A FORGOTTEN MASTER

Mauro Pasquinelli, a forgotten master of Italian design, on how he became one of the most prolific 20th-century chair designers and the background behind the Mauro Chair.

Mauro Pasquinelli created his first seat aged just 10. He is now 87 and still working in Scandicci, outside Florence. Over the course of his career, he designed more than 50 chairs and worked for some of the most important companies in the Italian design industry. The Mauro Chair is a versatile and practical timber dining chair designed to last a lifetime. The prototype was created in the 1970s but was too challenging to produce at scale due to the technical requirements of its shape. Its accidental rediscovery by Established & Sons’ design director Sebastian Wrong during a factory tour has led to not only the realisation of the chair, thanks to CNC technology, but also the international recognition of a designer who should be celebrated alongside other 20th century giants. Inviting us into his home, Pasquinelli shares his surprising history, offers timeless advice for young designers and explains why the chair is the most difficult piece of furniture to design.

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EST: When did your fascination with designing and making things out of wood begin?
PASQUINELLI: My father was a carpenter in Florence. He was a brilliant artisan who worked for some of the best architects in Italy such as Carlo Scarpa. I spent a lot of my time in his workshop during the summer holidays and during the war because the bombing made it hard to go to school. I learnt all about varnishes and different types of wood. One day a friend of my father’s, an art teacher, asked me if I liked drawing. I said ‘yes, it’s the only subject I really like’. He said I should go to the Art Institute in Florence. I did, for eight years, and got my diploma in 1951.

EST: What was your first piece of furniture?
PASQUINELLI: A bench I made at the Atelier degli Artigianelli, a craft workshop in Florence that my father sent me to when I was around 10. We learnt what it was like to work with wood and how to make dovetail joints. At art school, I also made five or six chairs. Once I made a table that could be folded down into the size of a suitcase.

EST: When you finished school you got a permanent job in a company that built waste disposal plants?
PASQUINELLI: I didn’t want to go and work for my dad as his workshop was small and we had very different ideas. So I got a full-time job, which allowed me to make a living and do what I really loved in my spare time. Initially, I was operations manager for the company but then I became the in-house architect when they realised I could draw. I designed the buildings and the industrial ovens and I even designed a claw grab once. It turned out really well!

EST: And your colleagues never knew about your other life as a designer?
PASQUINELLI: No I never told them because I was scared that they would talk and that I would be fired. By then I had bought a plot of land and was having a house built, I had financial commitments. When I retired I gave two managers who had always got on my nerves an envelope with clippings of the publications my work had been shown in. There were over 300, including Domus and Abitare. They were so surprised their jaws fell to the floor!

EST: In a strange way you really were a designer for the sheer love of it.
PASQUINELLI: Absolutely! After my wife went to bed in the evening I would go up into my study and draw until one in the morning. During my holidays I would travel to show producers my models. I would go see the late film at the Gambrinus cinema in Florence and then take the overnight train at 1am to Udine. I would always bring a prototype, never drawings. I wanted to show the product in its completed form. I never got tired because designing furniture was a passion for me.

EST: Your economic security meant you had the freedom to say no.
PASQUINELLI: Exactly. I walked away from a meeting with Cassina once. Snaidero also asked me to do an office chair and I told them: ‘I don’t like office chairs and I don’t have any experience of making them.’ People have asked me to design lights too, but I don’t know how to design a light and I don’t actually want to.

EST: When did you start getting some recognition?
PASQUINELLI: It was my wife who encouraged me to enter some competitions. The first I took part in was organised by the Trieste Furniture Fair in 1961, it was one of the most important prizes of its kind in Italy and I won a prize for a chair I designed as a homage to Gio Ponti’s Superleggera. I won two more prizes at Trieste in 1962 and 1963. The second I won while I was on honeymoon!

EST: You worked for various companies and producers such as Calligaris and Snaidero (and brands like Thonet and Herman Miller put some of your chairs in their catalogues) but the person who most understood and championed your work was Giuseppe Pallavisini, who owned a company in the chair-making triangle of Friuli Venezia Giulia in northeastern Italy. How did your relationship with him begin?
PASQUINELLI: It was 1967 and I went to the Salone del Mobile in Milan because I wanted to buy four chairs by the designer Alfredo Simonit for my house, a chair that was being produced by Pallavisini. So I went to their stand in the fair and they laughed and said: ‘We sell in batches of 500 not four’. That’s when Pallavisini arrived on the scene. He was a good person and immediately offered to send me the chairs and asked for my name. When I told him he said: ‘But you’re that designer who won the Trieste prize.’ It had happened a few years before but he still remembered. Next thing I knew he was coming to visit me in a white Porsche at my home in Scandicci and we started working together.

EST: What was your first chair for him?
PASQUINELLI: The Hoppis. It was a very simple chair, but a bit uncomfortable because at the time I didn’t have much experience. Soon after I made a chair called the Eva with Pallavisini and he had to outsource production because he only had 20 employees. At one point 10,000 Eva units were being sold a month. That chair was widely copied in Italy and abroad. So was the Cactus clothes stand I designed. You can see it in a scene of Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino.

EST: You tried to work for other producers too, but not always successfully.
PASQUINELLI: I think Pallavisini was always worried that I would leave him for someone else and I did try to, many times. He was very clever when it came to choosing collaborators but quite destructive in other areas of his life and I was worried about the company’s stability. I always ended up coming back to him though. He was a natural when it came to colour and finishes. He intuitively knew what good design was.

EST: You worked in the Manzano chair district of north-eastern Italy during its heyday. What was that like?
PASQUINELLI: In the 70s there was a factory every few metres. Someone would start to work in one factory and after five or six years they would branch out and open their own. The people there were such hard workers. They used to work six or even six-and-a-half days a week. And, my goodness, did they know how to drink!

EST: You have said a chair is the most difficult piece of furniture to design.
PASQUINELLI: It absolutely is because it has to be resilient, comfortable and come in at the right price. There are certain parameters that I respect in every chair in terms of inclination and height of the backrest or height of the legs and width of the seat that make it comfortable for almost anyone. I never sacrifice comfort. When architects come and tell me all sorts of things to justify their wacky chairs, I say: ‘the chair is an object, it isn’t a work of art.’

EST: One of your recurring concerns as a designer is simplicity and clean lines.
PASQUINELLI: Yes I always try to eliminate the superfluous, what is not necessary, and that is so difficult. Often leaving the superfluous in costs much less money.

EST: Tell me about the Mauro Chair.
PASQUINELLI: Sebastian [Wrong] and his colleague Federico came to me last summer with a chair that I had made in the 70s for a company called Malobbia in Manzano. I don’t have regular working relationships anymore, so it was a wonderful surprise. I immediately said to them: ‘I developed the ideas behind that chair and have another prototype upstairs.’ When they saw the prototype they said ‘ok let’s do this one’.

EST: How has the chair been modified from the prototype you showed them?
PASQUINELLI: We reduced and lightened the legs and made the seat cleaner. The original chair for Malobbia had small wings underneath the seat to support it. I had removed those in the later prototype but now that you have CNC routers you can get rid of things like that entirely. Those machines can do anything!

EST: This chair will be an opportunity for your work to be better known abroad.
PASQUINELLI: My chairs are known abroad, but perhaps less than here. Do you know why? Probably because I worked for people who worked for third parties, for factories, instead of for brands. But I also did three chairs for Calligaris.

EST: Maybe you’ll become a design celebrity?
PASQUINELLI: No, not at my age! But there’s always time!

EST: Do you still draw and make furniture?
PASQUINELLI: I am 87 now and have so many health problems. But as soon as I wake up in the morning I start drawing. I have a large board with a ruler and triangles and a screwdriver and a saw and I draw and make things. I buy wood and use leftover cardboard tubes that I cut up to make models and prototypes. I do everything by hand. Right now I am working on a chair that might just be the best thing I have ever done. It is composed of four elements, two legs, a seat and a backrest. It’s very comfortable. If you saw it you wouldn’t think it was possible.

EST: What advice do you have for young designers starting out today?
PASQUINELLI: If you don’t know the material you can’t design with it. You can design something new. But something new will only give you 15 minutes of fame – a good chair should last decades or even centuries.

Words by Giovanna Dunmall
Photography by Matteo Cuzzola