I am convinced that the history of design should be rewritten backwards. No offence to the creativity of the individual designer, but perhaps telling the ‘story of shapes’ via its producers might lead to interesting outcomes and interpretations, if only to debunk the idea of geniuses who think up objects quite autonomously with the world of production merely at their service. If you look closely at the world of objects, designers come and go, while producers remain. Take Bonacina1889, for example. The very name of the company tells us that this business has been around for more than a century. 130 years to be exact, appearing long before ‘made in Italy’ became an international brand name, in itself perhaps due to a production sector that, decades earlier, had brought about the context, the milieu, it needed for its ascent to success.
I talk about this with Elia Bonacina, a member of the fourth generation, and today head of the company. Not yet thirty years old, he confutes all those myths about lazy young Italians. Of the two of us, I feel like the layabout. Elia has a clear idea of what he wants, he speaks competently, and yet I cannot help but think that his family tradition is a weight. Feeling like gnomes on the shoulders of giants. “It does carry a weight,” he says, “but it’s a pleasant one.” The story of this family business becomes an epic narration. “My great-grandfather Giovanni was born into a big family—he had ten siblings. At that time, everyone in Brianza farmed the land. He went by horse-drawn cart to study in Milan.” Which was however better than going on foot, I say. “With the unmade roads at that time it was a long journey from Lurago, it could take a whole day.” Hard to imagine today. “In Milan, he met these Dutch people who were importing a new material from Indonesia called rattan. Not bamboo, or even wicker. It was palm, a solid wood that grew up to twenty meters in length, that could be curved and shaped.” I am already travelling in my mind at the mention of Indonesia. I see images of the India Company, globetrotting travelers, jungle explorers, tales by Jules Verne. Sci-fi, steampunk. “It was as if he had discovered carbon. He had this idea: he could apply the knowhow of the Brianza country wicker weavers to this new material. He had a businessman’s mind.” Which was typical of Brianza-born people. “Not only production but also scouting for new markets, exporting, expanding and building new factories. Don’t forget that he was only 21 when he founded this company .” Today we would call it a young start-up merging knowhow with new materials, creating innovative technologies. He immediately sought a high-level target, furnishings for the nobility and the new urban business community. Success was immediate. He received gold medals at international exhibitions and fairs in Rome, Paris and London. “Meanwhile another brother, Pietro, was managing his company.” Wasn’t one Bonacina enough?
Elia laughs and says, “The second generation was that of Vittorio.” It was the period after World War Two, Vittorio was at the head of a solid company and what was later to be known as ‘made in Italy’ was just starting to explode. In his own way he was one of its creators. “Vittorio brought in young Italian designers from that period, some already famous, some just starting out, stimulating them to design with rattan, bark and wicker.” Their names have become famous: Ponti, Albini, Aulenti, Zanuso and many others. The list of designers who have worked with you is a long one and yet it is as if there is only one Bonacina style. “It is the material itself that creates this. The great names collaborated with us because they could make shapes that would have been impossible or hugely expensive with other materials.” There was basically no competition: either with you or with nobody else. “Our distinguishing feature has always been that unique mix of industrial production and art. Because each of our articles is a unique piece, followed by a craftsman from start to finish.” How long does it take to make one of your armchairs? A Gala by Albini, let’s say. “At least five days’ work. We are talking about an expert craftsman, already trained.” Who trains them? I think we have enough schools for designers, too many even, but don’t you think we are lacking schools for artisans? “You are right, they are the added value. We need schools for artisans or we will get pushed out of the market. Young lads in Brianza used to get their training by working alongside an old craftsman; today this is more difficult, and increasingly more effort is required. We have an in-company school, but this is a problem that should be solved by the whole sector.” I think we can blame it on the fact that people today believe studying means not using your hands, that manual skills are a poor man’s destiny, without realizing that what I call an ‘intelligence of hands’ exists that has always characterized Italian products. “We still have youngsters work alongside our older artisans, for at least five years. We must stop being individualists: taking production secrets to the grave is wrong.”
The products Vittorio had designed are now on display in design museums halfway around the world. Margherita by Albini, for example. It looks to have been conceived yesterday morning. “An armchair without legs, just imagine!” It has inspired other products of yours, such as Palla by Tiovanni Travasa or Primavera by Franca Helg, and also, in other materials, Up by Gaetano Pesce, produced by B&B Italia. “In my family, innovation is a consolidated way of doing things. My father Mario springs to mind, a designer who studied in Florence. He took us in a new direction entrusted to designers such as Renzo Mongiardino or Gae Aulenti. It was no longer a question of producing standard pieces to sell around the world, but unique pieces to furnish the homes of the Agnelli, Mondadori, and Rothschild families. Mongiardino was inspired by great-grandfather Giovanni’s articles, and he elaborated them to make exclusive bespoke pieces for the homes of these families. The company opened a new market. This was the birth of the ‘decor’ catalogue: decorative, classic, unfettered by too much seriousness.” The Mongiardino mood, I say. Filled with nostalgia for distant worlds, yet without being emphatic and funereal. Using a material like rattan, the risk of being too oriental, too exotic was always around the corner. “We managed to avoid this risk. Not by chance re we the only European producers. All the others import from Asia. But the difference lies in the quality and the looks. We are the Ferrari of rattan.” Exaggeration, I say, smiling. But then, thinking about it, he’s probably right. The pieces they produce are icons that innovate over time, on their own. They are classics. “It was no coincidence that the Renaissance started in Italy,” insists Elia. “We export 90% of our products all over the world and our biggest market is the USA.” There are plenty of rattan manufacturers in America. Elia smiles: “Top Americans drive Italian, eat Italian, dress Italian and sit Italian. 30% of our turnover is custom: big captains of industry, cultured and refined, but also the new tech industrialists or artists in Hollywood. Just think , we supplied the furnishings in the White House for Obama’s first mandate.”
Elia knows how to take risks, as his predecessors did, and now I understand how come he is managing this legacy at the age of 27. “I set out on an arduous mission, buying up our cousins’ company.” The one founded by Pietro, Giovanni’s brother. “They were the first to produce for the outdoor sector, using stainless steel and woven synthetics. They had no heirs and I convinced them to merge the two businesses to create Bonacina 1889. Now the collections are all under the same roof, covering a 360-degree range. What I would like is a company museum.” What is the secret of this district? “We are the Silicon Valley of furniture and design. Here we grow up with the concept of business; it is as sacred as going to church for us. In the company you understand just how powerful ideas are, how you go from a prototype to production, distribution and marketing. We are transformers. As children we play in the company. When you grow up, continuing the work done by your ancestors seems like the only right thing to do with your life. It’s true, we are hardworking, we are not clock watchers. But we are driven by passion.” In fact you are like very few others in the world. Cassina comes to mind, as does B&B and lots of other manufacturers.
“Work is also emancipation.” In what sense? “Since 1889 our wives have worked in the company, too. Men and women have always worked side by side, in a fusion of vision and sensibility. Sometimes capable of being more business-minded than their husbands, as in the case of Carla, Vittorio’s wife, or my mother Antonia, who developed our foreign markets and the ‘decor’ collection.” Is this perhaps the real secret of ‘made in Italy’? I ask him. The personal relationship between the company, professionals and clients? “We are a family,” agrees Elia, “we are seeing the arrival of the third generation of employees, an integral part of the whole. We find time for a walk or a meal together. We respect our collaborators because Bonacina means all of us. My role model is still Adriano Olivetti. That should be the correct way of doing business.”