MAKING MODERN

Tradition, technology and serendipity:
the unusual history of the MAURO CHAIR

The Mauro Chair is a stackable timber chair with plenty of character and a very unusual back story. Created by Italian designer Mauro Pasquinelli in the 1970s it has been rediscovered by Established & Sons and its alluring old-school aesthetic and futurist aspirations given a sculptural 21st-century makeover.

The chair had not previously gone into production due to its challenging geometries and curves, explains Sebastian Wrong, design director for the brand: “When it was originally designed you could never have made a sophisticated chair like this at a competitive price point, simply because the technology for chair-making in volume didn’t exist in factories as it does today. Nowadays you can use CNC routing systems that cut into solid wood and make complicated and compound curves, sections, joints and alignments that could once only be done by a craftsman.”

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But the tale of the Mauro Chair is not just about a brand, a designer and the possibilities of technology. It is also about the expertise and know-how of a specific district in Italy, the chair-making triangle located in and around the tiny town of Manzano in the north-eastern province of Udine, in northern Italy. And about chance.

A year ago Wrong and his colleague Federico Gregorutti were visiting a plywood factory in Manzano when they spotted a chair that seemed special. It wasn’t being carved by a machine or in the hands of a craftsperson, “it was just one of many chairs on the factory floor that had been there forever and was used randomly be employees who needed to sit down to do something,” says Wrong. “In their eyes it was just a comfortable chair they used to carry out certain tasks, it had become invisible.” Intrigued, Wrong and his team embarked on a search for the designer of the chair. Eventually, they tracked it back to Mauro Pasquinelli, a once prolific but relatively little-known designer based in Scandicci outside Florence, and discovered that it had been produced by a Manzano-based firm called Malobbia.

Pasquinelli is 87 and in poor health now but still draws and makes things every day from a makeshift studio set up in the basement of his house. Part of a generation of Italian designers that helped shape the way furniture and chairs evolved it the 20th century, he created over 50 chairs and several pieces of furniture for various manufacturers during the course of a career spanning at least half a century. “I still design chairs every day,” he says. “It is greater than me, it’s my passion.” A self-confessed perfectionist, when Wrong and Gregorutti visited him for the first time, he immediately told them about a prototype in his attic that he considered to be an evolution and improvement on the chair they had seen.

The sculptural backrest on this later chair featured sophisticated curves, the seat was lighter, the legs were more defined and there were elegant chamfered edges on the backrest. This is the chair that was to become Established & Sons’ Mauro Chair.

When designing a chair Pasquinelli’s focus has always been on simplicity, stackability and versatility. His elegant Giulia chair has been used in auditoria, hotels, restaurants and lecture theatres for instance, and was made with and without armrests, side tables and upholstery. The 50,000 units sold also pulled manufacturing company Olivo, based in the province of Udine, out of near-bankruptcy in the 80s. The Nodo, designed in 1975, could be demounted using an innovative metal joint on each side that connected the seat, leg and backrest.

Another major priority for Pasquinelli is comfort. His chairs respect a scrupulous set of parameters for inclination, radius, height of legs and backrest that make them some of the most comfortable on the market. “I don’t make chairs to look at, I make chairs to be sat in,” he says. But despite his almost-obsessive approach leading to several international awards and huge sales for the manufacturers he worked with, Pasquinelli is not as well-known as he should be today. Catharine Rossi, a design historian and director of research in the School of Critical Studies and Creative Industries at Kingston University, says this is not unusual for a country that is home to so many skilled designers: “There are so many more Italian designers than the few that get celebrated.”

But Pasquinelli is among those that should be remembered. “Few designers have been able to combine simplicity of form, an aesthetically pleasing product and excellent ergonomics as well as Pasquinelli was able to do,” says Umberto Rovelli, Director of the Tuscan Design Museum and author of a book on Pasquinelli.

 

Pasquinelli’s design history is indelibly linked to the manufacturers of Manzano. So it is fitting that this is where the updated Mauro Chair is being produced in a contemporary factory by Established & Sons. Still considered the chair-making capital of Europe, there was a time when the companies here produced 44 million chairs a year and one in three chairs sold worldwide was made in the district. “These figures are incredible considering the relatively small area and population involved,” says Rovelli.

The area’s chair-making history began centuries ago, during the Renaissance, when it began fulfilling orders for the Republic of Venice located 120 kilometres away, thanks to the abundance of oak and beech from the forests to its north and also east (in modern-day Slovenia and beyond). Production kept going up but mass production only really took off after World War II when big distributors, many from Germany, discovered the expertise in this area and started buying in volume. “After the 1950s, the companies there, who had been making traditional chairs with woven straw seats, started working with people like Gio Ponti and other contemporary architects and making exciting new products,” explains Pasquinelli.

Manzano is a typically Italian phenomenon explains Rossi. “Italy didn’t industrialise the way the UK did. Manufacturing in Italy is characterised both historically and now by its division into different industrial and regionally specialized districts.” Furniture-making is found in a few distinct areas for instance, including Brianza to the north of Milan, Manzano in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in the northeast of Italy and, more recently, in Murgia near the southern town of Bari.

The way the Manzano area operated – and still does to a great extent – was deeply collaborative. A number of small- and medium businesses and workshops, which are often family-owned, each carry out a specific part of the chair-making process so that several companies are involved in the making of one chair.

“It’s that classic niche Italian manufacturing scenario where one person dries the wood, another cuts it, another bends it, somebody else puts it together, then somebody finishes it and someone else puts it in a box, and they all live within a three-kilometre radius of each other,” says Wrong. “It’s a sort of micro industry, which is very effective and special.”

In 2018, Manzano and the chair district are not the powerhouse they once were. With competition from China and other countries where labour costs are lower, and with younger people leaving craft professions, orders are smaller, factories have closed or been consolidated, some have even outsourced some of their production to neighbouring countries. The area has nevertheless remained a hub for chair-making innovation and craftsmanship. “There have been notable efforts in Italy in recent years to talk about the value of craftsmanship and promote craft as something not focused just on the past and tradition but as an engine of innovation,” says Rossi.

These sorts of clusters of expertise are still vital for other reasons too. Being able to spend time with the people making the product and who have so much knowledge is something that is becoming increasingly rare and that designers crave, says Wrong. “The sort of support that exists there is increasingly difficult to come across in manufacturing. Often now you are sitting in a meeting room and you never get to meet the people who are actually making your product, who are the ones you really need to have a close relationship with to get the best results.”

Established & Sons launched in 2005 with, among other things, the aim of supporting both established names and new talent. With the Mauro Chair, this concept has been merged into one. Pasquinelli is an established Italian design master, a “career chair designer”, who hasn’t launched a chair for over a decade. His Mauro Chair has a distinctive history and provenance but has also been transformed into something brand new and unexpected. “For us to revisit something from the past and put it into production for the first time is very much in keeping with the philosophy and design DNA of the brand,” says Wrong.

The Mauro Chair marks a departure from previous launches by the company as it is less avant-garde and more commercial, but it is still quirky and eccentric enough to fit into the brand’s ethos of championing experimental design. “We’re not worried about taking risks,” says Wrong. “We are putting this chair into our collection because we like it, because it is a special and serious piece of design, and because it is a design you won’t forget.”

With the Mauro Chair, the crafted quality and futurist ambitions of Pasquinelli’s original handmade prototype have been retained yet taken to another level with the help of CNC technology. The result is a sculptural yet functional chair that has the potential to become a design classic.