Roberta Meloni reminds us why the Radical Design movement was so awesome

Children of the Revolution

By Wava Carpenter

In today’s bizarre political climate, it’s heartening to speak with a woman who holds fast to her ideals. Since her time studying architecture at the University of Florence in the 1980s, Roberta Meloni has remained a champion of the most uplifting principles of Radical Design—like the primacy of collaboration, creativity, and freedom of expression. As the CEO of Centro Studi Poltronova, she has also headed efforts to preserve the artifacts of 1960s-era design counterculture while continuing to produce its iconic objects, including Archizoom’s Superonda Sofa (1967), Ettore Sottsass’s Ultrafragola (1970), and De Pas D’Urbino & Lomazzi’s Joe Chair (1970), to name a few. Her story is one of fighting for what you believe in.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, many Italian furniture companies embraced the anti-design zeitgeist, but none quite so wholeheartedly as Poltronova. This was thanks to both its art-loving founder and the luck of location. Sergio Cammilli founded Poltronova just north of Florence in 1957. The following year, he turned over its artistic direction to the visionary, young Sottsass, who at the time was designing ceramics for Tuscany-based Bitossi.

In the early years, Poltronova produced stylish furnishings in a modernist, somewhat Scandinavian idiom, but both Cammilli and Sottsass wanted to do something more daring. Their proximity to Florence meant they had front row seats to the theatrical happenings organized by the city’s iconoclastic architecture students.  Deeply inspired by Superstudio and Archizoom’s now-legendary Superarchitettura exhibition, presented at Galleria Jolly 2 in Pistoia in 1966, Cammilli and Sottsass enlisted the young rebels to produce collections for Poltronova. They also asked Archizoom to design the company’s new factory and to program events at the headquarters, which included a poetry reading and meditation workshop led by poet Allen Ginsberg. And so, the course of design history was forever changed.

“During the first 20 years that Cammilli directed Poltronova, the company had a clear and sharp identity, combining progressive design with new technologies and high quality handcraft,” explains Meloni. But after he and Sottsass left in the 1970s, new management teams invested in more industrial and commercial directions, hoping to turn greater profits. By 1985, Poltronova was unrecognizable and struggled to find an audience—until Meloni took action to save it.

WC: Tell us about the path that led you to Poltronova.

RM: In 1985, I was attending the Faculty of Architecture in Florence. Thanks to the lessons of Professor Gianni Pettena [one of the Radical movement’s renowned protagonists] and Andrea Branzi’s famous book La Casa Calda, I fell in love with Poltronova. I wrote my thesis on the company and worked with the archives for some time. By the mid-1990s, I had managed to become a stakeholder and took up a battle against the CEO, determined to resurrect and preserve Poltronova’s legacy. I also started working side-by-side with the artisans in the factory, learning all I could about the products, materials, and technical processes.

In 2000, with the help of Ettore Sottsass, I become the owner. I started to organize the archive with the aim to re-edit products that were no longer in production and to produce ones that had never gotten past the design phase. In 2005, I founded Centro Studi Poltronova to make my multifaceted business model official.

WC: What was your vision for Centro Studi Poltronova when you started it?

RM: When I took over management of the company, there was no communications department. I believed that the best way to tell the world that Poltronova still existed would be through a major research project into the company’s extraordinary archives, which had been left dormant for over two decades. It was important not only to create an accurate company profile and historic record, but also to document all of the creative contributions, both the projects and the ideals. Working in collaboration with Francesca Balena Arista, a historian at the Politecnico di Milano, this research gave way to the establishment of Centro Studi Poltronova.

Centro Studi today serves different purposes. On one side, it serves as a research center for students and historians; on another side, it serves the public by producing exhibits and publications. And finally it also serves the private sector by producing iconic objects from its catalogue on a made-to-order basis.

WC: What do you think sets Poltronova apart and makes it so worthy of preservation?

RM: There’s never been anything like Poltronova! While other design companies presented a well-defined, refined concept of home living, Poltronova supported an environment free of confines, where objects were created with distinctive, often contradictory, stories. Poltronova’s founder drew from his artistic background and chose to ignore the laws of marketing in order to give a visionary and experimental shape to a body of design that’s now collected by museums around the world and extolled in history books.

Under Ettore Sottsass’s art direction, Poltronova’s headquarters become the place for avant-garde experimentation—where the biggest talents of those years were supported, sharing in the demolition of the bourgeois habitat in pursuit of a new way of living, full of color and nonconformist thinking. Andrea Branzi described Poltronova as a “Radical Factory” that assembled “a catalogue of Italian design” through its collaborations with architects like Gae Aulenti, Archizoom, Superstudio, De Pas D’Urbino & Lomazzi, Paolo Portoghesi, Angelo Mangiarotti, Massimo Vignelli, and Giovanni Michelucci , as well as artists such as Gianni Ruffi, Ugo Nespolo, Gino Marotta, Mario Ceroli, and more.

From a merchandising perspective, this wasn’t the most effective catalogue. A complete “Poltronova home” was highly unlikely. However, it did allow for the production of unforgettable objects that would otherwise never have been seen.

WC: Why do you think there is an audience for Poltronova designs today, so many decades after they were first conceived?

RM: What is Poltronova if not a collection of extremely visionary objects, ahead of their time, aggressively anti-conformist, and sensually charged. They are born out of the need to be creative, as opposed to the need to build something practical. Each object occupies its own space in time and tells it own story in that space. 
The Superonda Sofa, I Mobili Grigi, or the Safari Sofa, among many more, were not accepted at the time of their creation and for many years very few were produced.

Ettore Sottsass used to say, “The furniture I designed for Poltronova was not meant for the small bourgeois family, all happy and content, but for those who live conscious of the existential disaster.” Today, in a world in which the need to carve a personal space has become more urgent than ever, the meaning and intent of these pieces is finally appreciated. The freedom to exist uninhibited is finally a widespread and timeless concept.

WC: What are some of your proudest accomplishments with Centro Studi Poltronova?

RM: More than 10 years since this project began, the name “Poltronova” has reentered the scene stronger than ever. It took a lot of hard work, determination, and passion! We developed many important projects, such as the revival exhibitions of Superbox by Sottsass and Superarchitettura by Archizoom and Superstudio. Thanks to the archives and the close collaboration with Archizoom and Superstudio, we have added “timeless” (as I like to call them) and iconic objects in our catalogue. 

Last year with Fortino Editions, we published Poltronova Backstage, the first book on the company released in 40 years. The book illustrates how Archizoom, Sottsass, and Superstudio used photography to tell the story of their objects produced by Poltronova. Also in 2016, during Milano Design Week, we presented a few new editions by Superstudio—the Sofo Seating System and other objects in Plexiglas—along with a jewelry kit originally designed by Superstudio’s Cristiano Toraldo di Francia from 1965. All of the editions were exhibited at the recent Superstudio ’50 exhibition at the MAXXI Museum in Rome.

WC: How do you think the design world today compares with the one that existed during the years of the Radical Design movement?

RM: Honestly, I don't think I can draw a comparison between the two periods. The world of design in the last few decades has shifted its focus from designing for a purpose to designing for a market; therefore, producing objects void of feeling and meaning, to ostensibly make them palatable to the masses. This is not to dismiss the quality of all contemporary objects, but many beautiful examples of high-end production are still very much devoid of individuality.

There were no design schools in the ’60s, so designers then had a culture that was richly contaminated by diversification and complexity. In those years, design also became an instrument of communication, giving a voice to those who contested the system with their desire to express their creativity freely. The restlessness of the times owed much to the stressful responsibilities of postwar reconstruction. Today, the cause of our unrest is due to economic frailty and social and political upheaval. Because of these circumstances, the Radical movement is now more than ever being recognized for its ability to deconstruct and reconstruct, tear apart, and rebuild!

Events occurring in the last 10 years have shaped, or rather, shaken our economic and social security. The uncertainty of our fate today is in stark contrast with the confidence that just until a few years ago was perhaps taken for granted. It’s a confusing world with which we have to come to terms; the need to find or rediscover ideologies and values is stronger then ever. Radical design aimed at a better world and, for many, is more inspiring than ever.

WC: What is Centro Studi Poltronova working on next?

RM: I intend to continue sharing and shining light on the historic contributions of Poltronova. Centro Studi Poltronova will continue producing objects assembled from the archives. It will continue to represent a free-spirited mentality through the production of objects that are as innovative and provocative today as they were at the time of their conception decades ago. Future projects may or may not all arise. But regardless, we will remain faithful to the company’s pledge to uphold freedom of expression above all else.

  • Text by

    • Wava Carpenter

      Wava Carpenter

      After studying Design History, Wava has worn many hats in support of design culture: teaching design studies, curating exhibitions, overseeing commissions, organizing talks, writing articles—all of which informs her work now as Pamono’s Editor-in-Chief.