Expressive Rationalism in the Designs
of Gino Levi-Montalcini

Gino Levi-Montalcini Mostra Nazionale dell Moda, Turin, Italy, 1932

The furniture designs of Gino Levi-Montalcini defy simple categorization. His architectural career began in Italy at the time when Rationalist philosophy was thriving. His Palazzo Gualino in Turin (designed with his partner Giuseppe Pagano) is credited as one of the earliest structures of the movement, heralded as a symbol of a new direction and expression of progress. Levi-Montalcini is a bridge between the pure geometry of Rationalism found in Milan or Rome and the sensual expressionism of Turin. Like his buildings, his furniture forms exhibit a sense of efficiency and functionalism but conceptually they are akin to works of art. Expressive in form, Levi-Montalcini’s designs are ground-breaking achievements of originality.

The Villa Lanfranco-Gromo, Turin, 1936–1937

In the wood and glass coffee table for the Villa Lafranco-Gromo (Lot 26), we find a form that expresses an inherent architectural structure with inventive and subtle flourishes: The plane of the lower tier curves to vertical on one end, and pairs of legs are shifted away from parallel as they run underneath. A subtle taper is witnessed as the legs and glass supports travel along the design.

This completely novel technique allowed for the creation of furniture forms with svelt profiles, dynamic angles and minimal silhouettes while maintaining the structural integrity of the designs.

While his genius is multi-faceted, it is perhaps most evident in his innovative technique for reinforced wood or Legno Armato. Patented in 1946, Levi-Montalcini’s technique incorporated thin and rigid steel what was artistically wrapped in wood, leaving a narrow reveal to the inner skeleton of metal. Montalcini’s technique incorporated thin and rigid steel what was artistically wrapped in wood, leaving a narrow reveal to the inner skeleton of metal. This completely novel technique allowed for the creation of furniture forms with svelt profiles, dynamic angles and minimal silhouettes while maintaining the structural integrity of the designs. As a result, his exclusive oeuvre of decorative art is comprised of relatively few commissions of bespoke forms that challenge preconceived expectations while remaining completely utilitarian.

There is arguably no design more dynamic and ethereal than the visually weightless console from the De Benedetti House (Lot 25). A thin ribbon of steel encased in wood ricochets from floor to wall, becomes horizontal just long enough to support an asymmetrical plane of glass. The design rests momentarily on the floor at a single point and the visual energy is held in suspended animation.

A period photo of Villa Montalcini showing one of the four custom chairs designed for the interior.

The lounge chair from Villa Montalcini (Lot 27), one of four examples uniquely created for the residence, begins with a tall backrest, deep seat and comfortable armrests, but this is where the familiar ends. Legs rendered in Levi-Montalcini’s Legno Armato splay out from below the seat, extending dramatically away from center. The feet are delicately wrapped in strips of leather that are tacked in place. Armrests reverse course from front to back and parallel lines in the backrest diverge and facet, becoming headrests.

Equal parts sculpture and furniture, the work of Levi-Montalcini is one of mystery and magic, fitting for an architect from Turin.

Gino Levi-Montalcini 1902–1974

Gino Levi-Montalcini was born in Milan, Italy in 1902. Growing up in an artistic family, Levi-Montalcini had private lessons in painting and sculpture as a child. These lessons led him to pursue architecture as his chosen discipline, and in 1925, he graduated from the Royal School of Engineering in Turin. After graduating, Gino Levi -Montalcini teamed with his faculty member Giuseppe Pagano to start a new architectural practice. The men worked together to craft buildings in the Rationalist style, which was noted for the way in which it used reason to solve the architectural problems. In addition, Levi-Montalcini designed the interiors and furniture for many of their architectural projects, crafting furniture that was both sleek and utilitarian.

In 1936, furniture designed by Levi-Montalcini in collaboration with Ettore Sottsass Sr. and Carlo Turina was featured at the Triennale in Milan. During the 1930s, Levi-Montalcini wrote about architecture for Domus and Casa Bella, a magazine he co-founded. His Jewish heritage led him to flee Milan during World War II, and he settled in Florence under a false name. After the War, Levi-Montalcini taught engineering at the University of Turin. He died in 1974 leaving a legacy of innovative architecture and design that changed the landscape of Italy.