It takes at least a year — a year and a half, maybe — to learn how to weave and just as long to learn how to curve. In conversation with Elia Bonacina of Bonacina 1889
«Today, we are going to take a journey backwards in time».
We are in the car, having just finished lunch at a restaurant in upper Brianza — Brianza, which Milan residents are less acquainted with, is capable of bringing together manufacturing, craftsmanship, industry, as well as historic villages and nature-rich ones. «I’d like to show you the future». I have always been familiar with Bonacina 1889 items. There is no architect who sooner or later doesn’t encounter, the patrimony of bulrush furniture which this company, based in the Como-area town of Lurago d’Erba, has been exporting to the rest of the world for more than a century. I had never before been to the industrial facility purchased by the family company where they produce these items. Hundreds of recently-built wicker armchairs and sofas occupy the central space; an order for a French hotel, he tells me. «These are made-to-order products, different from those you’ll find in our books». These pieces were designed specifically for the hotel? «500 unique pieces, five months of work, fully employing at least fifty people».
I am unsure how this former metalworking factory will show me the future. For now I see only that it is expanding which is clearly good news and means that Made in Italy remains strong. «We are here because of what does not exist just yet». Elia Bonacina shows me a space on the left with eight fully equipped work stations. «Four expert artisans, flanked by four young apprentices who are just beginning their journey in the world of bulrush furniture».
I begin to understand the glimmer in his eyes. A place in which to pass down one’s knowhow, from one generation to the next. A school, I say. «Exactly, a school. Over the years I’ve come to understand that artisan craftsmen often want to take their know-how with them to the grave. Years of experience, of knowledge, lost.» Transmitting knowledge enables it. It is what I refer to as intelligence of the hands; culture is also the technique of the body, of artisan craftsmanship, and of the finished product, not only theoretical development. «Our society has been like this. I believe it derives from the fact that our culture comes from far away, from the Greeks, from the Romans, and we have passed it down from generation to generation. There is something inside me which tells me that what I do must live on for two, three hundred years after. Otherwise what would I have left behind? Often workers — perhaps those who did not attend university — believe they have nothing to offer. They tend to close themselves off, as though what they know is unimportant».
Ultimately, it has always been this way: the medieval farmer would teach his son how to till the land, how to read signs in the sky, how to manipulate matter. When it comes to material culture, if just one, two generations are skipped, then everything can forever be lost. From several of my trips to Africa, I remember the areas struck by internal wars which had caused a generation to be skipped. The knowledge of millennia was lost and needed to be rebuilt. Here you are reformulating an inadequate concept of school: that of the teacher at the head of the class and the students at their desks. Here knowledge is passed down directly. «There will be space for face-to-face lessons. Young craftsmen will have the means for learning, designing, and writing available to them. As well as a digital system. Then, once trained, we’ll be able to transfer them to our various spaces and laboratories in Brianza».
How long is each learning cycle expected to last? «At least three years. It takes between a year and a year and a half to learn to weave, just as long to curve, and the remaining six months to learn the details. After three years a new craftsman is able to make half the products in the books. A few more and they’ve learned the hundred percent. What’s the differ- ence? It means that if I give you a piece that you’ve never made before, you’ll be able to recreate it without difficulty.»
Elia Bonacina’s enthusiasm is contagious. Wandering about the structure, he shows me a curved seat made using a baked varnish iron framework and PVC straw. It’s a sort of new frontier, he explains. «To make it, we patented the manufacturing system along with several other local companies. We’ve modified machinery that were once used for other purposes in order to curve the plastic and give it shape. Now, we are able to create this series of concave and convex elements, which, once incorporated with another, can be assembled according to the chosen design». I ask him why he wanted to show them to me. «We’ve come up with the way to build what the design required. We didn’t have the technology that could do it first. We invented it our- selves; machinery capable of creating the shapes used in this design did not exist».
We climb a metal staircase. Before us are women working with sewing machines who Elia greets one by one. We are in the textile department, at the cutting and the pairing. «The fabrics in our collection are all made in Italy, preferably by companies in the area. But we also have fabrics from Africa and from all over the world, that are requested by clients». Meanwhile, I observe the manufacturing process like a curious child: fabric lay, pattern, cut, hemming, coupling.
«The average lifespan of one of our products is about forty years. We are always available for maintenance where needed».If I have a Bonacina piece at my aunt’s house, and it needs to be refreshed? «Bring it to us. If it is well-maintained it can last another hundred years. We can replace any detail in any specific piece. There are times where hotels send us products that need to be fixed up. We have pieces that have been in use for more than one hundred years. At least a hundred pieces or so return to us every year for repair».
An anti-consumerist ideology; things are not thrown away, but rather fixed in an environment-friendly manufacturing system wherein a product actually makes it to its maximum lifespan. «Many hoteliers look to spend less — then in five, ten years they would have to replace everything anyway. Our products cost three times more than ‘normal’ products but have a much longer lifespan. Hoteliers who have understood that always return to thank us. The Musée d’Orsay’s armchair was designed specifically by Gae Aulenti. Those armchairs were at the museum for decades and were later auctioned off. Hoteliers purchased them and had them in their space for years. This past year, they returned to us to have them refurbished for a hotel in Avignon. Those armchairs have traveled around the half of France from museums to hotels. Once we’ve fixed them up they’ll easily last for another thirty years». You’ll still be here in thirty years, I tell him. Elia is young. It’s not hard to imagine him still doing this in three decades — examining the quality and durability of a product; perhaps one of those five hundred chairs currently waiting to be sent to France.
We are back in the car and I am still thinking about what I’ve just seen. There’s also the patina of time to consider, I tell him. He nods. «Aging agrees with natural materials. The more light and oxygen react with the material, the more the bulrush acquires interesting shades». Time accentuates the product rather than deteriorating it. He parks in front of the showroom designed at the end of the 1950s by Lorenzo Forges Davanzati in our second stop.
The pieces that I see on display are in design museums around the world — designers and architects ranging from Ablini to Helg to Ponti. «This space has remained untouched since it was built, but we are just getting started on transforming it. We’d like to create a museum where we exhibit the company’s over 300 years of history. We’ll display all of the works in the archives and the prototypes of the great masters — maybe even those that were never manufactured — and all of the processes that go into the creation of the finished product. We’ve asked Charlie Studio to oversee this».
This family has never been short on courage, I think, observing the modernist structure. «The Valassina was still unpaved when thisextremely modernist building was first being constructed». A museum intended could be a self-celebration. «Often, peo- ple purchase things without knowing what they’re bringing home. Before seeing and selling the product, I would like for those who come here to get to know the history of this region and of this company. The origins of the materials we use are not obvious. It’s a sort of learning stage which allows the product to be better understood and better appreciated when someone wants to purchase it». Elia speaks while I lose myself in the showroom, admiring pieces by Zanuso, Ponti, the Palla and the Eureka hanging chair by Giovanni Travasa. As always, I’m left speechless by Franca Helg’s Primavera.
The lower floor will be dedicated to the objects by famous designers — those that I’m currently admiring — while the up- per floor will house the decorative collection, the one which his father and Renzo Mongiardino desired, with products that still occupy the homes of the Rothschild, Agnelli, Dolce and Gabbana, Falk, Thyssen, and Valentino families. Pieces featuring more classical forms, borrowed from the historic books, but made current by Mongiardino. «These are unique pieces that tread the line between art and design». He shows me the Savoy. «My grandfather made it for the Savoy family. A classic court chair, but made from bulrush». Lighter, less formal.
He talks to me about the chairs with woven marsh grass designed by Peter Marino for all of the Louis Vuitton showrooms. Elia is a torrent of information. Every piece on display elicits a story to be told. Like the double version of Gae Aulenti’s 1925/1. The same armchair designed for interiors (in bulrush) and exteriors (in aluminum). «These are the first prototypes». I look at them, indistinguishable. «It’s a way of entering the near future, with a metal that is entirely recyclable; the idea of producing something that has the lowest possible environmental impact. A product that, regardless, will have a lifespan of about forty years, and therefore an impact which, at the end of its use, will already be very low».
Not necessarily the most beautiful is the most iconic. «Within the company, there is healthy competition between the decorative and the contemporary collections. In the decorative collection I’m very fond of Mongiardino’s 978 and Aulenti’s 1925/1 because they have a sinuousness and elegance that imbues them with spectacular class. In the contemporary collection, obviously Albini’s Gala and Gio Ponti’s Continuum which feature volumes and shapes that are as innovative now as they were then. To be clear, these are pieces for major enthusiasts. They are prima donnas; they have no competition. We sell less of them precisely because they are such unique pieces. It’s very rare for two or three Galas to be purchased for a home». It’s true, these are sculptures — thrones — that need to stand out and distinguish themselves in a space.
We leave, with one more stop to make. Before getting in the car, Elia looks back at the showroom. «We’re really going to dress it up: heat pump, solar panels, air conditioning, all environmentally-sustainable». I ask him where he’s taking me next. «To where it all began. To the historic headquarters».We arrive at Via Madonnina 12, in Lurago d’Erba. «The classic home workshop where my great grandfather, in 1889, at nineteen, established the company». Back to the source of it all. Where thoughts and dreams transformed into a company.
He indicates the main body of the factory. «They lived on the upper floor and worked on the lower floor. Twenty men and women». We move to a courtyard, a kind of small, rural hamlet. Everything is domestic, familial. A large, docile dog follows us around quietly. «Over the years, they built the other blocks. We were the first to have a carriage, and the straw, to be able to deliver furniture». We enter a workspace. Craftsmen are heat-shaping bulrush reeds. It looks like they’re putting on a show just for me. It’s a three-dimensional model. «This is a piece that was part of the historic collection that we’ve recovered from our archives».
I always think of archives as being full of paper, but for you, they are full of objects. The archives house things before they house designs or documents. «In Merone, we have a 2000 square meter warehouse filled with pieces like this. It’s an armchair by Paolo Tilche which we are going to start producing again in a co-branding agreement with De Padova».
After having seen the future and the present, this would be the past, I think. There is no future without roots. He introduces me to his parents who are very active in the family company. The four of us sit down for tea at their house — or rather — home workshop. We talk about design, university, anecdotes about the great designers of the past whom Elia Bonacina’s father, Mario, spent time with, culture, books, with Antonia, the perfect lady of the house and, perhaps, the true lifeblood of Bonacina. To truly understand them, one must come here, to the living room of their home, and sip tea with a glimpse of the mountains outside the window; to understand how passion and enterprise can be a single entity. A family.