COMMENT

State of Pontification

Milan

19 February 2018

Since 2010, the Italian furniture firm Molteni & C has had an exclusive 10-year deal to produce re-editions of designs executed by Italian architect Gio Ponti (1891-1979). The collection is a mixture of re-issues of industrially produced pieces; production versions of one-off commissions; and first iterations of plans drawn from Ponti’s archives. “I think our past is our present,” explained the company’s Francesca Molteni in 2013, billing the re-editions as an act of careful archaeology.

Last year, that act of archaeology came into question when the company entered a legal battle with Cassina over the rights to produce a particular Ponti lounge chair, called the D.156.3 by Molteni and the 811 by Cassina. Cassina claimed the design originated in its factory in the 1950s, although a court ruling in April found in favour of Molteni and awarded it exclusive rights to the piece.

Molteni & C will likely prove careful custodians. The brand’s furniture is immaculately produced and its history dates back to the 1930s, Ponti’s heyday. And yet in spite of this, Ponti never actually designed anything for Molteni & C, despite the two having coexisted for 45 years. So when Francesca Molteni says “our past”, she must be speaking in the abstract, positing a halcyon Italian design tradition to which Molteni & C somehow stands as heir.

Or perhaps not. Multiple contemporary furniture brands have been built upon bodies of work to which they can lay little direct claim. Vitra owes its success in large part to its having licensed existing designs by Charles and Ray Eames for Europe and the Middle East. Even more tangential is Cassina itself, whose 'I maestri' collection incorporates Le Corbusier, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Gerrit Rietveld as essential figures in the brand’s identity. For the record, Cassina was founded in 1927 – the year in which Mackintosh was diagnosed with a cancer of the tongue, from which he died in 1928.

There is little wrong with re-editions – it’s pleasing to see a designer’s work given a meaningful afterlife – but the adeptness with which brands can mythologise these creations and build them into their corporate identity is puzzling. A designer’s past is curiously elastic – it can easily be moulded to become a brand’s present.