Carlo Ratti and the art of bentwood: a 4 generation long tradition

In the vast panorama of curved wood furniture on the vintage market, the name of Carlo Ratti stands out prominently. Telling us about the mastery of this illustrious designer and innovator, together with his legacy in the history of design, are his granddaughter Giulia Berruti and great-granddaughter Emanuela Berruti.

Bent wood is a technology that is still highly appreciated by contemporary design, and it finds a powerful source of inspiration in the past. The elegant furniture designed by Carlo Ratti (Monza, 3 February 1890 -1961) are excellent examples of the first pieces made of curved plywood in Italy, which reached maximum notoriety in the 1950s and 60s. Originally a sculptor, Carlo Ratti sensed, in the wake of Michael Thonet's furniture revolution, that it was time for Italy to launch modern furniture: thus he began, in the family business, to dedicate himself to curved plywood together with his brother Mario, experimenting various wood bending techniques. Today, Carlo Ratti's legacy lives on in its third and fourth generation through his grandchild Carlo Berruti — designer and CEO of Danber, another Carlo Ratti's brand founded at the end of the '70s — and through his great-granddaughter Emanuela Berruti. We had the opportunity of an interesting talk with both her and Giulia Berruti (Carlo Berruti's sister), entrepreneur in the field of environmental sustainability, who keeps the family's history alive.

Mrs Berruti, your grandfather was an innovator in the history of Made in Italy design originated in the Brianza region. What was his transition from artist to furniture designer and maker?

Giulia Berruti: My grandfather was an artist, he was also part of the Monzese Artistic Family movement. He didn't have a commercial soul, but he was an experimenter, and furthermore the family company already produced furniture. He was the first to bend plywood in Italy. At the beginning he worked with his brother Mario and his nephew Antonio, who then broke away and founded his own business (Compensati Curvi) in Monza, experimenting with architects who woud then become famous, such as Vittoriano Viganò. Carlo Ratti carried on his activity in Lissone with his son Angelo, his daughter Piera, and later with his son in law Piero Berruti.

Your grandfather passed away when you were 14. What memories do you have of the times when your grandfather was active in the industry?

GB: I have many memories of the architects and designers who came here to the factory, from Joe Colombo to the Castiglioni brothers, up to Tito Agnoli; my grandfather collaborated with them to create furniture and chair parts in curved plywood. For example, he collaborated with Carlo De Carli to produce the chair for Cassina, which won the first Compasso D'Oro award. When our grandfather died, we cousins ​​started working in the factory as we finished our studies. My cousin Carlo Ratti experimented with bentwood with the young architects who came to the factory, and became a historian of bent plywood, writing a series of books on this subject. Piero took care of the sales and Marita took care of the administration. I worked in sales, while my brother continued his studies at Bocconi.

What phenomena favored the spread of bent wood in Italy?

GB: Carlo Mollino had already carried out his experiments with curved solid wood, while Thonet we had spread the evolution of curved wood in Europe; at the same time, in the United States there were Charles and Ray Eames... and in Northern Europe, Alvar Aalto was active... little by little, a technical evolution was happening.

Carlo Ratti was an artist at heart. Who was the commercial mind?

GB: It was his daughter (my mother), Piera Ratti, administrator of the company. She was a fundamental figure: she started working at the age of 16 at the Marelli company in Brignano, learning industrial accounting. At 16, my mom was in charge of 6 people. She wasn't creative, so the managerial combination with my grandfather was a winning one.

In what forms did bent wood mainly spread and how has its production evolved over time?

GB: Chairs, armchairs and tables; in particular, my grandfather was renowned not only for his seats, but also for his bedside tables. When I was a girl, the big brands came to the bent wood workshops in Brianza, from Molteni to Flexform. Furniture frames were produced in the smaller workshops, which were then finished in large companies. Young people like my cousin experimented, as contemporary designers still do today.
There was a moment in which the history of this material took, in my opinion, a bad turn: in the '70s - '80s, there was a real "binge" of bent wood, its most harmonious and complex forms gradually disappeared. Bent plywood is expensive, handmade; it was worth it for the high design, but for semi-finished products, polyurethane has become more attractive over time.

You have maintained live contacts with the world linked to your grandfather.

GB: Yes, with my cousin Carlo we have always tried to keep alive the history of the company in which we were born and raised, and it is inevitable to keep in touch with those who have been part of our world, for example Ignazia Favata, who manages the Studio Joe Colombo; she told me about a chair (never produced) resulting from the collaboration between my grandfather and the designer. To organize the Fuorisalone which took place in Monza, thanks to the councilor for culture Massimiliano Longo in 2019, I also came into contact with Osvaldo Borsani's nephew and with companies such as Kartell, which have created historical museums.

Above all, in 1988, you published with Rima Editrice the book Curved plywood. Italian projects and designers, a substantial collection of tour interviews with designers who have introduced curved plywood into their projects. And for a period, tou also worked in the company.

GB: My mother wanted me to do her job, so I worked in the company for a while; I live in Lissone near the old factory, I took care of spreading the history linked to my grandfather. But my path was different. With my family background and my education, in the 90s I started organizing various events on sustainability in the environmental sector, from construction to furnishings, such as the Habitat Clima fair in Monza. At the moment I am the editor of Casa Benessere magazine, founded on sustainable homes through interviews and event organisation, and recently I have been following projects for the redevelopment of building entrance halls.

What was your grandfather like outside of his work?

GB: He loved people and surrounding himself with people, and had an excellent relationship with us grandchildren: he was especially interested in us and our friends being able to have fun, so much so that he built us a theater to play in! However, he became very strict if we went into places in the factory that were forbidden to us! Beyond the company, family has always been his priority.

Emanuela, with your father Carlo, you manage the Danber brand. How is the legacy of your great-grandfather Carlo Ratti present in this reality?

Emanuela Berruti: All our know-how comes from our great-grandfather. From the history of the products to the building, up to our machinery, mostly the original one. The curved plywood, of which our great-grandfather was a precursor, is still our essence. Grandmother Piera was certainly very skilled because by developing curved and semi-finished products on behalf of subcontractors, she had managed to transform the company into a subcontractor itself, selling to large companies.

How was Danber born?
EB: My father Carlo Berruti is a designer, and from an early age, when he played in the factory with wood curved sheets, he breathed his grandfather's profession. Danber is Carlo Ratti's "right-hand man" brand, which developed towards the end of the 1970s. As curved plywood became more widespread and other materials such as plastic and polycarbonate appeared on the market, my father started his own furniture production. He originally used the original factory molds! In the 90s (I started working in the company in 1997), my father decided to sell directly to customers and not to resellers. Little by little, his pieces evolved into lacquered furniture. Then, from his acquaintance with artists, the idea of ​​creating painted furniture was born.

What are the innovations introduced by Danber in the curved furniture sector?
EB: Our historical evolution consists in the departure from Carlo Ratti's innovation, giving life to another innovation: the decorated curved furniture. This is where our Sole and Luna collections were born, as well as the chests of drawers and the bedside tables. At a certain point, the curved painting was born, a sculpture-panel on which our decorators took inspiration from great painters such as Picasso or Modigliani, painting their own interpretations on the panel. This concept has been transposed onto curved furniture: these are unique pieces, because they are produced exclusively on commission, featuring the pictorial project that the customer desires. Designed to last over time, they are timeless furniture because they do not follow fashion, and fit into different furnishing contexts, from ancient to modern to eclectic.

What is your reality like today?
EB: Today Danber is a small, super artisanal company: we produce 80% of the furniture inside the factory; only the pictorial decorations are carried out externally. We have shrunk, but the decline in production has coincided with an evolution in design. In France, a country where we have a lot of visibility, Danber has been defined as the "antiques of the future".