Master of All Scales

Antonio Citterio has designed everything from sofas to high-rise condos, but don’t expect a signature style or a grand overarching theory.

Antonio Citterio flips quickly through the pages of Interni, looking for shelving ads. “See, I show you,” he says in his staccato Italian-inflected English. “If you see the advertising for many cabinet systems, you don’t really understand who buys them. Where can you put these cabinets?” We’re on the top floor of his studio. Just off a small alley behind B&B Italia’s Milan showroom, the space’s facade rises luminously from the ground; in the glass elevator up to his office, his assistant jokes that the building goes from kilometers to meters to millimeters, with a floor each for architecture, interiors, products, and then at the very top the designer himself.

With thick straight black hair that pokes up like a hedgehog’s, the 55-year-old Citterio is easygoing, silly even—hardly what you’d expect from someone whom MoMA’s Paola Antonelli calls “an important part of design history.” I thought he’d be silver-haired, wizened—someone Sottsass’s age surely—not a man with babyish cheeks and sleepy eyes who isn’t embarrassed to bounce around laughing in his Vitra chair to demonstrate the innovative back he made for it.

Citterio carefully tears out the company name whose ad he’s singled out in the magazine. “This, this is just an example,” he says and points to the page with its photo of a willowy couple, their walls lined with glossy white cabinets on which sit an artful arrangement of books and an even more artful arrangement of two vintage Zanuso TVs. The artfulness infuriates him. “No one lives like this! The shelving is impractical. I have a place in Milan—I have three homes—but I never have shelves like that.” He’s frustrated with the glossy impractical image. He calls it dull and pretentious. “Baroque,” Citterio says and gestures to his cluttered desk to make the point. “Can you imagine living in that sterile world? Nobody wants that.”

Citterio is upset because he doesn’t think design alone is enough reason to make something. For him the discipline—what it means to be a designer—is about more than looks. There has to be a reason for an object: either a social need or a technical development that warrants its existence. This philosophy has made Citterio the backbone of Vitra’s contract furniture line and virtually a part of B&B Italia’s Busnelli family. When he works with “Giorgio and Rolf,” as he calls the chairmen of B&B and Vitra, “we spend hours and hours together, and we talk about what we can do new and why we have to do it.” This is precisely why the ad is so vexing. He’s been thinking a great deal about shelves because he is developing new ones for B&B. Citterio is not happy with much of what exists in the market; even the classic Domus system he made in 1989 for B&B isn’t good enough now. It doesn’t fit people’s needs anymore, and new materials mean it can be improved and updated constantly.

“He’s driven by lifestyle issues,” Antonelli says, “that American postwar sense of how people live and how to improve it, that philosophy of living with comfort and practicality.” She likens him to Armani, which is fitting given the pared-back approach they share. “Their work may not be flamboyant, but it responds to the tastes of average people.” Vitra’s legendary head, Rolf Fehlbaum, says, “Citterio isn’t an icon maker but a great technical problem-solver. People who don’t work with him tend to underestimate him. His work is very elegant and fresh, but it doesn’t shout so much what it’s about.”

Citterio stops bobbing back and forth in his chair, and stands up to demonstrate how the back works, waving his hand with the magisterial air of a game-show host. He made it for Vitra in 1992 and updated it in 2004. “Now plastic is so much stronger that it doesn’t need these little ribs,” he says and points to the thin fins that support the backrest. As he talks rhapsodically about plastics, he could be advising young Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Currently Citterio is working on a new plastic chair for B&B. Several years in the making, it still may not be ready for this year’s furniture fair. “But that’s all part of the research,” he says. He can’t just bang out something stylish for an April deadline. “I don’t do the shape because it’s a design shape. I do it because I can use the plastic in a more clever way. I do a new chair if I have a new idea, but the new idea is not the design. There are millions of chairs in the world. Millions. So for me it’s about doing something new with technology that people need.”

That’s what drives Citterio, not some big formal theory. And although architecture makes up the biggest part of his office’s work—with currently three hotels, two corporate headquarters, factories, several homes, and a 62-story residential tower in Miami under way—there is no grand philosophy behind building either. When asked if he had a vision, something Hadid or Koolhaas might espouse, he chuckles and gives a long stagy sigh. “Ah no, I don’t believe in that,” he says. Citterio is not about “expression,” as he calls it. “That is not my role. I’m not interested in icons.”

“So much design and architecture is self-referential,” Fehlbaum says in a phone call from Vitra’s headquarters in Birsfelden, Switzerland. “So to see somebody without a huge ego, who doesn’t need a lot of space but sees their purpose to serve a cause and be within a project, doing what he does for the end user, is impressive. He’s very much in the formula that Charles Eames used, where the designer is the host and you feel at ease with the products.”

Indeed few designers have influenced Citterio more than Eames. As a teenager he was so enamored of him and his approach that before he even went to university he started taking apart and redesigning Eames’s pieces. “Back then,” Citterio explains, “Italian design was all either pop or intellectual. It was craft and expressive, but with Eames it was the first time the design process was a real industrial one.”

In a suburb just north of Milan, B&B chairman Giorgio Busnelli sits behind a giant slab of a wooden conference table at the corporate headquarters. B&B notepads wait expectantly before each seat. Busnelli has curly hair and a Groucho Marx mustache. He wears a rich chocolate brown suit and nearly invisible glasses. His hands constantly move as he speaks, gesturing and drawing as if both will help him find his words in English. By the end of our talk he’s filled up a sheet with what looks like sofa frames.

Busnelli and Citterio grew up together in Meda. They were friends as kids, going out dancing and riding Vespas. Even then Citterio knew where he wanted to go and for whom he wanted to design. “Daddy liked that sort of dedication,” Busnelli says wistfully. “Daddy” is Piero Ambrogio Busnelli, the now retired larger-than-life founder of B&B, whose big-game trophies are displayed in a nearby lodge; giant curved mammoth tusks hang from the B&B lobby ceiling like abstract art.

Citterio and Busnelli started working for the family firm in the mid-1970s. Citterio became so frustrated by how long it took the company to produce a prototype of his first design that he did it himself. “Daddy” was delighted. He was like a father to the designer, and in that way Citterio is as much a part of the family business as Giorgio. Now Antonio and Giorgio even vacation together.

B&B was the perfect home for Citterio. Piero Busnelli transformed the Italian furniture industry in the early 1960s when he went to a plastics trade show in London, saw a toy made of polyurethane, and thought the material offered an innovative way to make furniture. Hence B&B was born. Not only was it the first company to use polyurethane, it was also one of the first Italian furniture producers to industrialize the manufacturing process. Even without the childhood connection, there couldn’t have been a more natural place for Citterio.

Today he is far more than just B&B’s biggest designer; he sits on their board of directors. “Antonio is the hardest-working man I know,” Busnelli says. “He’s always on the lookout. He’ll call from Stockholm or Berlin. Instead of going to his hotel and relaxing, he’ll find the design district, call me, and say, ‘I’m in Stockholm and we have a terrible presentation. You need to send someone.’” He shakes his head smiling, pleased with his friend’s dedication.

Busnelli waves his hand in tight circles, trying to find the word he’s searching for. “The sofa is—how do you say it?” He’s looking for flagship, but neither of us comes up with it. He says, “You know the big ship that carries the troops?” and we settle for aircraft carrier. Couches are the company’s aircraft carrier, he says, “where we have a strong reputation for innovation.” And when they need a best-selling couch, they turn to Citterio. For something artier, “more feminine,” as he puts it (which could also translate to a bit edgier), they turn to designers like Patricia Urquiola (see Metropolis, June 2005). But for this year’s Arne, he wanted a piece as iconic as the Sity.

Antonelli and Fehlbaum call the Sity, originally designed in 1986, Citterio’s most influential design. More than a couch, it was composed of 22 pieces that you could build into an “island,” Busnelli says. It looks like a fort that a kid might create for the living room, with bright colors and space for the whole family. The Sity picked up on how people were living at the time—everyone gathering on the couch to watch TV together.

Busnelli wasn’t as happy with the Arne sofa. He pondered it every day for a month and wasn’t convinced. “This arm this high? This element here?” He draws a round shape on the pad before him to demonstrate. “I thought there were too many new things. And if I’ve been seeing the problem for a month and I am still not convinced, imagine our dealers and consumers. They have to decide on a sofa in a day.” Arne was just too radical. It was the first time Busnelli had had a finished product and then took out elements to ensure it would sell. “It’s not like in the seventies and eighties, where you could present a new product and it would start selling after a year or a year and a half,” Busnelli says, shaking his head. Retailers aren’t so generous anymore. “Now if it’s not selling within six months, they put it on sale and you burn the product. You cannot present anything too avant-garde.” So he phoned Citterio—who was on his way to give a lecture at Harvard—and told him that Arne wasn’t quite working. Just after Citterio landed, Busnelli got a call and a fax with a winning version.

Citterio takes off his gray jacket and smoothes it over the back of his chair. He explains that when he made Arne he was thinking of how his family spent time together. “It’s very difficult to come up with a new idea for a sofa. But if you think about your needs—well, I design something because

I need something. My wife [American architect Terry Dwan] and kids and I watch TV and movies together. For many years we stayed separate, with a sofa here and two chairs there,” Citterio says as he draws it on a piece of tracing paper before him. “I thought we needed something where we really can stay together.”

“See,” he says and unfurls more paper to sketch two squared-off couches facing each other and then two rounded ones. “With the curve of the sofa you’re not isolated—you can sit and watch and talk.” Citterio looks up; his eyes are a hazel brown. “At least that’s the case for now, but when they’re teenagers. …” He shrugs, and no doubt when the time comes we can look forward to his answering every teenager’s parent’s dream of sofas with privacy screens, like he’s created for open-plan offices, and built-in iPod jacks.

Then there’s the sofa’s name: Arne. No accident. It’s an homage, Citterio says, although it has nothing to do with the sofa’s look. He just thinks it’s important for people to remember the past. “For me to remember the past,” he corrects. Indeed what he really cares about is legacy—not his own, but design’s. That’s why he has named so many of his B&B products for other designers. As he talks about Eileen Gray and Mart Stam and Arne Jacobsen, it’s easy to picture the 18-year-old Citterio (his cheeks even fuller) taking apart an Eames chair.

Citterio is always looking at other architects’ work (he still wants to meet Florence Knoll). Some-times people pay him such visits in the alley behind B&B. He can’t imagine these pilgrimages could ever be as important as meeting Charles Eames in 1968. “For me it was like the Madonna,” he says and thumps his hand on his chest for emphasis. Now one of the most important things Citterio does—despite a full schedule and a young family—is pass these ideas on by continuing to teach. “He’s so fantastic with the students,” Busnelli says. “Even when he talks with other architects he really opens himself up. He’s not afraid to give away the starting points of his ideas. He doesn’t think they originate with him.”

Citterio’s assistant sighs and gathers up papers, trying to hurry him out the door because he is late for his afternoon class. He ignores her for a couple more minutes and says, “At the university when I’m teaching I’m really studying. When you teach you have to concentrate to understand, and often you understand better when you teach than when you just try it on your own.” Citterio’s voice trails off as he gets up to put on his jacket. “I have to teach though. Someone gave a hand to me, and I have to give a hand to these young students. It’s the history of design and architecture. And at the end of the day if I even make little steps in passing that on to others, then I’ve done enough.” With that he laughs, grabs my hand in a strong handshake, and hurries out into Milan’s heavy winter fog.

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