Franco Albini

Franco Albini

Franco Albini (1905-1977) architect, furniture and industrial designer, writer

Franco Albini was born in Robbiate, near Milan. He studied architecture and engineering under Gio Ponti at the Politecnico di Milano, graduating in 1929. Impressed with Albini’s talent, Ponti hired him to work at the firm he started with Emilio Lancia. During this time Albini became acquainted with fine cabinet makers and craftsmen, and simultaneously immersed himself in Modernism. He was inspired by visits to Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition, and Le Corbusier’s studio in Paris. Albini was also highly influenced by the Rationalist Movement through his association with Edoardo Persico, Raffaello Giolli and Giuseppe Pagano Pogatschnig, who were at the center of Casabella Magazine. Along with his contemporaries, Giancarlo Palanti and Renato Camus, Albini was interested in developing an architecture that took industrial production, as well as social issues into account. He rejected traditionalism and wanted to create buildings wherein function and spatial efficiency were primary concerns.

By 1931 Albini had set up his own practice in Milan, collaborating with noted architect Franca Helg, especially on designing housing for workers. At the 1936 Milan Triennale, where Ponti was presenting furnishings for the luxurious home, Albini and his peers presented their vision of industrialized housing accessible to all. Albini had also started designing modern furniture that merged fine Italian artisanship with modernist forms. He used raw, inexpensive materials, and employed skilled Italian craftsmen in the service of his elegant, minimalist aesthetic. Albini expressed his Rationalist ideas via uniquely modern design solutions. For example, his 1938 Albini Desk for Knoll combined steel, glass and wood in a striking minimalist design with a seemingly floating two-drawer pedestal. The now iconic design is still in production. Another significant early work was his 1939 glass-encased radio with visible internal workings. In 1940, he designed a staircase hung by thin tie-rods so that it seemed suspended in space.

During World War II, Albini was sympathetic to the resistance, even hiding activist Pagano in his house. (Both Pagano and Giolli were to die in concentration camps.) He didn’t stop working, and designed the Zanini Fur Shop in Milan in 1945. After the War he worked as writer and editor for Casabella. He also formed new alliances with Giancarlo De Carli and Giuseppe Samonà, becoming interested in the vernacular of rural architecture. For the 1951 Triennale, Albini, together with Samonà and De Carli, presented modern architectural designs in concrete that fit harmoniously into natural environments. He also worked on post-war reconstruction projects with Franca Helg, and on urban planning with Reggio Emilia, notably in Genoa. There the Palazzo Bianco Museum (1951) figures among his most important projects, along with the Treasury Museum, the Palazzo Rosso, and Tesoro di San Lorenzo Museums. In his museum designs, Albini used space to create an atmosphere optimally enhancing to the viewer experience.

Albini also collaborated with firms to create furniture, glass, and lighting, designing functional furniture in new materials, such as tubular steel, as well as utilizing traditional techniques, such as basket weaving. While he worked mostly with Italian manufacturers - Arteluce, Artemide, Artflex, and Poggi - Albini achieved international appeal, and Knoll produced his designs in the United States. In the 1940s he collaborated with Cassina, designing chairs and cultivating his signature style. In 1950 he designed the famous "Margherita" and "Gala" chairs, shaping woven cane in appealing sculptural shapes. In 1952 he created the Fiorenza, with its distinctive architectural frame and upholstered form. These were followed by the "Luisa" chair for Poggi (1955), which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Rocking Chaise (1956), a graceful minimalist design he iterated in various materials, and which has also become a museum piece. Albini famously said that it required an entire life to design a chair. The Luisa chair, for example, first came out in 1949, but didn’t reached its final definitive form until 1955. Albini also created many innovative bookcases, wall units and dividers that strikingly integrated minimalist form with function, among them, the Veliero shelving, which he designed for his Milan home in 1940, has an airy, ship-like form that is distinctively poetic. These designs, many of them freestanding, tension-mounted or suspended, transformed ideas of home and office space in their day, and remain timeless modern classic.

Albini began teaching in the 1950s, notably at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice under the direction of Giuseppe Samonà. During his academic career he continued developing design solutions that were at once unusual and respectful of tradition, combining construction skills of the past, vernacular architecture, and an understanding of spatial geometry. In the 1960s Albini left a strong imprint on Milan via the Milan subway system, which he worked on in collaboration with graphic designer Bob Noorda. Also noteworthy in Milan is the SNAM building for its arresting use of space and volume. In Rome his design of La Rinascente department store (1961) is also highly regarded. In 1964 Albini created a television set for Brionvega, displayed at the Milan Triennale, and also various lamps for Arteluce. By the end of the 60s, he had been included in two important design exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Albini died in 1977, having received many honors in recognition of his creative contributions, including three Compasso d’Oro awards, the most prestigious Italian design prize. Certain unfinished design ventures he had begun, such as in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and the Sant’Agostino Museum in Genoa, were completed by his colleagues. Other projects, restorations and renovations of monumental buildings in Genoa and Milan, as well as exhibitions and installations, e.g., the Marino Marini Museum, Milan, were carried out by his studio, which continues functioning as the Franco Albini Foundation. Albini left behind a vast body of work, with numerous pieces in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Many works by the artist have also sold at auction, including a pair of rare wall lights sold at Phillips, New York in 2016 ($175,000). Franco Albini’s oeuvre represents a keystone of 20th-century Italian design culture. From home furnishings to architectural and industrial projects, Albini imbued all his work with precision of expression, exceptional craftsmanship, originality and integrity.

Modern Movement in Italy: Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art, NY 1954
Architecture of Museums, Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1968
Transformations in Modern Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1979 Permanent Collections
Museum of Modern Art, NY
Fondazione Franco Albini, Milan

Prizes and Honors
La Rinascente-Compasso d’Oro for the design of the Luisa chair (1955), the Bronze
Medal from the Parson School in New York (1956) for his contribution to industrial design, the Olivetti Award for Architecture (1957), the Gran Premio Nazionale La Rinascente-Compasso d’Oro (1958), the La Rinascente-Compasso d’Oro Award for the Milan Line 1 Subway project (1964), and the Royal Designer for Industry title awarded by the London Royal Society of Arts (1971).

L’Architettura I Protagonisti – Franco Albini, edited by Hachette,
Published by Fondazione Franco Albini. (one of a series of publications on Albini by the Foundation)
Caterina Marcenaro. Musei a Genova 1948-1971, Marco Spesso, Brossura Franco Albini, Federico Bucci, 2009 I musei e gli allestimenti di Franco Albini, Federico Bucci e Augusto Rossari, 2005 Taking Stock as Milan Readies Its Fair, by Alice Rawsthorn, New York Times in 2009.