B&B Italia: Design Revolution

November 2016

At the heart of the events and activities planned for B&B Italia’s 50th anniversary, there is a deep acknowledgement of the company’s history and con- temporary identity. The documentary film B&B Italia. Poetry in the shape. When design meets industry produced to mark the occasion and aimed at a wide audience of enthusiasts and professionals, succeeds in its precious attempt to make the sectarian approach of early design history look epic in its universal search for happiness and mindfulness in life. With the stories emerging from B&B’s heritage and story, we see one protagonist: the powerful, engaging interlacing of personal and entrepreneurial journeys, of philosophies, of ideologies, cultures, and geographical hiatuses. All squeezed into a family-shaped saga. Since the early 1960s, founder Piero Ambrogio Busnelli dreamt of bringing the quality of industrial design to the world in a way that could compete in an already sophisticated furnishing market. After a meeting with Busnelli, famed Italian journalist Giorgio Bocca wrote: “Until yesterday I thought that making furniture in Brianza was a matter of glue, wood, varnish, and money... now I would say it is something quite different, with characters from the new frontier, rough at the edges but with a ready imagination; vital, open to adventure and risk, which is almost incredible in this country of bureaucrats.


B&B Italia is undoubtedly a success story, one led by passionate, adventurous men. And in terms of communications, it was also the first furniture company to advertise on TV, with 21 15-second commercials. For C&B (the business that was later to become B&B Italia) and the initial partnership between Cesare Cassina and Piero Busnelli in 1966, communications were a new religion that accompanied the announcement of each product. Design, production, and adventure were filtered through a principle that became the Busnelli creed: the continuous exchange of ideas. So much so that for a few years, business meetings and presentations to the press and customers alike were held on cruise ships.

In 1969, the Up chair by Gaetano Pesce was presented. The Up was revolutionary, both for its use of polyurethane technology and for the manner in which it was offered on the market. It was delivered vacuum- packed, like a giant, colourful slice of cheese; once the packaging was opened, the chair regained the shape envisaged by the designer. Then, in 1972, Le Bambole was designed, and in the same year it was awarded the Compasso d’Oro. I don’t think an upholstered sofa had ever won it before”, recalls Mario Bellini. This became this innovative thing that enjoyed monstrous success. And Oliviero Toscani’s idea to use a New York model in a particular way (the photo campaign met with international acclaim), was censored at the Salone del Mobile. The president of Cosmit saw it and put a black stripe put over it.

And maybe this is why there is never a trace of arrogance at B&B. Throughout its family history, rooted in Brianza, no one ever thought that what had been done yesterday would suffice for tomorrow. Which is probably why Giorgio Busnelli, son of the founder, is today looking to the challenges of the global markets and seeking to stay true to his father’s international mission. In recent years he has taken the most difficult decisions of his life: in 2011, it was the termination of the company’s partnership with the Opera Private Equity Fund, which had joined B&B Italia without sharing its philosophy. And now, it was accepting a new partnership with Investindustrial, to guarantee the company’s international growth and industrial development. Giorgio Busnelli remains at the helm in a long-term project without geographical boundaries.


At the head of the design team — known to all designers who have set foot inside B&B Italia — are Rolando Gorla and Federico Busnelli. Men of few words who, for over 40 years, have worked day-to-day not only with designers but with advances in technology, market laws, and social and aesthetic changes. As does the younger generation. “When we receive a design idea”, says Giorgio’s son Massimiliano Busnelli, “we don’t waste our time trying to understand its real potential on paper, we start the prototyping process straight away.”

Just how B&B Italia turns an idea into a successful product is illustrated by Naoto Fukasawa with the Papilio chair, inspired by the wings of a butterfly: “First, we worked out the shape of Papilio, but it had legs at the base and wasn’t yet a strong idea. We began to talk about it. What about a more monolithic form? Every time I went to the R&D centre, they had already prepared a design of the 3D profiles attached to a cone-shaped foam piece, with a pen for sketching in the shapes in real time. That’s something I really like – a real sculpture.” As Doshi Levien comments, “They have the ability to see an idea. They can already see it in a simple sketch on cardboard. This is where you realise the experience they’ve acquired after many years of working in design. They don’t need to see a finished, super-detailed rendering.” Jay Osgerby, of UK-based design and interaction studio Barber & Osgerby recalls, “We had all these little models in blue foam and were very excited about showing them to Massimiliano Busnelli and Rolando Goria. I remember that Rolando just laid his finger on it and the whole piece tipped over, and he was like: Hmm, no. At that point, all you feel is: Oh god, right. Then he says: ‘Don't worry, we'll find a way.’ By the end of the day, we had a full-size wooden model that we could use to work out the positioning of the legs and solve the tipping problem – and we did.”

In 1984, the Compasso d’Oro prize went to B&B Italia once again for Sisamo by Studio Kairos, a wardrobe featuring a patented device that allows full alignment of the flush sliding doors, causing the wardrobe to disappear into the room like a new wall. And it was For the constant work of integration carried out in order to combine the values of scientific and technological research with those necessary to the functionality and expressiveness of its products that, in 1989, won B&B Italia its 4th Compasso d’Oro — the first instance of the award going to a company as a whole.


Another thing that happened in 1972 was that Italian design became an international phenomenon, evidenced by a big exhibition at the MoMA in New York. B&B appeared in The New Domestic Land- scape section with two installations. One of these was a work in polyurethane by Gaetano Pesce illustrating the relationship between man and space. In 1987, Sity turned the concept of the sofa into a multi-use seating system for resting, socialising, or relaxing in front of the TV. As home interiors became more complex, forms had to find new layouts. It was designed by Antonio Citterio, a Politecnico-trained architect from Meda. Citterio has continued to lend continuity and vision to the choices of B&B Italia.

In recent years, it has partnered with internationally renowned names in architecture, including Zaha Hadid, who designed the Moon System in 2007, and David Chipperfield with his Posa collection inspired by the Marquis von Posa, hero of Shiller’s Don Carlos. Today, a total of more than 20 international de- signers work for B&B Italia. The exchange of design ideas continues inside and outside its R&D centre. But how are today’s choices made? Who decides at the end of a development path whether an idea will go into production? Jay Osgerby comments, “I think it’s fair to say that if you’re a designer who works for B&B Italia, the appearance of your product should fit with the B&B Italia family, but it should also express your vision and the investment you have made. It takes a father and a mother to make a baby, it’s not just the designer who produces these things.”. Giorgio Busnelli concludes: “I, unfortunately, have the last word. I cannot leave this decision to others.”


BOOK: The Long Life of Design in Italy: B&B Italia. 50 Years and Beyond, by Stefano Casciani, published by Rizzoli, 29 November 2016

DOCUMENTARY: B&B Italia. Poetry In The Shape. When Design Meets Industry, by Didi Gnocchi and 3D Produzioni/Sky Arte HD

Piero Ambrogio Busnelli with his sons, 1980s
Up chair by Gaetano Pesce, 1969 Photo: Klaus Zaugg
Giorgio Busnelli enjoying a wooden version of the Up chair
Tobi-Ishi table by Barber & Osgerby, 2012
Sisamo wardrobe by Studio Kairos, 1983
Moon System sofa by Zaha Hadid, 2007
Grande Papilio armchair and footrest, by Naoto Fukasawa, 2009
Le Bambole by Mario Bellini, 1972
The advertising campaign for Le Bambole by photographer Olivero Toscani, with New York model Donna Jordan (who was part of Andy Warhol’s circle), met with international acclaim.
This article appeared in DAM59. Order your personal copy.