared customs on time.

Which is why Hui can breathe a little easier about the event, for which he collaborated with Italian furniture dealer William Figliola, of Novalis Contemporary Art, who has been collecting Italian furniture and other designs for the past two decades.

Hui, like Figliola, is so passionate about Italian craftsmanship that putting together the show, he says, proved difficult.

"We had so many pieces to choose from, it was really hard to pick," Hui says. "I find Italian 20th century design very inventive and challenging. I love the colours, and I like the shapes and their use of materials. Even in the most contemporary designs you can see the legacy of the past."

As Hui points out, Italy is a country that most of us associate with good design, particularly through fashion, cars and furniture. The years between 1945 and the early 1980s were the most celebrated in Italy's design history. From the rhetoric of post-war reconstruction and the consumerism of the economic "miracle" of the early 1960s, through to the rise of radical design and postmodernism in the 1970s, Italy's architects and designers played a vital role in shaping the country's post-war success.

Figliola's love of Italian furniture also stems from the way in which the pieces reflect the evolution of visual tastes, from the ancient to the contemporary.

"Italian design is synonymous with style, elegance and proportion," he says. "I think that great design will always stand the test of time. With this exhibition we are trying to show this and offer it to a public I find to be increasingly sensitive to art and design."

It is the first time, say the exhibition organisers, that such an exclusive collection of limited-edition masterpieces, crafted by some of the world's most renowned Italian furniture designers, will be shown in Hong Kong.

Certainly, the names behind works being displayed, designed from 1952 to 2010, read like a roll call of Italian design luminaries from the post-war years and include Ettore Sottsass, Michele De Lucchi and Matteo Thun. Other exhibits include signature pieces by Gio Ponti, Marco Zanuso Jnr, Nanda Vigo and Mattia Bonetti, whose 3Drops table of black lacquered wood and acrylic has a fragile sturdiness.

The work of Sottsass, who died in 2007 at 90 years of age, dominates the exhibition.

The architect and designer had a successful career producing industrial and electronic products for mainstream companies such as Olivetti, including typewriters, computers and office furniture.

But he also created unconventional consumer objects that were meant to challenge bourgeois notions of "good taste". In 1981 he put together a small, international group of designers who called themselves the Memphis Group and created non-conformist furniture.

Sottsass' Carlton room divider, to be shown here, is an outstanding example of his Memphis designs. It combines fine workmanship with inexpensive materials, vivid colours and a clever but playful structure.

Sottsass worked with De Lucchi and Thun through the Memphis Group and, as you walk around the exhibition, you can see how Hui has grouped the furniture in a way that demonstrates this overlapping of designers and the influences they would have had on each other.

"When I put together the layout for the exhibition, I tried to combine the objects partly by artist, but also by styles, such as putting the Memphis Group together," he says.

Some of the small accessories, such as a series of vases designed by Sottsass, have been grouped with the Ladoga cocktail glass and Titicaca vase by Thun.

Another iconic piece is the Super Lamp by Martine Bredin, who met Sottsass in 1980, a year after she showed off an installation of hers, La Casa Decorada, at the Milan furniture fair.

His invitation to join Memphis led to her contribution to the group of that whimsical lamp, which can be rolled around the floor on wheels that make it resemble a child's toy.

The product, made of fibreglass and rubber, features standard light bulbs that are not covered or disguised, and boasts a semicircular shape reminiscent of art deco objects and the geometric designs of the 1950s.

Like them or not, these pieces continue to influence our purchases now: some of the artists from the Memphis Group worked, like Sottsass, at mainstream companies that still produce their designs, such as Artemide, Missoni, Vitra, Porsche Design and Villeroy & Boch.

Appropriately enough for pieces that were designed for the masses, or for mass appeal, the exhibition takes place at Tsim Sha Tsui's K11 Art Mall and the furniture is not behind glass but positioned so visitors can view the exhibits at close range.

This allows detailed inspections of the small pieces and affords a realistic sense of the scale of some of the bigger items, such as the work of Bonetti.

After Sottsass, Bonetti has the most exhibits on show; his Canape Caillou, a laminated resin sofa with leather cushions and orange fabric, is 220cm long.

That sofa is among Figliola's favourite pieces in the show because of, or despite, its irregular, bulbous shape. For Hui, the highlights of the exhibition are also the sizeable ones - the Bocca sofa and the Carlton shelving unit.

"Another special piece is the Nanda Vigo table," he says. "This is a one-off piece. For me, it is not just furniture. This is a work of art, a piece of sculpture. It's made of Carrara and Belgian marble, with outstanding Italian craftsmanship. I love that it is as functional as it is beautiful."

Show time: From 20th Century to Eternity runs from August 30 to September 30 at K11 Art Mall, 18 Hanoi Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 3118 8070; Calvin Hui will host a series of design talks and guided tours for the public at K11 during the exhibition period (details to be announced).

Another exhibition of these pieces and more, will run from October 4 to October 7 at Fine Art Asia 2012, Hall 5BC, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai, tel: 2153 3812;