Process, Function and Shape: Neoliberty in the Italian Home

by Alberto Serra

In the mid 1950s a group of young architects from Turin and Milan began to question the dominant trends in architecture and design. Among them Gabetti and Isola, Vittorio Gregotti, Aldo Rossi and Gae Aulenti. It’s not a violent reaction but an inspiration, a proposal more than a movement, against the values carried by rationalism and International Style. The importance of history matters and the attention to shape combined with execution, quality, and the importance of a connection with the end user are the new values. This goes beyond a standard and aseptic industrial product and the design of interiors “…similar to the showroom of a furniture shop” which is a total reversal of the sequence: process, function and shape.

Roberto Gabetti and Aimaro Oreglia d’Isola met among the drawing tables at the University of Architecture in Turin. Both men were raised in Turin where they met two ‘maestri’ who would profoundly mark their beginnings as architects.

Giovanni Muzio was a Milanese architect who opened an architecture office in the 1920s with Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia . Muzio was the author of the Cà Brutta, the icon of a new classical language in Italy’s architecture, and of Palazzo dell’Arte, about the building of the Triennale. He taught his students about modernity by looking back on tradition as a model of balance and Italian authenticity, and how to connect rigorous design to craftsmanship.

The second profound influence on Gabetti and Isola was Torinise architect Carlo Mollino. Mollino embodies a typical Torinese intellectual vision, free from international conventions and proud of an independent cultural identity. As Professor of Interior Design and Decoration, he taught his students a vision of interiors as set design, where every single element participates at the mise-en-scène of a landscape tuned to the client’s character.

Gabetti and Isola soon attracted attention with the Borsa Valori and Bottega d’Erasmo buildings in Turin; the latter has been the cause of an international debate leading to the definition, often misunderstood, of Neoliberty. In both projects they use exceptional sensibility and care in both design and creation, from the building itself to the furniture design and details in accordance with the idea of “total decor” similar to the philosophy of Henry van de Velde and the Wiener Werkstätte. Their pieces of furniture, when addressed to private interiors, do not look for an instant effect or easy opulence, but rather a balanced cosiness and refinement in composition and materials.

The present lot pictured in situ in Interni magazine, 1968

In February 1968, Interni magazine published an article with the vanity featured in situ, shown in the dressing room designed by Gabetti and Isola. The two architects were responsible for the decoration of the walls, choice of colors, and the design of furniture and lamps. In the article, the architects stress the importance of linking the individual rooms with the interior and exterior, and the introduction of furniture in a modern context that are best suited to their function as in real life.

The vanity, with matching chair originally made for a Bottega d’Erasmo apartment, resided in a corner and communicates directly with the glass door facing the outside. It presents a classical structure, with a square leg section and a front with two side drawers and a central recessed drawer. Three adjustable mirrors are mounted on a tilting rod supported by uprights, which are an extension of the rear legs. The structure is made of padauk wood; the handles, mirror frames and mechanical parts are in brass, and the top is partially covered with linoleum.

The manufacturing of the vanity was entrusted to the Colli Company, a workshop known for its reliability and long tradition, and with whom many well-known architects such as Ponti, Gariboldi and Mollino also collaborated with. The client for this particular commission is also notable; the bathroom was in fact designed for the daughter of the managing director and member of the Fiat board of directors, Enrico Minola.

Based on a historical piece of furniture, the designers concentrate their attention on quality: the construction details, visible joints and finishes all pay attention to the anatomy of contact surfaces, in keeping with practical use. This vanity epitomizes the designers' melding of the fine craftsmanship with the sentimental and cultural aspects of historical design, seen through the filter of a modern, intellectual and practical way of intimate living.

Their careers as designers would not continue for long, ending in 1970 with a design targeting modularity and oriented to industrial production. The Trilogy series produced by Arbo was created from joinable supports and containers, and included, among other forms, a vanity with three mirrors - a direct evolution of the present lot from 1963. This new vision, while different in appearance, illustrates their emphasis on quality of materials and production, which was entrusted to a small company that produces essentially custom-made furniture. It is yet another example of Gabetti and Isola interpreting the best ways to renovate living needs.

For us designing furniture is continuous experience, equal to that of making homes: almost an immediate verification of aspirations, and of research. An experience that we do not consider at all secondary: a way to have links with life. 

—Gabetti and Isola

Roberto Gabetti and Aimaro Isola

Roberto Gabetti was born in Turin in 1925. He studied architecture at the Polytechnic University of Turin, where he wrote his thesis with Giovanni Muzio. Gabetti was quickly hired by the university after graduating in 1949 and he worked as an aid to his former Professor Carlo Mollino. Aimaro Oreglia d’Isola was born in Turin in 1928 and, like Gabetti, also graduated from the Polytechnic University of Turin. Gabetti and Isola began their iconic partnership in 1950. The pair designed architecture in the Neoliberty style, which was in reaction against the rationalist and international modern styles that had dominated the architectural practice in much of Italy. Instead, the Neoliberty movement favored a return to the historicism that was so prevalent before World War I. Gabetti and Isola created numerous influential public buildings in Italy, including the Turin Stock Exchange and The Museum of Antiquities as well as many ecclesiastical structures. Their work was considered controversial for turning against modernism, yet was also critically acclaimed, and the pair received many accolades for their buildings, including the Primo Bioclo Lab award for sustainable architecture, the International Stone Architecture Award, as well as several juried awards for best architecture in Italy. In addition to designing buildings, the pair created furniture and lighting that utilized expressive decorative detailing and flowing lines. The pair worked together until the death of Gabetti in 2000.

Auction Results Roberto Gabetti and Aimaro Isola