Franco Albini is the quintessential representation of Italian rationalism. In the late 1920s, he began his career when the dominant architectural and design movement was Neoclassicism. However, the Italian architect soon steered away from classic lines and shapes to look for new forms, concepts, and geometries. For decades, he stuck with this aesthetic, going from a little boy from Lombardy to a recognized name worldwide.
Throughout history, design, architecture, and art, in general, reflected the ideals and the lifestyle of its times. If the Greeks looked at the beauty, the modernists of the 1960s looked at usefulness. And creators like Franco Albini looked at it all, from the tradition to the innovation, from the past to the future. Then, he created his own movement, made of spaces, emptiness, and beauty. He was able to combine different and distant concepts to create a new and avant-garde style. The style signed by Franco Albini.
A Short Biography
He was a boy from the Italian province. Franco Albini was born in 1905 in Robbiate in Brianza, a town in Lombardy famous for the walk along the Adda River and its restaurants serving the typical risotto. When he was older, the architect-to-be moved with his family to Milan, the center for business and art. So, Albini felt the pull of creation and the buzz of the city and enrolled at Milan’s Politecnico to study architecture. He graduated in 1929, ready to collaborate with the best names of the Italian cultural landscape, in particular, Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia.
But the young architect didn’t stay put for long. Milan was already getting small. After his graduation, Franco Albini spent a few years traveling through Europe, including a visit to the 1929 Expo in Barcelona and one to the Parisian studio of Le Corbusier. During his European travels, he also met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Italian architect took inspiration from these creators and, in 1931, he opened his studio, at first producing furniture. In these years, he debuted into design, thanks to the partnership with Giancarlo Palanti, still with a Neoclassicism imprint.
Until Franco Albini met Edoardo Persico. That’s when he discovered the concept and aesthetic of rationalism. He goes back to architecture, working on Villa Pestarini and the Steel House at the fifth Triennale in Milan. The Italian architect also produced projects, like the Rifugio Pirovano in Cervinia, the Rinascente in Roma, and Milan’s subway.
Franco Albini Professor and Awards
From 1949 to 1964, Franco Albini was a professor at IUAV University in Venice. He taught interior architecture to Tobia Scarpa. Scarpa designed its first industrial design furniture for this course: the Pigreco chair.
From 1964 Albini started to teach at Polytechnic University in Milan.
His genius got him awards like three Compasso d’Oro prizes (1955, 1958, 1964) and the Olivetti prize for Architecture in 1957. Albini’s last project dates back to 1971. It’s the Eclisse and Miraggio brass headboards for the beds, a limited edition creation. The Italian rationalist died in 1977, leaving an incredible legacy behind.
From Neoclassicism to Rationalism
So, the first inspiration for Albini was the Neoclassical movement and beauty. Italy launched Neoclassical architecture in the mid 18th century, a revival of the classics with domes, columns, and gilded mirrors. This aesthetic developed all over Europe at the end of the 19th century all the way to the first years of 1900. As the name suggests, creators started to look back, especially to the Greek and Roman eras. It began with writers and poets, who brought back the idea of “emotions.”
It represented the rejection of the excesses of Late Baroque architecture. Instead of elaborate patterns and design, Neoclassicism exalted simple yet elegant lines. That’s the architectural and design movement that Franco Albini was born in. But things were about to change. When Albini met art critic Edoardo Persico, he was officially introduced to rationalism. From that moment on, the architecture graduate also focused on design. In Italy, the rationalism movement developed between the 1920s and the 30s. The manifest of Italian rationalism was published in 1926, and it stated:
“Between our past and our present, there is no incompatibility. We don’t want to break with tradition. Ours is the changing tradition, the ones that find new aspects, and that’s why only few can recognize it.”
So, these innovative creators didn’t want to introduce something new. They wanted to bring back the potentials of the objects, even of furniture. In 1926, Italy fell into the Fascist dictatorship, and the rationalists’ ideals didn’t fit in. Designers like Albini wanted to look to the future, so they continued to operate underground to avoid the anger of the dictator. For example, they built the railway station of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It is a true representative of Italian rationalism with its somber design and the balance among the materials.
Where Does Franco Albini Fit in?
As a rationalist, he wanted to experiment with materials, shapes, and spaces. He aimed at finding the right balance between different elements. For example, Albini wished to fill the space but also wanted to create emptiness. He focused on the relationship between objects and the rooms to make sure they inspired the public. A piece of furniture or design wasn’t just supposed to be useful. It was supposed to create emotions.
Each detail of the element was carefully planned to make sure it didn’t just look good, but it also felt good. Sure, it was born from the industry, but it didn’t mean the object had to be ugly or uneasy on the eyes. Just the opposite. Beauty and functionality could meet, and their new relationship could create an innovative and elegant industrial style.
“We have to create empty spaces since the construction materials are light and air. The atmosphere doesn’t have to be still but vibrate. And it has to stimulate the public, without the public knowing it,” said Franco Albini.
The Italian creator wanted to interpret the space and its objects. He was an innovator since he also introduced the structure called “Pennone,” or flagpole. This way, Albini introduced a third dimension, the vertical one. The elements became light, like the construction’s materials. In some form, architecture and design had to be a form of poetry to him.
His Most Iconic Pieces
So, Franco Albini was both an architect and a designer. Each of his objects had a purpose that went beyond usefulness. Once he met the aesthetic movement of rationalism, he debuted into design, turning everyday objects into masterpieces.
Here are his most iconic pieces:
- Veliero bookcase, 1940
- PL44/Fiorenza armchair, Arflex, 1952
- TN6/Cicognino table, Poggi, 1953
- PT1/Luisa armchair, Poggi, 1955
- Margherita and Gala armchairs, Vittorio Bonacina, 1955
- LB7/Infinito bookcase, Poggi, 1956
- LB10 bookcase with Franca Helg, Poggi, 1958
- PL19/Tre Pezzi armchair with Franca Helg, Poggi, 1959
- PS16 chaise longue, 1959, Poggi
- SC27/Stadera writing desk with Franca Helg, Poggi, 1961
Let’s take a closer look at these exclusive pieces signed by the Italian designer.
The Luisa Armchair
The Luisa armchair (also called “832”) dates back to 1949, although the designer developed it up to 1955. His idea was to create a useful chair that would fit every part of the house -or office. Plus, Albini wanted to make sure the armchair was ideal for industrial mass-production. It’s simple, with the seat and the backrest posing on a wooden structure. The seat and the backrest feature an internal steel structure with elastic belts. Furthermore, the padding is made of polyurethane, and it’s covered in either fabric or leather. In 2008, the Italian company Cassina reissued the fifth version of Luisa, a true success.
The LB7/Infinito Bookcase and the TN6/Cicognino Table
The LB7/Infinito bookcase (1956-1957) is a double-sided bookcase with multiple functions. It’s a modular piece of furniture that features adjustable uprights, ideal for assembling. The elements are made of steel, while the bookcase itself is made of wood (usually walnut). Once again, the balance of two different elements. It featured standard or drop-down doors. On the other hand, the TN6/Cicognino table (1952) is made of wood, and one of its three legs extends to help with moving.
The Veliero Bookcase and Other Furnishings
The Veliero (1940) is a flexible double-sided bookcase made of wood. It features an aerial structure with a solid ash wood base panel and a frame in painted tubular metal. The shelves are tempered glass, and it features a satin finish, and matt painted brass. It shows the innovative ideas of Franco Albini, just like the Margherita and Gala armchairs did. Both designed in 1951 show the designer’s will to experiment since they are made of wicker.
A different material from the Fiorenza armchair (1952), which is made of foam rubber and wood. In 1959, Franco Albini created the PL19 armchair with a lacquered metal structure and fabric upholstery. The PS16 chaise longue (1959) is a rocking chair made to be innovative and comfortable. It’s made of wood (usually oak) and metal, the balance of two materials. The same balance happens in the SC27/Stadera (1958), which features a black lacquered cast iron and walnut wood.
These pieces of design are some of Albini’s most iconic works. From armchairs to bookcases, he always looked for innovation. That’s why some of these creations have been reissued, to show the industrial and rationalism style can still be relevant. Even after Albini died in 1977, his projects lived on.
Architectural Projects Signed by Franco Albini
From design to architecture, he did it all. One of his main projects was the Ettore Ponti district in Milan. Albini developed it with Camus and Palanti to solve the issue of public housing in the city. Lines of buildings and four apartments for each floor. It’s the concept of rationalism, in which everything has its function, and simplicity is at its center.
A different project is the Rinascente in Rome. It’s a response to the economic changes of the 50s and 60s when shopping centers became relevant. Each space is used, and the spaces are optimized. Albini designed a few openings on the front, exiting the building’s architecture. In Genoa, he developed the museum Sant’Agostino and the museum of the cathedral of San Lorenzo.
Just like with his design career, the architecture years of Albini spanned from different eras, which marked his work. For example, the architect’s aesthetic changed the differences between the years of Fascism and the ones after World War II. If he had to give up on rationalism during the dictatorship, he was able to do it. He could erase his concepts and aspirations to push through history.
Albini’s aesthetic was light in architecture as much as in design. Anything he created was supposed to look easy, even if it wasn’t. In fact, he used the industry’s latest techniques, like polyurethane foam, but his pieces seem easy to reproduce. However, they are just the opposite. He planned every detail, screw, and bolt, with care and attention. One mistake and everything would tumble down. For example, the bookcases play with tensions or the buildings fighting against gravity.
Franco Albini in His Words
“At the base of Architecture, there is always a moral problem: at the base of our profession, there are only duties. From the awareness of the problems, and only from here, the architect will be able to draw the forms that will adhere to the ways of life of his society. From the awareness of problems, he will draw the invention of new forms, which will generate new ways of life.”
And that was his goal, even in design. Franco Albini wanted to generate new ways of life and feelings in the public. The Italian creator looked for something different: the comfortable yet elegant rocking chair, the aerial bookcase, and the chairs of wicker. Decades later, his work still inspires designers and architects who love the concepts of rationalism and industrial design. Albini was the protagonist of the 2017 exhibit “The substance of form” at Mercanteinfiera, and Marco Albini was one of the curators.
“Ideas are transmitted through the use of the tools of the trade, that is, through drawing, proportions, scale, and measure. Words are superfluous, a project must speak for itself, and the concepts are expressed through drawings and sketches strictly in pencil and freehand because you are freer in developing ideas and modifying them,” said Marco Albini.
Franco would agree since he believed creators spread their ideas through their creations and not through themselves.