Text Gianni Biondillo
An entire winter without rainfall and the day that I decide to take a train to Varedo it snows. That’s fine, I deserve it. I pay the price of the typical Milanese to whom, as soon as he leaves the city, it feels like he is travelling in the Gobi desert. The trip takes only twenty minutes on an urban line. I came here looking for a story. As an architect I was familiar with Tecno products, pieces of an Italian design known around the world. As a writer I had no idea that behind these objects was a family story worthy of being told.
It is a story that unfolds in the 20th century, representing the entrepreneurial spirit of this part of Lombardy, which transformed ‘work’ into an existential compass. Tommaso tells it to me, after having greeted me on the doorstep. It all began with Gaetano Borsani, the patriarch, when, a century ago, he opened a furniture studio in Varedo. Here he created unique pieces characterized by Mitteleuropean taste; ‘period furniture’ that, overtime, evolved into more modern, contemporary forms without sacrificing elegance. This workshop fuelled the imagination of his son, Osvaldo, who, from the time that he was a small child, began visiting artisan carpenters, decorators, and carvers. For him it was a hands-on vocational school that prepared him for attending the Brera Academy and then the Polytechnic. Osvaldo, like his father, forged ahead enthusiastically. He earned his degree in architecture in 1937, yet four years earlier, while he was still a student, he had already won an award at the 5th Triennale for his creation of a Minimal House, a clear manifestation of his adherence to the dictates of the best avant-garde design of the time.
Tommaso opens the front door to me. I shed my coat and umbrella and look around. “This wasn’t Osvaldo’s house,” he explains. This is where Fulgenzio, his identical twin, lived. The house was built in 1944. Arredamenti Borsani Varedo (ABV) was thriving and Gaetano’s two sons were collaborating with their father. Young Fulgenzio needed a house for his family, close to the workshop. Osvaldo knew not to create something radical for his brother, like his design from the Triennale, but rather a home that could be sophisticated and modern, yet also elegant and domestic. I pause to look at the details, the windows, the marble. From a decorative standpoint I sense a kind of resonance, a reference to the model of the bourgeois homes that Piero Portaluppi was developing in those same years in Milan. Meanwhile, in terms of the planimetry, the distribution of spaces and volumes, Osvaldo looked to Vienna, to the raumplan of Adolf Loos. There is no clash between these two sources of inspiration, no contradiction. Ultimately this house was not intended to be a manifesto, an experiment, an applied theory. It was intended as a home for his brother, perhaps even discussed together at the table. Because together, these twins, did quite a lot. After the war they were mature and aware enough to understand that Italy had to be rebuilt and that their father’s studio needed to transform into something more: a place in which to produce on a larger scale, moving away from traditional artisan craftsmanship and towards the industrial manufacturing of series, given that, with the impending economic boom, demand would soon be enormous.
They founded Tecno in 1953. The factory was located behind this house, the design office, and the showroom on Via Montenapoleone in Milan. As Fulgenzio once said, with ‘Brianza’-like practicality: “Osvaldo designed and I did the accounts.” Tommaso slides open a carved wooden door and takes me into the home’s living area. A fireplace inlaid with ceramics by Lucio Fontana dominates the space. It takes my breath away. “Fontana was a friend of the family,” explains Tommaso. He attended the Academy with Osvaldo and they never lost touch.
It was in Osvaldo’s nature to meet with other talented individuals of the time and collaborate with them, whether artists, photographers, designers, or architects. Style was not something confined to a specific discipline. It multiplied through its constant combination with other art forms. Over the years Osvaldo designed the apartments of many of the most affluent middle class residents of Milan, in which it was not uncommon that the ceiling or the walls were decorated by artist friends of his – Fontana, Pomodoro, Spilimbergo. I recognise several pieces of Tecno furniture, but they are not here on display, like in a museum. I touch the fabric of an armchair. It is slightly worn. How long has it been, I ask, since someone lived here? “It’s been about ten years,” replies Tommaso. “Ever since my aunt passed away.” I hear the affection in his words. Tommaso Fantoni is not just an architect showing me a beautiful home from the last century. He is the custodian of the family memories. In every corner of this house the best minds of a generation came together and the day-to-day life of the family unfolds. Like in the garden, now covered in snow. “Here,” he tells me, “as a young boy I used to ride my bicycle back and forth, imagining that I was participating in the Giro D’Italia.” This bringing together of work and family, home and workshop, work and friends was a strength of the Borsani family. From his home, Fulgenzio could look out and see the factory. Osvaldo lived on the top floor of the building on Via Montenapoleone, redesigned in the post-war period as a showcase for Tecno products, with its glass ceilings that made it possible to see the floors above as well and awed every passer-by who stopped to admire this ‘modern’ way of living and decorating.
I observe the house here, from the garden: its appearance is almost austere, cubic. The interior décor – lamps in brass or carved wood, two-toned marble floors, glass balustrades – seems to want to conceal itself from the outside. Though, on closer inspection, here too every single element cries out for attention: the large granite intradoses of the window frames, the double-glazed wood windows, the iron entry gate, the small mosaic-tiled swimming pool, the inserts of Fontana ceramics in the reinforced concrete pergola. Yet at the same time, nothing appears ostentatious; not an exhibition, but simply style.
I have visited and studied Casa Boschi-Di Stefano and Villa Necchi-Campigli. They are two ways of interpreting 20th century bourgeois living in Milan. Despite their beauty, their ‘museification’ makes them seem sacral, distant. Here, on the other hand, feels like home. The vanity mirror in the bedroom seems to have just been raised by its owner, dusty bottles of Barolo are stored in the wine cellar, in the studio one can almost still hear the echoes of discussions between Gio Ponti and the Borsani brothers. Varedo, which for years was a factory-city (I’d go so far as to call it ‘Tecno-City’), has now grown and seems to embrace this suburban villa immersed in a Lombardy metropolis. The snow appears to me like a gift from the sky. I promise to visit the Borsani home again in the spring, when the sun is shining and the trees and the garden have bloomed. Now, under this blanket of white, it is as though the house is floating, suspended in time, hibernating for the past ten years and just waiting to wake up and welcome guests. Perhaps no longer receiving the artists that revolutionised the tastes of the last century, but opening itself up to new talent that would like to visit, and to those curious to learn what it meant to feel ‘at home’, in the past, while dreaming of the future.
Read more about Villa Borsani and Osvaldo Borsani: http://www.osvaldoborsani.com/architettura/villa-varedo-1943/
Courtesy of Pietro Carrieri