intOndo is happy to share with its readers this lively portrait of the Italian company Sormani SpA (Arosio, Como) which is also a piece of Italian design history from the 1960s to the late 1980s. We are extremely grateful to Gloria Sormani for participating in this interview and for the care she puts into the project started by her father.
How and where was Sormani born?
Sormani SpA was founded in Arosio (Como, Italy) in 1961 by my father, Luigi Sormani, when he was twenty-nine years old. His father Giovanni was a furniture dealer, at a time when carpenters in the Brianza area worked hard to produce the so called "beautiful little rooms": coherent sets of masterly techniques of cabinet-making and traditional craftsmanship. Luigi revealed a very precocious talent for furnishing and, at the age of seventeen, he moved to Milan to decorate the houses of wealthy people leaving in the first circle of the Navigli and within a few years he opened a shop in Corso di Porta Romana, in the Crocetta neighborhood.
The young Sormani ("Luigino", as his masters Giò Ponti and Carlo De Carli affectionately called him) did not believe that the artisan production, which he knew well, could satisfy the desire for industrialization and modernity that pervaded Italy after the war. His dream was to be able to produce furniture that could be a revolution in the way Italians lived. In order to do that he pursued an interest in avant-garde structures based on the German model.
That is how, at his own risk and in disagreement with his father who was much more conservative, he started one of the most pioneering adventures of the second half of the 20th century. Between a spirit of innovation and a vision of the future, the first ten years of the company represent a major transformation in the panorama of furniture, which was still linked to solid walnut furniture (mentioned above) and to handcrafted models. Sormani founded the first fully automated furniture factory, equipped with the most advanced machinery for the time. In addition he perceived the importance of computers to streamline processes and to read data (we are in the late sixties) and he was also the first to experiment:
- The use of exotic materials (Rio Rosewood) to enrich the choice of finishes
- The realization of furniture in extruded aluminium
- In collaboration with Bayer, manufacturing of shells of armchairs and other furnishing elements (beds, bookcases, various accessories) in thermoformed plastic: furniture produced as cars...
- The use of low voltage in dematerialized lighting projects (fifty years before the Oled), thanks to the collaboration with Studio A.R.D.I.T.I..
The natural consequence of this visionary approach was also a revolution in product design. Iconic pieces and serial products (as iconic as Claudio Salocchi's AMINA collection), made of a few well engineered pieces, with infinite possibilities for assembly.
It is a piece of the history of Italian design written between genius and innovation of materials. Which are Sormani's blockbusters?
It's difficult to set priorities, but there are a number of objects that are still collector's pieces:
- Gianni Songia's GS bookcases in Rio Rosewood and the GS 195, a precious rosewood sofa bed.
- The pieces designed by Carlo De Carli, from the DC 154 chests of drawers to the rosewood tables.
- Most of the pieces designed by Claudio Salocchi (of whom we speak below): the Amina series, the Distico table, the Paione sofa, the Vivalda and Vivaldina series, the Appoggio bar stool, the Palla armchair, the Ellisse series, the Centro bookcase... we could go on for pages and pages...
- The Cabrio Bed, the Additional System and the Multichair by Joe Colombo
- The Coclea table by Fabrizio Cocchia
- Prismar and BT lamps by Studio Arditi
- The series of lamps and accessories in Travertine
- Nike armchairs by Richard Neagle
- Studies on plastic accessories by Studio D.A., Cesare Casati and Roberto Lera
- In the late Eighties, the series "Project" and "Sari" by De Pas, D'Urbino, Lomazzi
- Walter Leeman's avant-garde loveseats
These are collaborations with designers who have made history in Italian design: from Carlo De Carli to Giò Ponti...
Today we hear a lot about Archistars... but in the past, products came before designers. However, I found a draft of the first Sormani catalogue, which appeared in the first half of the sixties, in which the designer was definitely put in the foreground, as the unavoidable advocate for change. This was because Luigi Sormani had understood that the style of the designer would define a taste line which became the company's most recognisable feature.
Unlike many manufacturers, however, Sormani was not too inclined to surrender to the designers' creativity: by putting forward his experience in production, he prioritised the feasibility of the piece. Of course, this created lively relationships with the various designers, which in the end turned out to be quality friendships, strengthened by the constructive confrontation of ideas and mutual respect.
However, it is curious how some designers with true genius, both creative and productive, haven't gone down in history as the great masters they were. For example, who remembers the humble and industrious Gianni Songia, who, among other things, was for a long time affiliated with the Sormani company? His collections made in rosewood and the GS195 sofa, (a sofa bed of absolute class that was a true design hit on the German market for years and aroused the admiration of Osvaldo Borsani) are still in the annals of design. It's easier to talk about Carlo De Carli, whose pieces are still many businessmen and collector's favourites.
Everyone today rightly pays homage to Master Giò Ponti, to whom my father looked with awe. Eventually, Luigi thought that "Il Maestro" could solve a project that he was particularly keen on: the creation of a series of numerically limited panels, able to furnish any room of the house. Luigi had Interlübke examples in mind and wanted to engineer a new line of this type, but intended for mass production. In 1967-68, therefore, he had approached Ponti, believing that he was the right man to do the job. Ponti, I might add, was obviously more of an "artist" than of an "engineer" in terms of furnishings, and all that came out of it was a rather anonymous line of elements, not so modular, that was not very successful (even though I had the honour of having my first room furnished with these elements designed by the " Maestro Ponti").
True love and a true bond between producer and designer was achieved instead with Claudio Salocchi, an absolute genius of industrial design, with whom Sormani created his most beautiful collections. Salocchi had popped into the Crocetta shop with his drawings under his arm during one beautiful morning in the spring of 1962. He was determined to get a meeting with this young industrialist of whom people were beginning to talk about. The result was twenty years of intense collaboration and deep friendship, which lasted until the death of the two heroes, despite the ups and downs of life and of fortune.
Another important collaboration was that with the Studio A.R.D.I.T.I. - still today I am personally in contact with the exciting Duccio Trassinelli - which brought "a new light" in the homes of the Italians. PRISMAR lamps are still of impressive topicality and the romantic and soft light of BT low-voltage magnetic lamps is still avidily searched by collectors.
Last, but not least, the collaboration with Joe Colombo deserves an honorable mention. He came to Sormani when he was rather desperate because none of the other notable companies was able to technically create the so called "Additional System" for him: they would fit it into a box that was supposed to contain all the cushion's elements, while the designer thought of them as self-supporting. Sormani almost instantly solved the problem and the seat became a milestone in the history of design. Together, they also created "Rotoliving" (on the background of the picture above) - a complete furnishing module presented at the legendary exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York "Italy: the New Domestic Landscape" in 1972 - the avant-garde "Cabrio Bed", the first multifunctional bed in the history of contemporary design, and the aforementioned "Multichair".
What is the philosophy that has distinguished your family's business?
Our philosophy can be summed up in the motto "Sormani è domani", meaning Sormani is tomorrow.
Sormani existed until Luigi believed in innovation: innovation as a modus vivendi in production, product, materials, engineering, marketing and sales. A couple of really adverse situations (google it, it is useless to repeat oneself) have progressively marked the proverbial optimism and confidence of the great innovator that invented Sormani. What can I say... it's a good thing, he was human too!
How do you see the future of today's design companies?
If we talk about industrial design in furniture, today's Italian companies lack the numbers of the past. Designers are no longer "married" to a single company and this penalizes the variety of trend lines and homologates all designs. Fortunately, there are still a few exceptions.
Some companies also pay for their own production structure, which links them to an compulsory output that prevents real innovation. Other companies are, in fact, large craftsmen who chase the desires of demanding customers: they produce great works, but they don't innovate. Of course, I'm just thinking of the product. Current history stresses the fact that the product comes after brand marketing.
There is a lot of talk about digital transformation, but few companies are really understanding the scope and importance of using these tools. Digital transformation permeates the whole company, not just production and not just marketing. Few companies understand this. I trust that the future will be revealed by the market itself, giving satisfaction to those companies that have promptly started using appropriate tools. But this is another interview.