italian interior design italiano

A brief history of Italian interior design

In the previous article about the history of Interior Design we dealt with the evolution of furniture from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the Belle Époque, a flourishing period for the development of the applied arts and for what might be called “proto-design“. The 1870s saw an important innovation in the closet, the design object we are most interested in: the hanging rod was added to wardrobes for the first time and hangers will follow soon.

As early as the 19th century, furniture styles multiplied, which led us in this second part to focus at some point on Italian interior design. However, the multiplicity of trends that developed in the late 19th century and the first part of the 20th century had one thing in common: the desire to break with the past and historicism, rejecting the eclecticism that had characterized the 19th century.

We already see this stance in Art Nouveau and Art Deco (which we will explore shortly), as well as in art in the Historic Avant-gardes. This period was also characterized by a close relationship between the visual arts and design: think of the Bauhaus, Gropius and Le Corbusier.

The birth of Italian interior design

In this second part we will look not only at the main artistic currents of the 20th century, but also how they influenced the Italian scene and Made in Italy furniture. When did Italian interior design begin to develop, gaining worldwide fame?


acquario civico milano
Milan’s Civic Aquarium, the only building not to be demolished after the 1906 International Exhibition


Italy arrived behind the rest of Europe, aided by the country’s slow industrialization (with the exception of some textile and ceramic factories in northern Italy). The North’s industrialization only began in the 1870s and 1880s, a fact that was also accompanied by the creation of several schools of applied arts (the Milan Polytechnic was born as early as 1863).

This may seem like a weakness of Italian interior design, but in part it is also one of its founding characteristics. Italy’s strong tradition of high craftsmanship brought within entrepreneurship a number of doubts about mass production, which led design in Italy to move between industrial art and craftsmanship.

Liberty furniture: the first style of the 20th century

Returning to our history of furniture, let us begin with what was to all intents and purposes the first style of the 20th century: the Liberty, otherwise known as Art Nouveau, which was already widespread at the end of the previous century. The name of this movement took on various other names depending on the state to which it belonged: in Italy it was also known as “Stile Floreale” or “Arte Nuova,” while in Germany we find it as “Jugendstil,” in Austria as “Sezessionstil,” and in Spain as “Arte Joven,” to name a few examples.

The fact that in much of Europe the name of Art Nouveau emphasizes precisely the “new” and “young” character of the style is already symptomatic of one of its most important features: the rejection of historicist eclecticism, which was prevalent in the 19th century.

Another foundation of Art Nouveau was the desire to reconcile mechanical workmanship, the child of the industrial revolution, and the aesthetic component through the serial production of beautiful objects (at least in theory: later in practice, Art Nouveau furniture was essentially one-of-a-kind pieces). The design (or maybe we should still speak of “proto-design”) of these objects drew on the natural world and had the line as its protagonist element, capable of finding new solutions to the relationship between form and movement.

In Art Nouveau furniture we find functional decoration, which is not only meant to adorn but also to structure the form of the object. There was a particular interest in colors and transparencies, as well as a taste for swirling images.

But how did this style evolve in Italy?

Art Nouveau in Italian interior design


1902 esposizione torino
Some photos from the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin, 1902


It was the Austrian-German Art Nouveau that influenced the Stile Floreale in Italy, not only because of the link between the former Lombardo-Veneto Kingdom and the Austrian Empire but also because of the pact of the Triple Alliance, signed in 1882.
Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of World War I, Italy experienced an early industrial development, which, however, could not be compared to that of other European powers. Even the spread of Art Nouveau had its limits, despite such positive experiences as the 1902 Turin Exposition, with a program that read as follows:

“We would like this organic exhibition of furnishings to not only aim for an aristocratic character of elegance and art beauty, but also and above all a practical and industrial character”.


liberty italian design italiano
A cabinet by cabinetmaker Eugenio Quarti. Source:


Of course, there was no shortage of outstanding Italian personalities in the Art Nouveau sphere: just think of the work of Eugenio Quarti, Vittorio Ducrot and Ernesto Bas.

Leaving the field of furniture for a moment, this for Italian interior design was an important period for the automotive and aeronautical industries. In 1899 FIAT was founded, a few years later Lancia (1908) and in 1918 what would become Alfa Romeo. Also in 1916 Gianni Caproni formed the Caproni-Fiat-Ansaldo consortium.

1908 was also the founding year of Olivetti, which would become a truly international company by the turn of the 1950s and 1960s with its famous typewriters.


fabbrica di mobili ducrot
The wood carving department of the Ducrot Furniture Factory in Palermo, 1927

Art Deco and the birth of industrial design

The style most representative of the 1920s was Art Deco, heir to the geometric line of Charles R. Mackintosh, one of the major exponents of Art Nouveau in the United Kingdom, different from the organic line that had spread instead in countries such as France. It was probably the first “international” style, as it was successful in both Europe and America with the furnishing of public places, movie theaters, skyscrapers, and large hotels.

As already mentioned, Art Deco shapes were born out of geometric stylization and are characterized by squares, triangles, circles, and spirals, with a predilection also for zigzag patterns, and radiality.

Art Deco was a style that was not afraid to use strong shades of color, from warm reds and yellows to purples and blues.


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Cabanel chest of drawers by Jacques Emile Ruhlmann, 1921-22. Source:


In terms of furniture, the large Deco wardrobes tended to blend in with the wall and become one with the rest of the room. Other storage furniture featured tall, slender legs to detach the main body as much as possible from the floor.

Fine and exotic woods were used, accompanied in some cases by leather, ivory and polymateric inlays. Edges disappeared, in favor of doming and broken lines that were sometimes curved and sometimes straight.

An invention of this era was the cabinet-bar, which later became a single piece along with the cabinet-radio.

In the same period, a more conscious idea of industrial design also took hold through movements such as the Bauhaus in Germany, De Stijl in the Netherlands, and Esprit Nouveau in France, as well as the Scandinavian school of Alvar Aalto.

The idea of designer furniture was consolidated to such an extent that, after the crisis of ’29, the wealthy classes bought not luxury crafts, but luxury design.

New materials such as tubular metal, metal sheet, concrete, and synthetic fibers were introduced, while decorations, on the other hand, were abolished: from the perspective of industrial design, furniture was meant to fulfill a very specific task, so any frills were considered obsolete (to quote Le Corbusier: “A house is a machine for living in”). There was, however, an important aesthetic component to be found in the use of colors, the proportions of elements, and sometimes in the coexistence of multiple materials.


casiers standard le corbusier
Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand’s Standard Casiers.. Source:


The industrial design revolution was a new conception of furniture that involved modular and composable storage units, such as Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand’s Casiers Standard. The first metal furniture designed for home furnishings was also born (previously they were used only in offices), which are still a benchmark for contemporary design today: just think of collections such as Metallica, which uses materials such as satin-finished steel, chrome, bronze, and gold for its high quality metal wardrobes.

Art Deco and 20th Century Style in Italy

During the 1920s, furniture production in Italy was quite varied. To better understand the historical period, we can take as an example the I Biennial of Decorative Arts in Monza in 1923. During this exhibition, one could admire the futurist works of Fortunato Depero and some examples of Art Nouveau furniture and Art Deco products, a style that in Italy was interpreted as a synthesis of Art Nouveau, Milanese Neoclassicism (characterized by the production of luxury furniture), and Stile Novecento. Vittorio Gregotti commented on this latest trend with these words:

“for the bourgeoisie made more secure by Fascism, a new style was set up: the ‘900. Next to the Louis XV bedroom, next to the Renaissance-style study, next to the Empire-style living room, here, perhaps after throwing away the outdated Art Nouveau furniture, is the ‘900-style living room”.


stile novecento art deco
Closet by Tomaso Buzzi, 1930. Source:


With the 3rd and 4th Biennale, the success of Stile Novecento was confirmed. However, on the occasion of the 5th edition in 1933 (which went from Biennale to Triennale, after moving to the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan), the two architects Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia presented a project that went against the trend: Domus Nova, a furnishing made up of cheap, simple and functional furniture that was intended to change the home of the middle class.


italian design italiano domus nova
Chest of drawers with mirror – Domus Nova, designed by Gio Ponti and Emilio Lancia in 1928-32. Source:


Still remaining in the Fascist era, metal furniture gained value, especially in office furniture, public buildings, and Case del Fascio. Despite the success of chrome-plated tubular steel, however, the cost of making it was still too high for wider distribution: a piece of metal furniture, in fact, cost twice as much as one made of wood.

The Italian Futurism

So far we have left out a movement that deserves a separate paragraph: Futurism, a purely Italian avant-garde that wanted to renew culture at all costs, rejecting the past and looking to the future. It was a total movement, affecting not only Italian art and interior design but every aspect of daily life.

In 1915, Futurists Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero published the manifesto Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe, which included the renewal of furniture. Balla, a true proto-designer, designed his own home in Rome with particularly bright colors and furniture that was quick and easy to build: speed for Futurism was everything, even in furniture.


italian futurism
Sideboard by Giacomo Balla, 1918. Source:

The 1950s of Italian interior design

With the end of World War II, Italy and the rest of Europe were supported by economic aid from the United States earmarked for reconstruction. The American way of life became the model for Western culture. However, it was also the period that saw the birth of Made in Italy and Italian Style, officially in 1947 with the 8th Milan Triennale: Italian interior design began to become a benchmark for the whole world. In addition, in 1954 the Compasso d’Oro Prize, the oldest dedicated to design, was established.

Issue 48 of Domus magazine wrote in 1952:

“It is the moment of industrial design, for taste, for the aesthetics of production; it is for culture and for technique; it is for civilization and for custom; it is above all for our Italy, whose raw material, whose vocation has always been (and wonderfully, and always will be by divine grace) that of – pardon the old-fashioned expression – ‘creating beauty'”.

In the 1950s, the typical positive and negative aspects of Italian interior design began to be defined: the lack of a unified style, the richness of critical debate, the coexistence/tension between industry and craftsmanship, as well as its elitist character (although we can consider the Vespa of 1945, the Lambretta of 1947, and the Fiat 500 of 1957 manifestations of the “poor” version of Italian interior design). Italian designers followed two strong trends: the “pride of modesty” and “necessary luxury.”

italian design italiano vittorio dassi
Closet with sliding doors by Vittorio Dassi, 1950s. Source:

Witnessing the “necessary luxury” were Vittorio Dassi‘s furniture, made in the 1940s and 1950s, featuring a selection of fine woods (cherry, walnut, rosewood, and ash), inlaid panels, and luxurious crystal.
Another example is Azucena, a furniture brand founded in 1947 that reinterpreted luxury furniture by combining new and traditional materials. One of the foundations of Azucena furniture was the search for luminosity, through lacquers, transparencies, polished chrome-plated brass, finishes, and colors. The aim was to produce a timeless, fashion-resistant type of furniture (a mission shared by Cosy International).


azucena made in italy
Mobile di Luigi Caccia Dominioni per Azucena degli anni 70. Fonte:

New materials of the 1960s

During the 1960s Italian interior design reached its full maturity. New materials were used in furniture design, including plastics and polyurethane, which finally allowed industrial production of objects. In particular, plastics became the new material of choice, not only for their technical advantages but also for what they represented: equality, democracy, freedom.

Among the many active designers was the visionary Joe Colombo, who exploited these new materials to improve the comfort of Italians during the 1960s and 1970s. For example, in 1964 he proposed the multifunctional Personal Container closet, which was intended to reduce the cabinet’s bulk and maximize its storage function: it could be used for clothing, but it also included a record player, radio, bookshelf, ashtray, and a range of useful cabinets.


personal container joe colombo
Personal Container by Joe Colombo, 1964. Source:

Anti-Design and Counter-Design: the Radical Style

At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s there was a climate of protest and contestation. This was also found in the world of Italian interior design. Spaces were changing: the dining room and living room merged, armchairs became more comfortable (depending on the time spent in front of the TV) and a new irony spread among many young authors who, feeling excluded from the rationalist current and the Italian Style of those years, gathered in different studios to propose avant-garde projects: we find Archizoom and Superstudio (1966), Ufo (1967), 9999 (1968) and Alchimia (1976).


superstudio made in italy
Superstudio’s 1972 “Misura” series. Source:


The activities of these young designers were grouped under the term Radical Design at the 14th Milan Triennale in 1968. Radical Design ironically contested the product design of the time by responding with counter-design, characterized by impossible furniture and references to the Dada current.


night cell joe colombo
Housing cell designed by Joe Colombo for Bayer, 1969. Source:


1972 was also the year of an exhibition that further consecrated Italian interior design: The New Domestic Landscape, organized at MoMa in New York.


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The exhibition dedicated to Italian design at MoMa, with a section devoted to objects. Source:

New icons of Italian design

The 1980s was the decade when everything seemed possible, both in everyday life and in art and design. It was the golden age of such realities as the Memphis Group, founded in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass, and the Alessi company, which had already existed since 1921, but in those years distinguished itself with the new Officina Alessi brand and the production of experimental products in limited editions, such as those made by the Compasso d’Oro Stefano Giovannoni.


armadio made in italy closet
Pacific Wardrobe by Michele De Lucchi for Memphis, 1981. Source:


In seguito alla crisi energetica del 1979, il triangolo industriale Torino-Milano-Genova non fu più il solo protagonista della scena italiana: a questo si unirono altre interessanti realtà della Toscana, delle Marche e dell’Italia nord-orientale, che seppero unire progetti moderni e tradizione artigianale. Al buon prodotto si aggiunse una spettacolarizzazione dell’immagine aziendale, basti pensare al lavoro di Oliviero Toscani per Benetton.

Following the energy crisis of 1979, the Turin-Milan-Genoa industrial triangle was no longer the only protagonist of the Italian scene: it was joined by other interesting realities in Tuscany, the Marches, and northeastern Italy, which knew how to combine modern designs and traditional craftsmanship. To the good product was added a spectacularisation of corporate image, just think of Oliviero Toscani’s work for Benetton.

Meanwhile, Italian companies opened up to collaboration with international designers, who enlivened the scene with new ideas and influences: an example is the involvement of Parisian designer Philippe Starck by companies such as Kartell, Flos and Driade.


philippe starck
Théâtre du Monde by Philippe Starck, 1984. Source:

The new millennium of Italian interior design

Over the last few decades, the exponential growth in the number of designers, teachers and design students in Italy testifies to the increasing importance of this discipline in the cultural and industrial landscape. Design is no longer an elite profession, but has spread widely throughout the country, promoting a variety of styles and approaches. This growing complexity makes it difficult to identify dominant stylistic trends.

Today, Italian design extends to all kinds of products, from furniture to service equipment for public and private institutions, from the design of sales centres to the design of virtual spaces.

One of the distinguishing features of Italian design continues to be the coexistence of different materials, particularly highlighted in the furniture sector. Industrial objects designed in Italy exploit a wide range of raw materials, resulting in innovative, polymateric creations.


metal wardrobe
Cosy International, Metallica collection


The Covid-19 pandemic has further influenced Italian interior design, leading to an increased demand for made-to-measure solutions and well-organized spaces within homes. Bespoke walk-in closets, small or large, have become an increasingly evident trend, responding to the need to optimize space and create comfortable and aesthetically pleasing environments.

In conclusion, 21st century Italian interior design is distinguished by its ability to embrace multiple sectors and adapt to the changing needs of modern society. Italian designers continue to innovate, seeking to combine functionality and aesthetics to create products and environments that reflect people’s identities and aspirations.


walk in closet
Cosy International, Butterfly collection

The history of Italian interior design continues…

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