20th Century Design

Discoveries: Three Iconic Examples of Italian Design

By Mark Stephen

M ilan and Rome in the 1970’s were at the forefront of design and fashion and Gabriella Crespi was one of their brightest stars. Sotheby’s sold three of her iconic works in its Design sale on 16 October 2018.

The three pieces from the Plurimi series, purchased circa 1979 straight from the gallery have been with the same family ever since. The two tables are metamorphic with sliding elliptical tops and all characterised by a clean curved line and polished brass, giving them a futuristic space-age look.

The designer, known for her glamour and celebrity status as much as her furniture, epitomised La Dolce Vita. Her daughter Elisabetta Crespi who now runs the Archivio Gabriella Crespi, founded in response to the circulation of counterfeit works, wrote about her mother: "In 1963 we moved to Rome renting an apartment in the historical Palazzo Cenci, a magical place with frescoed walls and ceilings dating from the 15th century. She established her showroom there as well, which she decorated with a stylish, very modern eye, her objects and furniture making for a striking contrast with the sumptuous atmosphere of those divine rooms. She definitely anticipated a decorating trend which has now become commonplace. All the Roman aristocracy was in love with her, they flocked to Palazzo Cenci, intrigued by her creations as much as by her charisma and beauty."

Her client list and social circle at the time included Audrey Hepburn, Hubert de Givenchy, Gunter Sachs, Gianni Versace, Princess Marina of Savoy, Queen Paola of Belgium, and the Royal families from Persia and Qatar. Later, at the peak of her fame, Crespi moved to India to live the spiritual life in a village in the Himalays. She returned to Italy twenty years later and together with her daughter reworked some early designs, producing limited edition pieces for selected galleries. She died in 2017.

Crespi furniture was always limited in numbers and hand made by a loyal skilled work force. It was not mass produced which accounts for the rarity of the genuine pieces. The Plurimi series made Crespi’s name, described by Elisabetta as “a series of tables made of polished, shiny golden brass”. The elliptical lines were extremely pure and sleek, futuristic, but graced with her typical sensuous feel. It (the Ellisse table from the series) really looked like an otherworldly asteroid.

The vendor, who lives in Greece, writes this charming story of her purchase: "I was twenty five at the time, living in London. In a very expensive shop in London, I found a picture of a similar table like mine, but with square surfaces. I travelled to Rome with my husband and showed the picture to the driver who was expert in shopping. He took us to Gabriella' s Palazzo. When we rang the bell, a very serious looking lady opened the door who, when she saw the picture, was furious and wanted to call the police, demanding where we got the picture from. The driver Mr. Mimo, explained the situation, so she finally agreed to let us in and then I was in dreamland...all of the magnificent beautiful furniture was there. I was happily amazed. We finally ordered our beautiful three pieces I lived very happily with, all these years. I wish to their new owner’s happiness and good life".

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