Tradition, Meet Ambition. Sotheby’s Milan Sale Celebrates the City’s Vibrant Design Scene

Tradition, Meet Ambition. Sotheby’s Milan Sale Celebrates the City’s Vibrant Design Scene

Ahead of Sotheby’s Milan’s new Design auction in April, we meet Design specialist Eugenia Fassati to talk about Milanese design’s historical ability to survey the sale's highlights and reflect upon the city's history of industrialising creative energy - without sacrificing inspiration and innovation.
Ahead of Sotheby’s Milan’s new Design auction in April, we meet Design specialist Eugenia Fassati to talk about Milanese design’s historical ability to survey the sale's highlights and reflect upon the city's history of industrialising creative energy - without sacrificing inspiration and innovation.

This April, the Sotheby's 'Design' auction in Milan inaugurates a new era, with two annual auctions providing a comprehensive overview of design. In the first online Design sale, taking place between 16 - 24 April, key pieces from masters including Alessandro Mendini, Gaetano Pesce and Barovier & Toso sit alongside contemporary talents such as Alê Jordão and Karim Rashid. The selection of works in this auction reflect the city’s rich, storied design history.

E ach spring, Milan’s position as the European centre of industrial design is reaffirmed by a citywide carnival of design, from grass-roots events across district to district to the annual Salone del Mobile and Fuorisalone fairs, which attracts hundreds of thousands of design enthusiasts, aficionados, and buyers from around the world.

Milan’s profound design heritage has been founded on its reputation for artistry, but with the emphasis always on producing pieces on scale for mass manufacture. This characteristic of Milan’s status was further enhanced by an explosion of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in the mid 20th century, epitomised by designers such as Giò Ponti and Pietro Chiesa.

Salone del Mobile takes over the city, spring 2023 (Photograph by Alessandro Russotti)

Both these legendary names appear in a new sales series, Sotheby’s first design auction of the year in Milan, scheduled to coincide with Salone del Mobile. Works will be on show to the public between 16-21 April at at the Palazzo Serbelloni, Sotheby’s Milan HQ, alongside the online auction which opens at the same time, bidding ending on 23 April. These selections of exceptional design pieces showcase the influence that Italian design has had, from the famed 20th century masters, up to the present day. We also encounter key pieces from other important designers, with a connection to Milan.

Alessandro Mendini' ‘Proust’ armchair (1978) Estimate: 20,000 - 25,000 EUR

Among the highlights of the show is an early, limited edition of Alessandro Mendini's ‘Proust’ armchair (1978), before the piece went into mass production (est. €20-25,000). ‘This armchair is very important because it’s a historical piece, it is one of the first that was hand-painted by Mendini, before it went into production, so it is like an artist’s proof.’ says Eugenia Fassati, 20th Century Design, Sotheby’s Milan. Fassati points to the armchair’s commercial viability as being an integral component of the design. ‘It is an industrial design,’ she says. ‘It is intended to be produced at scale, so the cost of each piece becomes affordable’.

‘I love how, if you were to describe all the colours he uses it would seem messy,’ says Fassati. ‘But when you actually see the chair, there is a wonderful balance to it.’
- Eugenia Fassati

The inclusion of the Proust chair also coincides with a retrospective exhibition of Mendini’s work at the Triennale Milano, in association with the Fondation Cartier Pour L’art Contemporian. ‘I love how, if you were to describe all the colours he uses it would seem messy,’ says Fassati. ‘But when you actually see the chair, there is a wonderful balance to it.’

Gaetano Pesce Shadow Armchair Estimate: 5,000 - 7,000 EUR

This is followed by two exceptional sculptural vases by Gaetano Pesce: the ‘Flower Vase’ in polychrome cast resin and the ‘Half Ball’ in cast resin (est. €5-6,000). Produced by Meritalia in 2008 as part of the Edizioni del Pesce collection, it is a fine example of Pesce’s pioneering use of plastics and resins. ‘You can see how the vases almost seem to melt,’ says Fassati, who also points out another inspiring Pesce item in the sale that demonstrates the range of his work: the ‘Shadow’ armchair for Poltrona (est. €5-7,000). Its soft, puffy mass is rendered in injection-molded polyurethane foam padding, and eco-leather covering, over a metal frame – as different as one could imagine from his delicate, shimmering vases. The inclusion of these pieces from Pesce is particularly poignant, given the news that the legendary Italian architect and designer passed away just a few weeks before the start of the sale.

Alê Jordão Carnaval Estimate: 5,000 - 7,000 EUR

Fassati also highlights Alê Jordão's ‘Carnaval’ (est. €5-7,000), a light piece first presented at Salone 2023 in homage to the legendary architect and designer Carlo Mollino, marking the 50th anniversary of his death.

"My idea for this sale is for it to be truly contemporary – but contemporary doesn’t have to mean it is freshly made. It can also mean the Mendini ‘Proust’ which was made 40 years ago but feels like it could have been made yesterday"
- Eugenia Fassati 20th Century Design, Sotheby's Milan

‘This is Jordão’s interpretation of a work by Mollino in Turin,’ she explains. ‘For me it is an important example of how contemporary artists take from the past and remake it as something new. My idea of the sale is for it to be truly contemporary – but contemporary doesn’t have to mean it is freshly made, it can also be the Mendini ‘Proust’ which was made 40 years ago but feels like it could have been made yesterday.’

Antonio Cagianelli Piramide Mobile Bar Estimate: 8,000 - 10,000 EUR

Other key pieces expected to garner especial interest at the sale include a highly stylised ‘Piramide’ mobile bar by Antonio Cagianelli (est: €8-10,000) – its inverted pyramid shape resting on a metal stand and adorned with his own esoteric hieroglyphics (reminding us that Memphis was an ancient Egyptian capital long before it was a Milanese design movement).

Meanwhile, Arman’s ‘Statue of Liberty’ table (est. €5-7,000) takes its obvious influence from another global capital – with four bulky carved torsos of the famous New York landmark supporting the tabletop (one of a series of sculptural furniture and art pieces that he created, inspired by Lady Liberty).

Gio Ponti Armchairs Estimate: 15,000 - 18,000 EUR

Elsewhere, the classic silhouettes made by a pair of Gio Ponti armchairs (est. €15-18,000) – their arms elegantly leaning back in recline – contrast vividly with the sci-fi curves of Karim Rashid’s ‘Blobulous’ chair from 2008 (est. €6.5-8,000) – its name perfectly describing the blobby, amorphous shape.

Other names of note include Mario Bellini, Alessandro Mendini, Max Ingrand, Pietro Chiesa, Ronald Sasson, Isamu Noguchi and the distinctive blown glass of Barovier & Toso. 

In all, the sale amounts to a comprehensive overview of Milan design – from the established greats to new emerging talents – all featured with one aim in mind. Fassati nails it in a sentence. ‘We have to rediscover design and see it as a work of art in itself.’

Salone del Mobile, Milan (Image Diego Ravier)

Milan

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