The career and life of Carlo Scarpa don’t fit into a label. He was an architect, designer, and innovator, who lived and created through two World Wars without ever stopping his creative mind. He worked with artisans and entrepreneurs, mixing Italian tradition with modern industrial needs and styles. Carlo Scarpa didn’t fit into a category. He liked to collaborate and produce unique, handmade pieces.
But he also liked collaborating with design companies dedicated to sales and mass production. It seems like the two can’t coexist. However, Carlo Scarpa found a way to make them coexist. And that’s why his work and creativity produced timeless masterpieces, and they are still appreciated nowadays. His work proves that design doesn’t need rules, boxes, or labels. The Italian designer and architect made his own rules.
He was born in 1906 in Venice, and his city was crucial in the development of his creations, especially in the early years. During his childhood, he lived in the neighboring town of Vicenza until he went back to Venice to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti. In 1926, Carlo Scarpa achieved the habilitation for architectural design, and he started working right away. He also became a teacher in local universities, proving his ability to both create and inspire.
Carlo Scarpa Glassmaker
While architecture has its own rules and fixed characteristics, like usefulness, Carlo Scarpa let his creativity wander. He started by collaborating with the artisans of Murano, the island in the Venetian lagoon, famous for its glass masterpieces. His collaboration with the local glassmakers (particularly with the company MVM Cappellin & Co) was crucial in his development of a creative yet analytical mind.
Carlo Scarpa Architect and Designer
In 1930, the Italian creator worked on his first architectural project: the Ca’ Foscari in Venice (1935-37). Carlo Scarpa started producing furniture in the years leading up to World War II. He met influential names of these decades, such as Diego Valeri, Giacomo Noventa, and Arturo Martini. Meanwhile, he kept working with the Venetian glassmakers, especially for the company of Paolo Venini, a partnership that lasted until 1946.
So, Carlo Scarpa worked as an architect, glassmaker, and furniture designer. All at the same time. He never stopped, not even after World War II. In the 50s, he worked at the Biennale, and he also met famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His work was so appreciated that, in 1956, Scarpa received the National Olivetti Award, a company he also worked for.
In fact, his work for the Olivetti store is one of his most admired. In the heart of Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, this store was inaugurated in 1958. Olivetti put Scarpa in charge of the staging, and the designer managed to mix tradition and innovation. He respected the store’s position in the historic center of town, and his architecture was eclectic yet elegant. The Olivetti shop was functional, but it was also attractive. There is an ornamental fountain with a white marble slab. Marble and Murano glass make the floors of the Olivetti store unique with their colorful quadrangular tiles.
This was a true masterpiece of design and architecture. But the Italian creator was bound to produce more timeless masterpieces during his career. Carlo Scarpa kept working until his death during a Japanese trip in 1978. He left behind a legacy and a talented son, Tobia Scarpa, who later became a famous and appreciated designer. Both innovative and rebellious. Indeed, like father, like son.
Between Modern and Mass Production
Design and architecture changed drastically in the decades between the two world wars. The style that characterized the late 19th century and early 1900 looked at the past for its aesthetic. Creators went back to Roman and Greek designs to discover what their idea of “modern” looked like. But, towards the beginning of World War I, a new style emerged: industrial architecture and skyscraper design.
Those were the decades of looking at functionality and usefulness instead of beauty and aesthetics. Machines and technology were starting to develop, and everything was changing, from the daily life of citizens to the way companies worked and produced. It’s also known as early modernism, and it featured materials like concrete and geometrical shapes. In this movement, there was no space for ornaments.
Between the two wars, both architecture and design focused on the concept of solidity and strength. These are the years of skyscrapers, steel, and the rebellious Frank Lloyd Wright. After the end of the second world war, the styles started focusing on functionality and mass production. Everything was designed to be produced in big bulks, fast, and as cheap as possible. These were the years of the reconstruction and consumerism society. But architects and designers like Carlo Scarpa had a different perspective.
Intuition Instead of Calculus
He wanted to follow his creations from start to finish. Scarpa didn’t just want to be the creator; he also wanted to be the developer. And this desire to be 100% involved in the process opened the doors for his collaboration with Dino Gavina, the founder of the homonymous design business.
From the beginning of the company’s adventure, the designer was there, and he even became its president. The two shared the same philosophy and ideas, so much so that when Gavina founded the company Simon International in 1968, Scarpa made his debut in design and furniture. Scarpa enthusiastically lived his collaboration with Dino Gavina. From the projects together to the ones with Cesare Cassina. With him, Gavina launched the Flos lamp company, which produced timeless pieces signed by names like Achille Castiglioni.
For Gavina’s Simon, the Italian designer launched exclusive collections, like the 1974 Metamobile. These are pieces of furniture for the modern home, practical, user-friendly, and contemporary. Contemporary because these creations are functional, but they are also elegant and charming. They do what they are supposed to do, but they do it in style. This is the era of industrialization and mechanics.
However, designers and architects like Carlo Scarpa put a creative spin on the industry. Instead of using plastic, he used wood, glass, and marble to create his design and furniture collections. He didn’t follow any rules, equations, or calculus. Scarpa followed his inspiration and his intuition. He liked mixing materials and styles to create something unique, something that only he could make.
The Most Famous Projects by Carlo Scarpa
Born as an architect, he became a glassmaker and, later, a designer. His adventure in furniture and decor started with Gavina, for which he signed one of his most famous pieces.
It’s the Doge table, created in 1968 as part of the Ultrarazionale series for Simon. The lower structure of the table is made of brushed steel, while the rectangular top is made of glass. Traditional materials and shapes to push the boundaries of rationalism. The Doge was such a success, the company Cassina has reintroduced it. Always a part of the collection Ultrarazionale is the Delfi table. Carlo Scarpa designed it in 1968, and the table launched in 1970. The protagonist is the marble of Carrara, and it features two monolithic bases and a rectangular top.
Carlo Scarpa produced many pieces for the company Bernini, including the Zibaldone bookcase in the 70s. It took him ten years to develop it because he had to negotiate its height. The bookcase was supposed to reach as many homes as possible, so the designer agreed to create it with only eight tops. This was the first piece of furniture for mass production with sliding glass doors with counterweights. Bernini only used the latest technology for its projects, and that’s why it collaborated with names like Scarpa and Frattini.
Cornaro Sofa and Sarpi Table
In the 70s, 1974 to be precise, the Italian designer produced the Cornaro sofa for Simon International. He designed the sofa to be an eye-catcher, given its dimensions and presence. The structure is made of iroko wood, while the coating is made of polyurethane. With a delicate covering of velvet, the Cornaro was impossible to miss. Elegant, but perhaps too big. So, in 1975, Scarpa designed the Sarpi table. Inspired by the Doge table, the Sarpi features glass and steel. Its smaller dimensions made it easy to use and carry, perfect both for homes and studio apartments.
In his designs, Carlo Scarpa also focused on functionality. And he developed the idea of modularity, creating furniture that was easy to assemble and piece together, almost like a puzzle. One example of this trend is the modular bookcase Rialto, produced in 1975 for Simon International. It’s completely different from the Zibaldone. In fact, the structure of the Rialto is made of wood, while the sliding doors are made of glass. The finishings are elegant and traditional, made of ash wood.
However, these are only some of the design projects designed by Carlo Scarpa. His collaborations with Gavina and Bernini led him to produce unique pieces of furniture, with details looking both at the tradition and to the future. Italian design wanted to go worldwide and, thanks to names like Carlo Scarpa, it reached global audiences.
The Complete List of his Design Creations
While Scarpa was born as an architect, his passion for innovation, research, and forms led him to design and furniture. And, as we mentioned, his design career began in 1968 thanks to the partnership with Gavina. Here’s the complete list of the furniture signed by Carlo Scarpa:
Carlo Scarpa’s last design project debuted after his death in 1978. The Italian designer created the project and drew it in 1935. He made it for his home in Rio Marin in Venice. Scarpa picked it back up in 1976 for Bernini’s mass production. He ideated two versions, one for the wall and the other for the floor. The shelves are made of wood, and their depth decreases from the bottom to the top of the 1935 Bookcase. Back to wood, for his last work.
Another posthumous work was the project of the Banca Popolare di Gemona of Friuli; a bank created thanks to the designs and drawing of Scarpa. A homage to the “professor.”
Carlo Scarpa, an Eclectic Soul
Carlo Scarpa was an eclectic soul. In over 50 years of his career, he was an architect, a designer, and even a sculptor. His talent and work were recognized during his life and after his death. In 1962, he received the Golden Medal from the Culture Minister, and in 1967 he was awarded the reward for his architectural work by the Republic’s Presidency. Museums and galleries dedicated to Carlo Scarpa exhibit, like the 2015 exhibit Carol Bove/Carlo Scarpa at the Henry Moore Institute of Leeds.
So, the Italian designer kept inspiring, even over 40 years after his death. The audience loves the simplicity of his work that still looks elegant. They almost look like minimalistic pieces, as functional as possible without giving up on beauty and aesthetics. He was almost a rebel in an era filled with rules, equations, and geometry. Like his son Tobia Scarpa and other designers like Frattini and Castiglioni, Carlo was an innovator. He used innovative technology in his works, but his ideas were also innovative.
Perhaps he said it better:
“Modern architecture, so abstract and three-dimensional, destroys any sensibility for breakdown and change. We created the nothingness around things.”
Both in design and architecture, Carlo Scarpa believed order and structure were overvalued. Break it down and change it to create something new. And something new he did create.