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Kartell's Culture of Plastics
In Taschen's glossy new tome 'The Culture of Plastics', Deyan Sudjic takes a look at the 20th century's three most important landmarks in furniture design.
At number one is Thonet's introduction of mass produced furniture. Number two is the breakthrough use of tubular steel in home furnishings, initiated by Marcel Breuer in the 1920s. And at number three is the use of plastic – with Sudjic (Director of the Design Museum) singling out Joe Columbo's 4867 Chair as the representative design of this movement. While the likes of Charles and Ray Eames were experimenting in fibreglass and other such revolutionary materials, it was actually Kartell that began using plastic in furniture design in a serious way. Kartell's impact on 20th century design can often be overlooked, so it is great to see such a figurehead advocating the importance of the Italian brand. Below we take a look at Kartell's history and their impact on modern, contemporary furniture.
The now-iconic Italian company was founded in 1949 by Giulio Castelli – a chemical engineer with a passion for new materials. The company began producing automobile accessories but soon expanded their range into home furnishings. Desperately wanting to combine ‘technical innovation with cutting-edge design’, Castelli led Kartell into what it is today – an experimental design house with a plethora of design classics in its back catalogue.
Kartell made their breakthrough in the pop culture, plastic-loving era of the 1960s. Their bright and colourful plastic kitchenware (dustpans, lemon squeezers, colanders, dish racks), from Gino Colombini really spoke to the people of the mid-20th century. The products were bright, fun, easy to clean, store and stack and marked a shift from the previous decades of austerity. With designers such as Joe Colombo, Marco Zanuso and Anna Castelli at the helm, Kartell became an international force in the furniture industry and a household name.
By the 1970s people were increasingly keen on accepting Kartell's bright, fun and experimental designs and the company grew rapidly. Their reputation was consolidated with an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) titled 'Italy: The New Domestic Landscape', which showcased a number of Kartell pieces.
The 1980s marked a shift in those at the top of the Kartell ladder. In 1988 Castelli’s son-in-law Claudio Luti took the helm and ‘re-energised’ the company. He did this by bringing in a new wave of designers such as Philippe Starck, Piero Lissoni and Ron Arad. Consequently, a flood of iconic designs soon emerged. Luti still remains at the helm today.
Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Kartell was the first company in the world that used polycarbonate to produce furniture – Philippe Starck's La Marie Chair was the pioneering piece. From then on in, they began their experiments in transparency – a type of product they are now synonymous with. Throughout this period Kartell continued to hire a plethora of world class designers whose names were already widely known, including Patricia Urquiola, and a number of classic Kartell designs were born. These include Ron Arad's Bookworm and Starck's Louis Ghost Chair.
To this day, Kartell continue to push the boundaries of contemporary furniture design. Their experiments in plastic are still in full force and they are continually producing iconic designs that are fun, functional and, more importantly, accessible to all. Throughout their 60 year history they have redefined the use of plastics – changing it from an undesirable, industrial product to a fascinating material with a modern aesthetic.
Even if plastic isn't your cup of tea, we all have a favourite Kartell piece, which, I think, speaks volumes. So, I think it’s safe to say founder Castelli's ambition to 'make products that were beautiful, innovative and above all surprising' has well and truly been achieved.