«We invented it ourselves; machinery capable of creating the shapes used in this design did not exist». In conversation with Elia Bonacina
I am convinced that the history of design should be rewritten backwards. Nothing against the creativity of the individual designer, but perhaps telling the ‘story of shapes’ through its producers might lead to interesting outcomes and interpretations — debunking the idea of the design genius working in complete isolation with the world of production waits at their service. If you look closely at the world of objects, designers come and go, while producers remain. Take Bonacina 1889, 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, now at the helm of his family’s legendary company. Not yet thirty years old, he confutes the myths about lazy young Italians. Between the two of us, I feel like the layabout. Elia has a clear idea of what he wants and he speaks competently, but I can’t help but think the family tradition must be a heavy weight to bear. It’s a bit like standing on the shoulders of giants. «It’s quite a bit to carry», he says, «but I enjoy it». The story of his family business is somewhat of 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 horsedrawn cart to study in Milan». Better than going by foot, I tell him. «It was a long journey from Lurago on the dirt roads — it could take a whole day». A concept hard to imagine these days. «In Milan, he met some people from Holland 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». At the mention of Indonesia, my mind begins to wander.
I see images of the East India Company, globetrotting travelers, jungle explorers, and tales by Jules Verne. Sci-fi, steampunk. «It was as if he had discovered carbon. Then the idea came to him: he could apply the expertise of Brianza’s wicker weavers to this new material. He had the mind of a businessman». Typical of the Brianzoli. «Not only production but also scouting for new markets, exporting, expanding and building new factories. Don’t forget that he was only twenty-one when he founded this company». Today we’d label it a young start-up merging expertise with new materials, creating innovative technologies. From the very beginning, he sought a sophisticated market, creating furnishings for the nobility and the new urban business community. Success was immediate. Gold medals were won at international exhibitions and fairs in Rome, Paris and London. «Meanwhile, one of his brothers, Pietro, was managing his company». Wasn’t one Bonacina enough? Elia laughs and says, «The second generation was that of Vittorio». World War II was over, and Vittorio was at the head of a solid company during an explosion of what would later come to be known as ‘Made in Italy’. 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 since become famous: Ponti, Albini, Aulenti, Zanuso and many others. The list of designers who have worked with you is long and yet, it’s as if there was only one ‘Bonacina style’. «It’s the material itself that creates this. Great designers collaborated with us because they could make shapes that would have been impossible or hugely expensive with other materials». There was basically no competition: it was either you or nothing. «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 of work. We are talking about an expert craftsman, already well 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’re right, it’s what sets us apart. We need schools for artisans or we’ll get pushed out of the market. Young artisans in Brianza used to get their training by working alongside an experienced craftsman; today this is more difficult, and increasingly more effort is required. We have an incompany school, but this is really 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 there is what I call an ‘intelligence of the hands’, which has always characterized Italian products. «We still have the younger guys working alongside our older artisans, for at least five years. We need to 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, like Margherita by Albini, for example. It still looks like it was made yesterday. «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, like 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 the work of great-grandfather Giovanni, 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 excessive 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. It’s no coincidence that we’re 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: «Americans at the top 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, just likes his predecessors, and now I understand how he’s come to manage such a sweeping 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 many 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. The personal relationship between the company, professionals and clients? «We’re 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».
Things don’t get thrown away, they fix themselves
It takes at least a year — a year and a half, maybe — to learn how to weave and just as long to learn how to curve, with six more months to care for details. Within three years, it’s possible to have a new artisan produce half the products in our books.
«Today, we are going to take a journey backwards in time». We are in the car, having just finished lunch at a restaurant in upper Brianza — Brianza, which Milan residents are less acquainted with, is capable of bringing together manufacturing, craftsmanship, industry, as well as historic villages and nature-rich ones. «I’d like to show you the future». I have always been familiar with Bonacina 1889 items. There is no architect who sooner or later doesn’t encounter, the patrimony of bulrush furniture which this company, based in the Como-area town of Lurago d’Erba, has been exporting to the rest of the world for more than a century. I had never before been to the industrial facility purchased by the family company where they produce these items. Hundreds of recently-built wicker armchairs and sofas occupy the central space; an order for a French hotel, he tells me. «These are made-to-order products, different from those you’ll find in our books». These pieces were designed specifically for the hotel? «500 unique pieces, five months of work, fully em- ploying at least fifty people».
I am unsure how this former metalworking factory will show me the future. For now I see only that it is expanding which is clearly good news and means that Made in Italy remains strong. «We are here because of what does not exist just yet». Elia Bonacina shows me a space on the left with eight fully equipped work stations. «Four expert artisans, flanked by four young apprentices who are just beginning their journey in the world of bulrush furniture». I begin to understand the glimmer in his eyes. A place in which to pass down one’s knowhow, from one generation to the next. A school, I say. «Exactly, a school. Over the years I’ve come to understand that artisan craftsmen often want to take their know-how with them to the grave. Years of experience, of knowledge, lost». Transmitting knowledge enables it. It is what I refer to as intelligence of the hands; culture is also the technique of the body, of artisan craftsmanship, and of the finished product, not only theoretical development. «Our society has been like this. I believe it derives from the fact that our culture comes from far away, from the Greeks, from the Romans, and we have passed it down from generation to generation. There is something inside me which tells me that what I do must live on for two, three hundred years after. Otherwise what would I have left behind? Often workers — perhaps those who did not attend university — believe they have nothing to offer. They tend to close themselves off, as though what they know is unimportant».
Ultimately, it has always been this way: the medieval farmer would teach his son how to till the land, how to read signs in the sky, how to manipulate matter. When it comes to material culture, if just one, two generations are skipped, then everything can forever be lost. From several of my trips to Africa, I remember the areas struck by internal wars which had caused a generation to be skipped. The knowledge of millennia was lost and needed to be rebuilt. Here you are reformulating an inadequate concept of school: that of the teacher at the head of the class and the students at their desks. Here knowledge is passed down directly. «There will be space for face-to-face lessons. Young craftsmen will have the means for learning, designing, and writing available to them. As well as a digital system. Then, once trained, we’ll be able to transfer them to our various spaces and laboratories in Brianza». How long is each learning cycle expected to last? «At least three years. It takes between a year and a year and a half to learn to weave, just as long to curve, and the remaining six months to learn the details. After three years a new craftsman is able to make half the products in the books. A few more and they’ve learned the hundred percent. What’s the difference? It means that if I give you a piece that you’ve never made before, you’ll be able to recreate it without difficulty». Elia’s enthusiasm is contagious. Wandering about the structure, he shows me a curved seat made using a baked varnish iron framework and PVC straw. It’s a sort of new frontier, he explains. «To make it, we patented the manufacturing system along with several other local companies. We’ve modified machinery that were once used for other purposes in order to curve the plastic and give it shape. Now, we are able to create this series of concave and convex elements, which, once incorporated with another, can be assembled according to the chosen design». I ask him why he wanted to show them to me. «We’ve come up with the way to build what the design required. We didn’t have the technology that could do it first. We invented it ourselves; machinery capable of creating the shapes used in this design did not exist».
We climb a metal staircase. Before us are women working with sewing machines who Elia greets one by one. We are in the textile department, at the cutting and the pairing. «The fabrics in our collection are all made in Italy, preferably by companies in the area. But we also have fabrics from Africa and from all over the world, that are requested by clients». Meanwhile, I observe the manufacturing process like a curious child: fabric lay, pattern, cut, hemming, coupling. «The average lifespan of one of our products is about forty years. We are always available for maintenance where needed». If I have a Bonacina piece at my aunt’s house, and it needs to be refreshed? «Bring it to us. If it is well-maintained it can last another hundred years. We can replace any detail in any specific piece. There are times where hotels send us products that need to be fixed up. We have pieces that have been in use for more than one hundred years. At least a hundred pieces or so return to us every year for repair». An anti-consumerist ideology; things are not thrown away, but rather fixed in an environment-friendly manufacturing system wherein a product actually makes it to its maximum lifespan. «Many hoteliers look to spend less — then in five, ten years they would have to replace everything anyway. Our products cost three times more than ‘normal’ products but have a much longer lifespan. Hoteliers who have under- stood that always return to thank us. The Musée d’Orsay’s armchair was designed specifically by Gae Aulenti. Those armchairs were at the museum for decades and were later auctioned off. Hoteliers purchased them and had them in their space for years. This past year, they returned to us to have them refurbished for a hotel in Avignon. Those armchairs have traveled around the half of France from museums to hotels. Once we’ve fixed them up they’ll easily last for another thirty years». You’ll still be here in thirty years, I tell him. Elia is young. It’s not hard to imagine him still doing this in three decades — examining the quality and durability of a product; perhaps one of those five hundred chairs currently waiting to be sent to France.
We are back in the car and I am still thinking about what I’ve just seen. There’s also the patina of time to consider, I tell him. He nods. «Aging agrees with natural materials. The more light and oxygen react with the material, the more the bulrush acquires interesting shades». Time accentuates the product rather than deteriorating it. He parks in front of the showroom designed at the end of the 1950s by Lorenzo Forges Davanzati in our second stop. The pieces that I see on display are in design museums around the world — designers and architects ranging from Albini to Helg to Ponti. «This space has remained untouched since it was built, but we are just getting started on transforming it. We’d like to create a museum where we exhibit the company’s over 300 years of history. We’ll display all of the works in the archives and the prototypes of the great masters — maybe even those that were never manufactured — and all of the processes that go into the creation of the finished product. We’ve asked Charlie Studio to oversee this». This family has never been short on courage, I think, observing the modernist structure. «The Valassina was still unpaved when this extremely modernist building was first being constructed». A museum intended could be a self-celebration. «Often, people purchase things without knowing what they’re bringing home. Before seeing and selling the product, I would like for those who come here to get to know the history of this region and of this company. The origins of the materials we use are not obvious. It’s a sort of learning stage which allows the product to be better understood and better appreciated when someone wants to purchase it». Elia speaks while I lose myself in the showroom, admiring pieces by Zanuso, Ponti, the Palla and the Eureka hanging chair by Giovanni Travasa. As always, I’m left speechless by Franca Helg’s Primavera.
The lower floor will be dedicated to the objects by famous designers — those that I’m currently admiring — while the upper floor will house the decorative collection, the one which his father and Renzo Mongiardino desired, with products that still occupy the homes of the Rothschild, Agnelli, Dolce and Gabbana, Falk, Thyssen, and Valentino families. Pieces featuring more classical forms, borrowed from the historic books, but made current by Mongiardino. «These are unique pieces that tread the line between art and design». He shows me the Savoy. «My grandfather made it for the Savoy family. A classic court chair, but made from bulrush». Lighter, less formal. He talks to me about the chairs with woven marsh grass designed by Peter Marino for all of the Louis Vuitton showrooms. Elia is a torrent of information. Every piece on display elicits a story to be told. Like the double version of Gae Aulenti’s 1925/1. The same armchair designed for interiors (in bulrush) and exteriors (in aluminum). «These are the first prototypes». I look at them, indistinguishable. «It’s a way of entering the near future, with a metal that is entirely recyclable; the idea of producing something that has the lowest possible environmental impact. A product that, regardless, will have a lifespan of about forty years, and therefore an impact which, at the end of its use, will already be very low».
Not necessarily the most beautiful is the most iconic. «Within the company, there is healthy competition between the decorative and the contemporary collections. In the decorative collection I’m very fond of Mongiardino’s 978 and Aulenti’s 1925/1 because they have a sinuousness and elegance that imbues them with spectacular class. In the contemporary collection, obviously Albini’s Gala and Gio Ponti’s Continuum which feature volumes and shapes that are as innovative now as they were then. To be clear, these are pieces for major enthusiasts. They are prima donnas; they have no competition. We sell less of them precisely because they are such unique pieces. It’s very rare for two or three Galas to be purchased for a home». It’s true, these are sculptures — thrones — that need to stand out and distinguish themselves in a space. We leave, with one more stop to make. Before getting in the car, Elia looks back at the showroom. «We’re really going to dress it up: heat pump, solar panels, air conditioning, all environmentally-sustainable». I ask him where he’s taking me next. «To where it all began. To the historic headquarters». We arrive at Via Madonnina 12, in Lurago d’Erba. «The classic home workshop where my great grandfather, in 1889, at nineteen, established the company». Back to the source of it all. Where thoughts and dreams transformed into a company.
He indicates the main body of the factory. «They lived on the upper floor and worked on the lower floor. Twenty men and women». We move to a courtyard, a kind of small, rural hamlet. Everything is domestic, familial. A large, docile dog follows us around quietly. «Over the years, they built the other blocks. We were the first to have a carriage, and the straw, to be able to deliver furniture». We enter a workspace. Craftsmen are heat-shaping bulrush reeds. It looks like they’re putting on a show just for me. It’s a three-dimensional model. «This is a piece that was part of the historic collection that we’ve recovered from our archives». I always think of archives as being full of paper, but for you, they are full of objects. The archives house things before they house designs or documents. «In Merone, we have a 2000 square meter warehouse filled with pieces like this. It’s an armchair by Paolo Tilche which we are going to start producing again in a co-branding agreement with De Padova». After having seen the future and the present, this would be the past, I think. There is no future without roots. He introduces me to his parents who are very active in the family company. The four of us sit down for tea at their house — or rather — home workshop. We talk about design, university, anecdotes about the great designers of the past whom Elia’s father, Mario, spent time with, culture, books, with Antonia, the perfect lady of the house and, perhaps, the true lifeblood of Bonacina. To truly understand them, one must come here, to the living room of their home, and sip tea with a glimpse of the mountains outside the window; to understand how passion and enterprise can be a single entity. A family.
Since its foundation in 1889, Bonacina 1889 is an independent, family-owned Design Brand that, over the years, defined a unique and timeless style, made of sensitivity to Creativity and Arts, attention to product and detail and use of natural raw materials. Throughout the years, the company has collaborated with Italian Design ‘Maestri’, such as Franco Albini, Franca Helg, Marco Zanuso, Joe Colombo and Gio Ponti, and Internationally recognized Decorators like Renzo Mongiardino in dreamy and cutting-edge projects. Bonacina 1889 philosophy is made of Quality, sustainability and craftsmanship: each piece is handcrafted using Rattan, a material embodying strength and vitality simply using the basic elements water and fire.