1941. A young couple smile happily in front of a gate. Angelo and Giuseppina Molteni are newly-weds. Angelo had learnt to love wood from his uncle, turning it into fine, useful pieces of furniture. He’s a legnamè , a joiner, and the owner of a small artisan workshop. Giuseppina attended a professional school so she knew how to keep the books and accounts in order. She was a modern woman, with a job in Milan.
1947. A snapshot of a football team with an industrial shed in the background. These are the craftsmen and employees of Angelo Molteni’s furniture-making firm, set up in 1934. He’s the tallest one on the left, sleeves rolled up and a self-confident expression. In the midde, little boy frowning, he’s four years old and is their firstborn, Carlo.
Angelo Molteni had just one obsession: quality. Initially his workshop manufactured on commission. After the war, everything changed. Demand exploded. He started to manufacture on his own, purchasing the raw material, the wood himself. He was already an entrepreneur. Manufacturing fast and efficiently and all in his own factory. This was the challenge. But making good furniture also meant new models. Cantù was the school, and that is where Molteni found his draughtsman in chief — “il signor Luisinet” — “king of Cantù”.
The first was with Alberto Zevi, one of the founders of the Adelphi publishing house, entrepreneur, mathematician, inventor. Together, Mr. Molteni and Mr. Zevi purchased in Germany the first industrial machines, which ensured total control of the supply chain, from tree trunk to finished product. Molteni began to produce beds, bedside tables, chests of drawers, complete sets of dining room furniture, but also wardrobes made up of self-contained units — an absolute novelty at that time. Technological innovations were the driving force for growth.
The second encounter was with Werner Blaser, a designer from Basel. His was the first prototype of a “modern” piece of furniture, built by Molteni, that won in 1955 the first “Mostra Selettiva – Concorso Internazionale del Mobile” in Cantù. In 1959, Molteni took part in Cantù’s third Concorso with a bookcase by Yasuhiko Itoh, the Japanese designer who won the third prize ex aequo. Successful, but isolated experiments.
Within the space of a decade, the company was completely restructured and distributed over a wider area, updated with the latest technology, flanked by efficient and calibrated processing cycles. Then, new wood shearing departments were added, among the most modern and complete in the whole of Europe. The artisan workshop had become a global cycle production complex — the Fifties were fabulous indeed!
The Dolce Vita era. In 1960, Federico Fellini’s masterpiece won the Palma d’Oro at the Cannes Film Festival. J.F.K.’s new frontier won the hearts of the Americans. The USSR responded with new challenges. Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly in space. The Beatles, miniskirts and the first Olivetti personal computer made their debuts. There was an air of freedom. The world was young. Italy started to look at the world and its novelties: furniture, cars, fridges and TV sets.
24 September 1961. Tito Armellini, director of the Association of northern Italian wood and cork industrialists, and the entrepreneur Angelo De Baggis, convinced a further 12 Italian manufacturers to join forces to create Milan’s first furniture fair, the Salone del Mobile. Angelo Molteni was one of them. 328 exhibitors, two pavilions, 12 thousand visitors thronging the Milan tradeshow’s 13 thousand square meters of stands.
Three key elements and three encounters. The first wih Tito Agnoli and his modular furniture — Programma C — produced by Citterio. Truly modern furniture, based on modularity ad infinitum, the first mass-produced system. In 1969 Angelo Molteni became a partner of the Citterio family firm, which had ambitious plans. Molteni’s partnership with Tito Agnoli would lead to highly successful products, such as the Fiorenza series.
The second key element was Angelo Mangiarotti, with the 4D series of 1966, the first system of modular storage units, produced first by Casaluci and then by Molteni. The modules remained the same — varying only in height — the units on wheels were combined alongside each other. Each unit was qualified by “artisan-style finishes that make it a unique item”. Mass produced, yes, but top quality, as though crafted by hand.
The third key element, which marked the beginning of a special working relationship and the friendship of a lifetime, was Molteni’s encounter with Luca Meda. He was talented and well educated, he worked with Marco Zanuso and the leading lights of the new Italian architectural scene, Aldo Rossi, first and foremost . He intrigued everyone. He designed Iride, another modular system, striking, fresh and colourful, designed with Hans von Klier who came from Olivetti. It was a one-way trip, the symbol of a programme, of a corporate approach.
The architects came to Giussano and in a matter of months, it was a revolution. Production was converted to manufacturing furniture with various functions, well designed and conceived for mass production. It was all finished by hand. The industry began to specialize, technical experts and model makers worked with the architects to make prototypes and products, the process changed, but attention to quality remained constant. Luisinet, the “King of Cantù”, could enjoy his retirement. Long live design!
The road forward was clear. The German machines ensured mass production cycles with added artisan value, structured for the rising demand for quantity and speed as well as quality in every single piece. The hands were the best in the business, working for Molteni, the élite of available expertise was there. The minds were top notch, Angelo Molteni and his sons knew that design would be the key success factor. The world, with its rules and opportunities, would soon acknowledge Giussano.
Modulo3 was an important job, in 1975, when IBM placed an order for 1300 desks plus chests of drawers for the offices of their Mount Pleasant headquarters, in the State of New York. A place that made history for its avant-garde work organization.
Modulo3 became the standard furniture for numerous international head offices of the American corporations. The same choice would be made by major banks, businesses, ministries, embassies and companies.
The leap had been taken: the way forward was through the internationalization of markets and contract. The first was Unifor, followed immediately by Molteni&C with furnishing a number of embassies in the Arab world and a major hotel in Egypt. Sights were set on opportunities in the wider world, on expanding the sales network throughout Italy and on a takeover policy in Brianza: on top of Unifor, came Citterio. The structural, productive, design and distribution assets were almost complete. Molteni had become a Group, ready to take on the challenges of the furniture world.
Icons designed by Afra and Tobia Scarpa — Monk, Mop, Mount, Mix. The relationship with the Scarpas was important, a sign that was translated into furnishings and into the concept of important stores for the Group’s identity: the one in Paris in 1978, the one in Rome in 1979. Then came the system 505 by Luca Meda, a programme that contained the hallmark method of Molteni’s proposals. In the Giussano compound, strategies of the new industrial, cultural and design programme were enhanced.
In order to define a clear product image policy and attract a wider audience, for the first time in its history the company turned to an internationally renowned advertising agency, Young&Rubicam. This gave rise to slogans such as “Molteni, furniture for your island” and to epoch-making campaigns.
The new decade opened with another surprise move. Angelo Molteni decided to take over “Dada. Mobili d’alta cucina”, a company founded by the Garavaglia family in 1926. It was a brilliant step forward. Once again, the key was trust. Dada boasted skilled professionals and technical experts, good architects and top-quality. Plus a great outlet in Milan, you only had to look at the window displays! The decision was made.
Luigi Molteni, Angelo’s third son, and Luca Meda, a great friend and an exceptional sparring partner simplified the product and the Dada style, the processes and the forms construed a brand new image. Dada kitchens were hi-tech, made with quality materials and designs: Coriandolo, Vela, Banco, Nuvola, Amarena, Tempera HT, Zelig… With the other companies of the Group they shared innovation, research, projects. It had been a good move!
Again deciding the future was a firm friendship. Aldo Rossi, an architecture graduate from Milan’s Politecnico, and Luca Meda, just back from the Ulm School of Design. They opened a design studio in Milan. It was Luca who, with generous intuition, brought Aldo Rossi to Giussano, in Brianza. And it was to be a decisive partnership. The unexpected star of the Molteni&C stand at the 20th Salone in 1980 was Aldo Rossi’s Cabina dell’Elba, “a poetic presence like the memory of a happy holiday”.
The first projects by Aldo Rossi, in which the lead player is the company, are the Teatro chair, designed in 1983 with Meda, and the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, rebuilt by Rossi, Gardella and Reinhart (1983/9). With Luca Meda, Molteni designed the furnishings of the rooms and common spaces — the Primafila sofa for the foyer. While for the stalls, Unifor produced a permanent tip-up seat. From contract jobs to mass produced products — a model for the future and an unicum in the history of manufacturing.
“Interpret fantastic, personal elements in a rational and unique design” this is Aldo Rossi’s desire. This is how the Molteni icons were conceived: Carteggio Milano chair by Rossi, Risiedo, Poggio, Vivette, Les Beaux Jours and Portafinestra by Meda, to mention just a few — tell the story of a “different” design compared to the fashions of the time. Molteni aspired to the great, timeless classics, while Unifor produced Rossi’s fabulous Parigi chair and Meda’s Programma 25. Furniture that became architecture, architecture that inspired furniture.
A breath of fresh air swept through the factory, where, at the end of the Eighties, work focused on developing a revolutionary prototype, the 7volte7 wardrobe, which would enter the homes of — almost — all Italians as well as numerous foreigners. Those were the years in which the “Casa Molteni” idea was first conceived, re-asserting a culture of living firmly rooted in Italy’s collective imagination, revised and integrated to satisfy the international markets
And its route is clearly mapped out. An enormous vessel, built with elements of the Piroscafo system designed by Luca Meda and Aldo Rossi, marked the entrance to the Molteni&C stand at the 32nd Salone in 1993. A theatrical flourish that got people staring in amazement. But the image was also the metaphor of a decade. The furniture industry was steaming ahead, major contract projects. The company reorganized itself with an export division to face the international challenge. Strength is again, always, the human capital.
Who knows what the technical staff thought when Jean Nouvel turned up, with an envelope in his hand, asking for a table like this, as transparent as a sheet of paper, for his Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, a slim, weightless table. Neither a sketch nor a drawing in his hand, but an idea, “l’essence, l’archétype de la table”. Thus, in 1994, Unifor came up with Less. An icon of contemporary design. Minimalism, sustainability, alternative materials, wireless. Simply, “Less is more”. There is no end to the search for perfection.
Molteni&C, who won the 1994 Compasso d’Oro lifetime award, continued his research with Luca Meda. Well-made, durable furniture, where technology, rather than making a clean sweep, took tradition to unexpected developments. 505, an increasingly versatile system, the Capotavola table, with its antique forms, Viavai, rational, collapsible furniture for homes with limited space, while 7volte7 continued to evolve, with cutting-edge technology.
From the small to the large scale, Aldo Rossi was assigned two key projects, with special furnishings. The Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht in 1994 — Unifor’s Cartesio bookcase and Consiglio tables and Molteni&C’s Providence sofa — plus the reconstruction of the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1997 — all wood features by Molteni and in the Sala Rossi a replica of the façade of the Palladian Basilica in Vicenza. An extraordinary adventure and a huge lesson for everyone.
The Italian system was the best partner for designers who want to experiment. Thus a Swiss designer arrived in Molteni with an innovative design. It was the Alfa chair by Hannes Wettstein, moulded by the same company that produced bumpers for Ferrari. Another paradigm shift, in addition to wood, innovative materials, with the specialized suppliers who found the right solutions. Each product was a challenge and from then on, the key success was teamwork.
And that shift was matched by a new Molteni&C trademark and new graphics, entrusted to Felix Humm. New communication tools were created. The yearly Giornale newssheet prepared for the Salone, combined designs and photographs, articles and images, with important names on the cultural scene; booklets such as “Ritratto di famiglia in un interno” set items of Molteni furniture alongside other objects and images, while “Le Qualità nascoste dei mobili” illustrates the hidden technology.
And then, last but not least, the first sealed inserts distributed with the newspapers. “Dagli Appendini alle Ante” was the slogan that featured on the 7volte7 insert. Maybe, the exact words also can help a wardrobe become a success story.
Since 1934, so much has changed. Production, today industrial and tailor-made. Distribution, today international. Global supplies in the furniture sector in more than eighty countries worldwide. Architects, from all over the place, turn up with a project to be turned into products — Nouvel, Siza, Foster+Partners, Cerri, Bonuccelli, Dordoni, Laviani, Urquiola, Gilad… An initial meeting, and then an understanding that never wavers. The secret? Over 5% of the turnover invested every year in research and innovation.
In the new millennium, Molteni&C goes beyond the Pillars of Hercules. New brand shops and spaces, some 700 outlets around the world, 27 flagship stores. Alliances with other creative giants from Salvatore Ferragamo to Vivienne Westwood. A new upholstering division and exclusive distribution of the prestigious Vitra Home Collection brand in Italy and Australia. And even an ad hoc brand, Armani/Dada, two flag bearers of the elegance of Italian style around the world.
2009. An encounter with a beautiful bookcase in Gio Ponti’s house in Milan. It was his bookcase, hand made by his craftsmen. Love at first sight. The Ponti archives cherished series worthy to be proposed again. 2012. The result is a collection of furniture, designed by Ponti from 1935, in the 50s and 70s, true to the original, brought up to date with modern technology, now part of Molteni&C’s industrial history, its hallmark quality. The project was presented with an exhibition “Living Ponti-style” that toured Italy and then the world. Excellent projects do not go out of style, they are updated. Just need to look for them and know how to deal with them.
New forms come from research and innovation. Graduate by Jean Nouvel, a system of suspended bookshelves, supported by invisible steel tie rods, and SKiN, an iconic object developed after the furnishing of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris; the two tables designed by Foster+Partners: Arc, in cement fiber, and Teso, a steel sheet perforated with laser incisions; the Grado° Collection by Ron Gilad, intriguing objects. Behind the minimum forms, there is a thought, an obsession. New proportions Fine proportions.
Numerous Unifor projects with prominent architects, from Michele De Lucchi to Álvaro Siza, from the development of Pierluigi Cerri’s Naòs System to Jean Nouvel’s new LessLess and Cases collections, right through to the XXII Premio Compasso d’Oro ADI in 2011, as Design Protagonist after the coordinated image award in 1994.
Over at Dada, numerous revolutions, the Tivalì box kitchen, the Trim accessorized back panels, the new Banco and InDada, Set by Rodolfo Dordoni, the Futura wall units, rotating operational columns for modern workstations. New contract projects for exclusive residences, from New York to Mumbai. And then Citterio who, alongside new products such as the C-SS soundproofing system, continue to develop a slew of projects around the world, in cooperation with major groups of architects.
The 2000s respond to the word responsibility. Molteni chose to invest in the world, with exhibitions dedicated to Rossi, Meda, Nouvel and Gilad but also in the places of its history. Giussano hosts QallaM, a multimedia space that represents Quality, an icon of manufacturing — 3-time award winner — and the exhibition space Glass by Ron Gilad, who reinterprets the themes of corporate identity: the materials, experience, technology, craftsmanship, products and collections.
Innovative places in which to try out new visions, right next to a new home for Molteni’s historical archives re-reading tradition in order to look forward into the future. The Salone’s new journal, re-created in 2007 with texts and artistic photographs as well as a new trademark: M&C. Past and future, research and tradition always under the banner of quality living.