The Cobra Chairs of Carlo Bugatti, Pioneer of 20th Century Design

The Cobra Chairs of Carlo Bugatti, Pioneer of 20th Century Design

A pair of chairs in Sotheby's upcoming sale of Important Design on 26 November in Paris showcase the handiwork of one of the 20th century's most influential designers.
A pair of chairs in Sotheby's upcoming sale of Important Design on 26 November in Paris showcase the handiwork of one of the 20th century's most influential designers.

C arlo Bugatti is, without a doubt, one of the leading pioneers of the Italian decorative arts. It has often been said that it was his designs that succeeded in transforming historicist eclecticism into Art Nouveau.

Originally from a family of Milanese artists, he attended the Brera Academy where he showed a particular interest in architecture. He acquired a practice of cabinet making from Mentasti, a renowned cabinetmaker, with whom he trained until the opening of his own workshop around 1880.

His furniture, with a style already well defined at the time, was inspired by the popular fashion for Moorish and Oriental iconography, with a complex mix of architectural elements and exotic asymmetrical decorations realised with materials of both animal and vegetable origin. Parchment, his favourite material, was painted by Bugatti and his early apprentices: his two sons - Ettore, who became the famous car designer and Rembrandt, the celebrated animal sculptor. Isolated both in the eclectic and modernist context, his designs anticipated the stylised and geometric forms of Art Deco, twenty years before the movement became known.

"When the Queen of Italy, Helen of Savoy, congratulated him on his "Moorish" style furniture, he replied: "You are wrong, Majesty, this style is mine".

The design for the Cobra chair was first exhibited in 1902, at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin. Four chairs were grouped around a small circular table in a room which reproduced a snail shell on a human scale.

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The Snail Shell room at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, in 1902.

Heated debates amongst the public and the jury ensued, though the latter eventually awarded Bugatti a Grand Prix d'Honneur for being "the first in Italy to create, and not just to dream, a modern style of furniture". Alfredo Melani, the most famous critic of the time, wrote: "The lines here have a rotational movement". Far removed from the hard-hitting, angular Arabic forms of his first period, the pieces he exhibited, for which he become celebrated, evoked a "sinuous science fiction". When the Queen of Italy, Helen of Savoy, congratulated him on his "Moorish" style furniture, he replied: "You are wrong, Majesty, this style is mine".

The Cobra chair is now considered as one of the most avant-garde pieces in Bugatti's oeuvre, where his inventive audacity combined with unparalleled modernity.

The model is recorded, as number 764, in the sales catalogue Della Fabbrica Italiana Mobili Artistici A. De Vecchi & C., formerly C. Bugatti & C. via Marcona 13 - Milan. Individual copies are not recorded, indeed after the success of the Turin exhibition the orders could have been numerous. Each chair entirely covered with parchment and decorated with Indian ink designs of stylised flowers and insects is handcrafted and this explains the variations existing in the various surviving models.

The extraordinary pair, offered here, demonstrate the complex fantasy and visionary talent of Carlo Bugatti.

20th Century Design

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