Carlo Bugatti: Furniture as Futuristic Sculpture

published Feb 18, 2010
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Carlo Bugatti was an Italian furniture designer most active in the Art Nouveau era, around 1900. His eclectic, striking designs are unlike any others and are immediately recognizable. Our era is so concerned with good taste and classic design — it’s nice to take a peek at the bizarre and fabulous work of the past.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Around the turn of the twentieth century, artists and designers were seeking a new kind of design, one that was properly modern and new while still resting on sound design principles. The Industrial Revolution was essentially complete, but the factories’ output was little more than a rehashing of previous styles and trends. Forward-looking designers looked to pre-industrial and non-Western cultures for a ‘new,’ pure visual vocabulary, one untainted by the exigencies of machine manufacture.

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Of course, these artists were still looking to the past, but it was a foreign, exotic past, and they were trying to use these other cultures as inspiration, not for imitation. The most influential ‘foreign’ cultures at the time were the Gothic era (the past as foreign), Japan, and the Islamic World.

Like many designers of his era, Carlo Bugatti turned to these three influences in his own work. But he combined them and transformed them in a totally unique way, somehow avoiding the rather obvious orientalizing tendencies of some of his peers. When the Queen of Italy commended Bugatti on his “Mooresque” work in 1902, he cheekily responded, “You are mistaken, Majesty, this style is mine!”

The 1902 International Exhibition at Turin was where Bugatti first gained world fame as a designer. For the exhibition, he designed his famous Snail Room, a spiral-shaped barroom decorated with snail heads (image 2). He also created the furniture for the room, including his Cobra chairs (image 1), and won the top award at Turin. Bugatti was dubbed “the first in Italy to realize rather than dream modern furniture.”

His furniture is certainly inspired by North African and Islamic designs. He was also influenced by the French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, a major proponent of the Gothic style (image 3). Perhaps most obvious is Bugatti’s interest in animals and nature. His furniture often looks almost animated, full of potential energy, as if it’s about to trot away on coltish legs (image 4). Other pieces reflect an interest in architecture; some of his work could be scale models of fantastical buildings (images 5-7). In an industrial era, his furniture was made out of parchment, bone, mother-of-pearl, pewter, copper and other refined materials.

Bugatti enjoyed much acclaim during his lifetime, though by the time he died, in 1940, he was no longer in style. His sons were ultimately more famous than he, Rembrandt Bugatti was a sculptor, while Ettore Bugatti founded the eponymous race car company. Lately, though, his work has enjoyed renewed acclaim, and thanks no doubt to its sculptural forms and undeniable originality, it has sold briskly at auction (images 8-9).

While Bugatti was obviously a singular talent with a unique style all his own, I wanted to mention him alongside his contemporary, the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudì. Gaudì (image 10) also used inspiration from nature and from the Islamic and Gothic cultures in his search for a new vocabulary of form. These are two very different designers, both visionaries who took the design of their era to its fantastical extremes.

Images: 1 Bugatti’s Cobra chair, circa 1902. Oak, vellum and bronze. Part of the décor of the Snail Room at the 1902 International Exhibition at Turin. Image via Leyden Lewis; 2 Bugatti’s Snail Room from the 1902 Turin International Exhibition, for which he won top honors. Via; 3 Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s drawing of Puy-en-Velay, a French cloister on the pilgrimage route, image via Wikimedia Commons; 4 Bugatti armchair, circa 1900. Parchment, ebonized wood, hammered copper, pewter and bone. Via Christie’s; 5 Bugatti’s Double-Sided Desk, circa 1900. Painted parchment, ebonized wood, pewter and brass inlay, hammered brass, bone. Sold at Christie’s in 2007 for $1,553,000, over ten times the estimate. Via Christie’s; 6 Bugatti Cabinet, circa 1902. Walnut, bone, hand-painted vellum, copper, mahogany, pewter, silk tassels, glass windows. Image from Christie’s; 7 Bugatti Cabinet, circa 1898. Ebonized wood, pewter and brass inlay, hammered brass. Sold in 2007 at Christie’s for $253,000. Image from Christie’s; 8 Bugatti throne chairs, circa 1900. Blackened wood and mahogany with parchment. These chairs recently sold at auction at LA Modern for $13,475, over four times the estimate. Via; 9 Pair of armchairs by Bugatti, circa 1905. Walnut, ebonized wood, silk, painted parchment, copper, pewter, and mother-of-pearl. Phillips de Pury sold this pair in 2008 for £18,750. Via; 10 Antoni Gaudì’s Casa Vicens, Barcelona (1883), via archiseek.