Gianfranco Frattini: space as a continuum, the beauty of precision

Author: Gaia De Santis
Illustration: Maurizio Faleschini

Tagged as: Stories, Inspirations

There are people who are lucky enough to have a vision in life. A theoretical vision, a philosophy, a concept: call it what you will, but ultimately it boils down to a way of seeing things. A clear viewpoint, an idea that they espouse and advocate, with the intention of doing their bit to take care of the world. To have a clear vision, to establish one, to be one of history’s milestones, at least in one area of human evolution, is a privilege. It means ploughing a furrow, leaving a mark on the world, creating something that will always be meaningful and memorable. It probably becomes a mission, even to the point of obsession, but it will undoubtedly mean succeeding in giving something to others.

Gianfranco Frattini revolutionizes interior architecture with the beauty of rigor, in which the project becomes all-encompassing and where nothing can be casual. A pupil and friend of Gio Ponti, he considers him his irreplaceable master.

This is how it worked for Gianfranco Frattini. His modernist vision of architecture and Italian design made history, giving rise to a new way of conceiving space, viewed as a continuum, a single concept, the fusion of ideas, materials and colours. Indeed, in the famous Milanese architect’s works, design is almost holistic in nature. Each element, each detail, must be drawn and developed with due consideration to all the others, from architectural construction to the furniture it will contain, to the objects placed on or in the furniture, to the light that will illuminate the rooms:everything is part of a whole, and lives within the whole. Thus, a space acquires an identity, a recognisable style, a propensity to absorb and create an atmosphere. And a space that can create an atmosphere is a place that will generate interactions, relationships and emotions. Frattini’s planning rationale is to find a way of giving shape to environments that are pleasant to live in, where we feel good, thus making our experience of living in the world every day enjoyable. Gianfranco Frattinirevolutionised interior architecture with the beauty of precision, in which the design embraces everything, and nothing is left to chance. This he does in both private and public spaces, such as the famous St. Andrews restaurant in Milan, a ritual meeting place in Milanese high society, and now the site of a Prada store, where he brings out the fascination of perspective and creates an intimate, welcoming environment, like an elegant cosmopolitan salon, with a unique and original ceiling made entirely of palisander rosewood, as his daughter, Emanuela Frattini Magnusson, says in a conversation with Marco Romanelli: “The madness of a parquet laid on the ceiling”. Madness or genius? Creativity devoted to pure beauty, defining and designing everything with both flair and elegance. As we can see in his objects, such as the historic Boalum lamp, created together with his friend Livio Castiglioni. Emanuela tells the story in Marco Romanelli’s book “Ritrovare Gianfranco Frattini” [Finding Gianfranco Frattini], published by Fam Publishing with Milan Triennale and the Triennale Design Museum: the idea arose during a holiday in Anacapri, while completing the design for the Europalace Hotel. Frattini was looking for a lighting solution for the exterior and the pool area. Frattini and Castiglioni were sitting in the garden watching the hotel staff cleaning the recently-drained pool with a long, flexible, white vacuum-cleaner hose. Watching the hose snaking over the lawn brought an idea to their minds for an equally long and flexible lighting appliance that could be laid out straight or rolled up, or even tied in a knot. Boalum became an iconic design object both in Italy and across the globe, and is still produced by Artemide to this day.

The St. Andrews restaurant in Milan, designed by Gianfranco Frattini in 1963.

Anacapri was also the birthplace of what was perhaps the first example of Italian-made contract furniture, with the interior design for one of the most elegant hotels in the Amalfi area, featuring Agnese chair, now reissued by Tacchini Italia Forniture, in green and white. For the Royal Hotel in Sorrento, Frattini designed the bar stools for Cassina. In Portofino, a place dear to Gianfranco, with memories going right back to his childhood summers, he designed and furnished numerous apartments, shops and boats, sitting in the square, sketching with his beloved thick-lead Carand’Ache pencil. After the Second World War, Italy enjoyed decades of unexpected growth and cultural and creative activity the likes of which we may never see again. This was the period in which Italian design was born, with names that made history, from Portaluppi to Ponti. Frattini was a student when the Faculty of Architecture at Milan’s Politecnico university was chaired by Piero Portaluppi, the eclectic architect of such great works as the splendid Villa Necchi in Milan, and advocate of a broad, cultural, artistic approach to architecture, and of a holistic vision of this noble discipline. Frattini embraced all these values, plus an immense regard for skilled craftsmanship. Hence his profound love for Brianza and the excellence of an artisanal tradition that interprets imagination into three dimensions. Indeed, his favourite aspect is that of manual work, studying and experimenting with solid matter. He shares this professional bond of enthusiasm and vision as well as a brotherly relationship with Pierluigi Ghianda, his contemporary and companion. A lifelong friendship, a respect and awareness of a designer’s responsibility towards the artisan, the implementer. Frattini was deeply interested in materials, and particularly in wood, which he studied and explored from all sides through the various construction techniques. He drew immense inspiration from numerous research trips, setting out to discover different artisanal traditions, from Scandinavia to Mexico, and Brazil to Japan, where, together with Ghianda, he came up with the idea for Kyoto coffee table, the fruit of his analysis of ancient Japanese joinery techniques, a masterpiece worthy of the finest cabinet maker. Cesare Cassina also became Frattini’s friend and patron, recognizing and showing confidence in his talent while he was still a student, launching his career and supporting him almost like a second father. Together they achieved some great successes, veritable milestones in the production of Italian design in the second half of the twentieth century. Brianza as a place of innovation and quality, of “know-how”, a guarantee of excellence. Speaking with Marco Romanelli, Frattini’s daughter recounts an anecdote of a time before they started sending chairs to “control centres” to be strength tested: her father would laugh as he recalled that their tests consisted of “throwing the chairs from the first floor windows down into the courtyard. If the joints held out, they passed the test”. Brianza and Milan. Frattini’s home at via Dezza 49, where he lived and where his children were born, and which still exists today, is the famous house built by Gio Ponti, where he too lived and worked in the historic studio. Emanuela Frattini Magnusson recalls the frequent lunches in the family home with the great architect, who loved her mother’s home-baked apples and illuminated the thoughts of her brother and herself, still youngsters, with visionary reflections that gave them access to new points of view, new and exciting possibilities in things. Thanks to Gio Ponti, Frattini’s unforgettable teacher, Gianfranco was able to personally meetsome of the greatest minds in modern architecture, including Frenchman Le Corbusier and Brazilian Niemeyer. Brazilian architectural modernism deeply fascinated him, and in the Tacchini Italia Forniture collections presented at the Salone del Mobile 2019 in Milan, it is interesting to see how Brazilian and Italian modernism seem almost to resume their dialogue with each other at the highest of levels, with the major reissues of Agnese and Sesann armchairs and of Gianfranco Frattini’s Giotable, alongside Martin Eisler’s chairs.

Capri, 1963 – ph. Paolo Monti

In an interview back in 1990, Frattini said: “In my stylistic code, the dimension of memory plays an important role, associated with certain expressions of the past, attention and love for materials,worked with care and precision.” Studying and investigating the past, with respect and ingenuity, transposing it into the present, re-elaborating and modernizing it to a new beauty, creating harmonious places in which every detail is in balance. This is a still-contemporary conviction and a sincere vocation for Tacchini Italia Forniture too, with an undying respect for the precious artisanal skills cultivated and handed down through the generations in the territories of Brianza.

Gianfranco Frattini
Credits: Archivio Paolo Monti
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