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Made in Italy: Giorgio Casali exhibition at the Estorick Collection, London

Casali’s shots of Italian mid-century modern futniture design and architecture became the signature aesthetic of Ponti’s Domus

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is located in a relatively modest Georgian house in Islington, London. This provides an appropriately domestic setting for a small exhibition of work by Giorgio Casali (1913-1995), mined from a newly explored archive of over 200,000 photographs at Venice’s IUAV.

Casali is an overlooked figure in architectural photography partly because he was modest and never part of the scene, and partly because he dedicated so much of his work to a single outlet and his name became overshadowed by that of the magazine in which he published, Giò Ponti’s Domus. His photographs are even jointly credited ‘foto Casali Domus’ creating a double-barrelled surname merging his own work with that of the magazine.

Casali became house photographer for many postwar Italian architects, including Angelo Mangiarotti, Franco Albini, Marco Zanuso and Gae Aulenti, among many others, but it was his work for Piero Bottoni documenting the QT8 experimental housing district in Milan that brought him to Ponti’s attention. He then photographed the Superleggera chair that Ponti designed for Cassina, which was published in March 1952’s Domus. From then on, Ponti relied heavily on Casali’s photographs until his death in 1979.

Two Casali photographs of the ‘Superlight’ chair feature as centrepieces in the exhibition, enlarged to human scale. One (above) shows a woman, back turned to the camera, weighing the chair at arm’s length hanging the spring scale from a single finger. The other is of a besuited boy holding the chair with his little finger. The message is clearly communicated through the photography: the chair is both stylish and light.

Secticon C1 clock by designers Angelo Mangiarotti and Bruno Morassutti, 1960

Secticon C1 clock, designed by Angelo Mangiarotti and Bruno Morassutti, 1960

The exhibition documents Casali’s photography from 1951 to 1983, corresponding to Italy’s postwar economic miracle when the ‘Made in Italy’ brand became known for quality of design and production. Domus was central to the creation of this image, transporting it all over the world.

Ponti fully understood the power that photography had in this creation, giving over more room to the photograph than the text not only for the international market, but for the overall visual appeal of the magazine. His vision was to merge art, architecture and design in one beautifully mass-produced object. From editorial to advertising, Domus led the way in design and production quality, introducing regular colour features in the early 1950s, long before its rivals.

‘Ponti’s vision was to merge art, architecture and design in one beautifully mass-produced object’

This was a time when Italian architecture and product design blended into one discipline. Casali’s close friend Mangiarotti, for example, designed household objects such as vases, lamps and clocks, as well as houses to hold them. His ‘Secticon’ clock is shown as prototype and finished object, each photographed as a work of abstract art. And later, a photograph of a Mangiarotti and Morassutti house appears, unusually showing the life inside as opposed to the house as an object.

The viewer becomes a voyeur, peeking in through open curtains onto a domestic scene, the table suggesting a relaxed meal was enjoyed, the apartment furnished as elegantly as the people are dressed, all demonstrating to the growing middle classes how to consume life with modern Italian design and craftsmanship.

Libro Chair, designed by Gianni Pareschi and Umberto Orsini, 1970, manufactured by Busnelli

Libro Chair, designed by Gianni Pareschi and Umberto Orsini, 1970, manufactured by Busnelli

Arco lamp, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, 1962, manufactured by Flos

Arco lamp, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, 1962, manufactured by Flos

The exhibition boasts a clutch of the original objects, too, sitting alongside their photographed representations. Pareschi and Orsini’s Libro Chair, produced by Busnelli in 1970, takes its name from the 10 cushions bound at a spine and laid open on the floor like a book, presumably to flick through to find the perfect seating arrangement. Unfortunately, flicking is forbidden.

The model in the accompanying photograph sits sideways in the centrefold, looking beautiful and symmetrical, but surely missing the point of the designer’s witty observation? And Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s classic ‘Arco’ lamp, manufactured by Flos in 1962, and spawning numerous retro imitations, occupies a corner, its long arc framing two large Casali images of it in domestic action.

Much of Casali’s photography uses strong geometry and there are often central vertical and horizontal lines cutting across the frame, structuring the image ready for the page. Buildings are usually photographed as objects in space, or sitting full frontal or at a three-quarters angle on the horizon, the camera pushed low to the ground.

The resulting images turn 3D objects into 2D art merging product, architecture and art, perfect for Ponti’s aesthetic approach. Although most of Casali’s photographs in the exhibition are black and white, some are shown as internegative, coloured, cropped or framed. Over 30 of these made their way onto Domus’s covers, some of which are shown next to the original photographs.

Overall, this small exhibition throws a slice of light onto the hermetically sealed world that Giò Ponti was able to manufacture through the pages of Domus and that he used to sell good taste to the increasingly wealthy Italian middle classes. It is beautifully retro and tastefully mid-century modern and the catalogue is even better.

The stair in Albini and Helg’s Roman department store La Rinascente refers to Borromini’s famous elliptical stair for Palazzo Barberini in the same city, making this a palace of consumerism

The stair in Albini and Helg’s Roman department store La Rinascente refers to Borromini’s famous elliptical stair for Palazzo Barberini in the same city, making this a palace of consumerism

Giorgio Casali Photographer, Domus 1951-1983, Architecture, Design and Art in Italy,

Where: Estorick Collection, Canonbury, London

When: Until 8 September 2013

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