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Chair Man of Complaints — 3/26/14

Posted by Peter Clericuzio, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The creation of the buxus chair currently on display in The Wolfsonian’s seventh-floor exhibition Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design grows directly out of a larger set of political complaints. In 1935, Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascist regime invaded and ultimately conquered Ethiopia, much to the chagrin of the League of Nations, which formally lodged a protest in the form of economic sanctions against Italy. Until that point, Ethiopia was one of the last territories in Africa that had managed to resist the grasp of European imperialists. The sanctions at first proved problematic for Italian craftsmen, who were unable to import the precious woods that were commonly used in furniture manufacturing. 

In response, Mussolini embarked upon a policy of autarky that strove to make Italy self-sufficient, no longer dependent on foreign goods. Italians created several alternatives to imported materials, one of which was buxus, a resin-infused paper veneer recently developed by paper manufacturer Cartiere Giacomo Bosso of Turin. Buxus’ name is identical to the Latin term for boxwood, a shrub commonly used in marquetry, musical instruments, tool handles, engraving, and cabinetry.

Probably the most enthusiastic supporter of this policy of autarky, and particularly the use of buxus, was the famous Futurist artist and designer Fortunato Depero, who may be better known for creating books bound together with nuts and bolts. Depero created a line of furniture that he called, appropriately, Autarchia, after Mussolini’s policies, which included this chair. Much of the piece consists of plywood and pine lumber, though the visible surfaces are covered with buxus, which could easily be colored in bright tones as well as left in an interesting, wood-grain-like pattern. On the underside of the chair one can see Depero’s mark, a red circle containing the “IRR” for the furniture line and “Sani” for the manufacturer, plus a “3NTO” for Trento, Italy, where it was made.

Trento, meanwhile, gives significance to the chair’s external motifs. Depero was based in northern Italy, and as a fervent nationalist, he was especially fond of Alpine winter sports as a mark of Italian heritage. The skis and ski pole imagery that he included on this chair are, along with the use of buxus, distinct markers of this sentiment. He may not have viewed the sanctions on Italy as punishment, but rather an opportunity to showcase the genius of modern Italian designers and craftsmen. 

Peter Clericuzio is academic programs manager at The Wolfsonian.

Caption: Chair for the Autarchia IRR line, c. 1939. Fortunato Depero, designer. Ditta Riccardo Sani, Trento, maker. Plywood, wood, buxus. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.

Note: This post is based on the presentation for The Wolfsonian: Collecting Complaints on March 21, 2014.