There have been some wonderful moments at successive Milan Triennales, the bumper exhibitions of modern design, architecture, and decorative art held (roughly) every three years for much of the 20th century. Among the ones I’d love to have seen were the spectacle of a gleaming Citroën DS 19 dangling from the ceiling of the 1957 exhibition, the student protests that disrupted the 1968 event, and one of the most imposing exhibits, “A Room for a Man” devised by the Italian designer Franco Albini for the 1936 Triennale.
Barely in his thirties, Albini was then at the start of his career, having opened a design studio in Milan a few years before, after working for one of his university teachers, the Italian architect Gio Ponti. So generous was Ponti that he helped Albini establish his practice by championing his early projects in Domus, the design and architecture magazine he edited. His support seems even more selfless given that his influence on Albini was waning as the younger designer became enthralled by the rationalist principles of modernism.
Albini’s approach to rationalism was engagingly idiosyncratic. What made his work so special was his ability to create objects and spaces that infused the modernist virtues of clarity, economy, and efficiency with elegance, subtlety, and adroit historical references: “A Room for a Man” a prime example.
Like fellow modernists, Albini was committed to exploiting technological innovation to enable people to enjoy the speed and convenience of modern life. Saving time was a key concern, especially when it involved eliminating domestic drudgery, and the possibility of living in a compact space where all essential facilities were easily accessible would have seemed highly desirable.
Somehow, Albini succeeded in squeezing everything he considered necessary for a man living alone into little more than three hundred square feet. Progressive though he was in other respects, he does not seem to have considered that his fictitious client might wish to cook, but did provide places where “he” could work, relax, sleep, and shower.
There is a precedent for Albini’s design in the bedsitting room devised in Vienna a decade before by the Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky for a single woman. Both projects make the most of very little space, notably by ensuring that each element fulfils several functions. In Albini’s room, the ladder leading up to the bed doubles as a clothes rack and the bed itself as a screen, while a bookshelf turns into a table.
But the two rooms differ in their choice of materials. Lihotzky favored traditional woods for hers, while Albini constructed his from the latest forms of tubular steel, foam rubber, linoleum, and glass. The result, which looks alluringly sleek, light, and disciplined to a contemporary eye, must have appeared startlingly so in the mid-1930s. Yet Albini also added nuance in the subtle contrast between his industrial materials and the references to traditional Italian architecture in the opulent marble on the walls and floor.
The same qualities would characterize Albini’s work until his death in 1977. His most famous furniture designs, like the Veliero and LB7 shelving systems, share a similar delicacy and clarity, yet were combined in his own homes with old masters’ paintings and exquisitely crafted antiques. Albini remained dedicated to research, once devoting fifteen years to developing different versions of an armchair and eventually extending his experiments with technocratic materials into rustic ones, like rattan.
So committed was Albini that he continued his investigations throughout World War II, when he left Milan for the smaller city of Piacenza. Bereft of commercial commissions, he sealed himself off in a small studio to reinvent the type of multifunctional furniture he had unveiled to such acclaim in “A Room for a Man,” this time using scraps of metal, wood, and whatever else he could find in war-torn Italy.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton.