24 Via Diaz in Como’s historic centre is now an antique shop but was from 1948 to 1995 the home of ‘La Ruota’ – a design studio run by Ico and Luisa Parisi. If the names of Ico and Luisa Parisi are now not particularly well known, some of the furniture designs emanating from this studio are. Take for example the Model 691 chair designed in 1955 for Cassina, a furniture factory based in Meda, north of Milan. This design has become so ubiquitous with so many millions of variations produced over the years. Every iconic design has its origins and this one in particular leads back to the heart of Como.
Maybe it should not come as too much of a surprise that Como should have fostered talents like the Parisis who contributed so much to the success of Italian mid-century furniture design. From the 1920’s the rationalist movement in architecture headed by Como’s Giuseppe Terragni, designer of the internationally renowned Casa del Fascio in the Piazza del Popolo, believed in the integration of various art disciplines based on a common set of aesthetic principles. The Parisis followed in this same tradition. Como Companion has previously sought to identify what were the specifically local factors that led the group of artists known as the ‘astrattisti comaschi’ to gain international renown prior to the last war. Many of these same factors, such as the fertilisation of ideas across local studios and from across Europe through galleries like ‘Il Milione’ and the Brera Art Institute in Milan, ensured the continued development locally of creative talent in the applied arts.
Ico Parisi moved from his home town of Palermo to Como when young. He graduated in construction here in 1934 and then went on to study architecture as an apprentice to Giuseppe Terragni. In 1945 he met a fellow designer, Luisa Aiana who had studied under architect and designer, Gio Ponti. He went on to marry Luisa in 1947. The Parisis were to develop a lifelong friendship and a friendly professional rivalry with Ponti until Ponti’s death in 1979. They established ‘La Ruota’ – their design studio in Via Diaz – in 1948, the year after their marriage. Luisa died in 1990 but La Ruota continued to flourish until 1995, one year before Ico’s death in 1996. The couple lived in Como for all of that time apart from between 1949 and 1952 when they moved to Lausanne to enable Ico to study architecture at Lausanne’s Institute Atheneum under his friend Alberto Sartoris – a rationalist theorist and exponent of art integration.
Ico’s architectural work can best be found in the Como suburb of Monte Olimpino, namely the Casa Bini where he also collaborated with the artist Mario Radice, as well as Casa Bertacchi and Casa Zucchi.
As with Terragni, he was keen to integrate a variety of artistic disciplines into both the exteriors and interiors of his buildings. He was also a keen photographer and fine artist. Examples of his art are on display within Como’s Pinacoteca which now also houses the Ico Parisi Archive of Design. In his later years Ico went on to explore further ideas around artistic integration with his ideas of existential utopianism. One of his last projects was the redesign of the upmarket restaurant and disco, the Bobadilla Feeling Club, in Dalmine outside of Bergamo completed in 1992. However he may best be known nowadays for the various items of furniture he designed together with Luisa for companies such as Cassina in Brianza or MIM in Rome.
Up until the 1950s both the Parisis and Gio Ponti were mostly designing one-off pieces of furniture crafted in the artisan workshops around Cantu. These artisans remained important in contributing ideas but by the 1950s new methods and technologies were allowing for the industrialisation of the production of their designs. This wave of industrialisation led to the golden years of furniture production within the area to the south east of Como known as Brianza. These businesses reflected part of Italy’s economic miracle after the last war. One company in particular, Cassina – a family business founded by Cesare Cassina – led the way in innovation.
The Parisis and Cassina gained a great success with the design of Model 813, the Poltrona Uovo (Egg Chair). Cassina also went on to produce the Model 691 illustrated above. Ponti also profited from his collaboration with Cassina for whom he designed his iconic ‘Superleggera’.
Cassina soon started to profit from the success of these designs and they expanded by opening up prestigious showrooms in Rome. The interior design of these showrooms was entrusted to Luisa Parisi while Ico was appointed as the company’s art director. Cassina’s products soon became the required accoutrements for ‘La Dolce Vita’.
Gio Ponti maintained a friendly correspondence with the Parisis throughout his lifetime. His letters were far from conventional since they were usually very brief and always graphical in format as in the example shown here in which Ponti compliments the Parisis on the success of their Egg Chair.
He states: ‘Miei cari la vostra poltrona uovo è una meraviglia – Siete maestri – a me non resta che ritirarmi e vivere nell’ oblio a Civate.’ (My dears, your egg chair is a marvel. You are masters. For me there is nothing more to do than retire and live in obscurity at Civate). Ponti had his country home in Civate on Lake Annone near Lecco. Another of Ponti’s letters dated 6th October 1960 reflects the growing success of the Parisis when he reports his joy on entering the lobby of the Hotel Dorset in New York and seeing a Parisi-designed table. However in retrospect, Gio Ponti has achieved much more international recognition than the Parisis, possibly due to the greater extent of his international architectural commissions. The Parisis were more content to stay close to their Como home and their house on the lake in Sala Comacina.
Yet maybe the Parisis’ reputation is now beginning to grow. Cassina SpA have recently reissued some old models the Parisis designed for them. Other modern day designers have taken inspiration from the Parisis as in this example taken from the Champagne Bar of the Devonshire Club Hotel, London.
They are both owed much more however in terms of recognition for the crucial part they played in the phenomenal success of Italy’s mid-century furniture design. In the meantime, Carla Pellegatta and her husband Mario Lombardi from Via Diaz’s Bottega d’Arte would welcome any old photos of ‘La Ruota’ so they can restore the missing ‘wheel’ on the plaque outside the Parisi’s studio. The original wheel and a subsequent replacement were both stolen in past years by over-zealous fans seeking a memento of this iconic local institution from out of which emanated designs that conquered the world.
Nodo Libri have recently republished the collection of Gio Ponti’s correspondence with the Parisis entitled, ‘Gio Ponti – Lettere ai Parisi‘. Available online at http://www.nodolibrieditore.it/
The Pinacoteca di Como maintains an archive of photographs and documents which are available for consultation on request. They also have some examples of his art, photography and furniture design on display. You may also contact the Archivio del Design di Ico Parisi