Founded in Meda in 1959, Flexform is one of many groundbreaking postwar family companies in the region just north of Milan, historically known for excellent woodwork and cabinetry. What sets Flexform’s products apart from its competitors is their superior quality and their discrete elegance. “It’s a natural, quotidian attitude,” says Antonio Citterio, the renowned architect and designer who’s worked for Flexform and its owners, the Galimberti family, since the 1970s. One of Citterio’s most famous designs for Flexform, the Max sofa, took on a more flamboyant character than most of its sister sofas. The “banana-shaped” two-seater was released in 1983 and was accompanied by an influential campaign shot by the late architecture photographer Gabriele Basilico. His immortalizations of Max and Citterio’s other designs, like the Magister sofa, set a precedent for Flexform’s creative expression over the following decades. (Graphic designer Natalia Corbetta also played an essential role in setting this high bar). To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Max, Flexform debuted SuperMax, an updated, more generously proportioned version of the iconic piece, which was photographed specially for PIN–UP by Leonardo Scotti. Felix Burrichter met with Citterio to reflect on a vital moment in Milanese design history, when friendships, creative energies, and Flexform’s extraordinary craftsmanship galvanized into an enduring legacy.
Felix Burrichter: How long have you been working with Flexform?
Antonio Citterio: I was born in Meda, where the Flexform factory is located. Meda has always been a city of cabinetmakers, and my father also produced furniture. It’s a small city, so I practically grew up with the Galimberti family. I have been designing furniture since I was 14 years old, and I opened my own office at 20, while I was still at university. I graduated from architecture school in 1975 but started working in 1970. That’s also when I started designing for Flexform. It was an education unto itself and it really helped me understand the process and production of making a sofa.
Who were your early design heroes?
I grew up within the Italian rationalist and proto-rationalist tradition. After all, [Giuseppe] Terragni was also from Meda. But I was always more interested in American design, especially from the 1950s and 60s. I had a very good teacher in high school, and she introduced me to the work of Charles and Ray Eames. I remember getting a hold of one of their chairs and disassembling it. I immediately understood the industrial idea, the material, the process. Even today, after almost 60 years, I still remember the details of that chair.
What was the design scene like when you moved to Milan in the late 70s?
We are talking about the late 1970s and early 80s in Milan, so there was Studio Alchimia, and later Memphis; it was very postmodern, and very different from what I was interested in. I was working more in the tradition of classic mid-century American design. I didn’t have a lot of success at first. No one understood my position.
The Max sofa, with its banana shape and black and white striped backrest, is probably the most Memphis piece of furniture you’ve ever designed.
It’s funny because it actually was for Memphis, but I’ve never told anyone this. In the early 1980s, my friends and I would spend our evenings at Café Milano, a bar in Brera. It was a fantastic place where everyone gathered: people from literature and fashion, designers and architects like Gianfranco Ferré, Michele de Lucchi, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, Aldo Cibic, and of course, Ettore Sottsass. One night, I remember Barbara Radice, a Memphis member and Sottsass’s companion, saying to me: “Why don’t you design something for us?” That’s where the idea for Max came from. But in the end, I never presented it to Memphis and decided to do it with Flexform instead. Max was created from this energy mix — nothing ever happens in a vacuum.
What is it about the Max that makes it stand out even after all these years?
I think because it’s fun but also classic. I like the shape because it looks good from all angles. It’s a reference to the vis-à-vis sofas from the 1930s and 40s. But the relationship to the material is always the most important to me. I wanted to use the technique of cutting the leather on the bias and spiraling it around the backrest. At first, it was only going to be white, but doing it in two different colors — black and white — allowed us to show off the craftsmanship.
You have designed so many sofas for Flexform over the years, including some very iconic ones like the Magister or Groundpiece, to name but two. Is designing a sofa different from creating any other piece of furniture?
It depends on the design. We work with technical drawings when there is a steel structure — like with the Max, Magister, or the A.B.C. armchair. But most other sofas I design for Flexform are made from soft cushion upholstery. And for those, I didn’t do technical drawings, only sketches. Then I collaborate with the craftsman at the Flexform factory — I need to work with people who understand the fabric’s flow because a sofa is a soft material at the end of the day. It’s an informal material. When you try to design an informal material, it becomes formal. I sometimes say that I don’t design ninety percent of the product. It’s teamwork.
You continue to design for some of the most important design companies in the world, but Flexform was one of your first clients. How would you describe your Flexform-specific style?
Summarizing my almost 50 years of work with Flexform is difficult. I would say that there is an alchemic relationship between the client and the designer at every company — it’s the most important part. At Flexform, nothing is over-designed. Sometimes we have products like A.B.C. or Max that are more “protagonist.” But normally, it’s a natural attitude that emphasizes the highest quality.
For PIN–UP, the photographer Leonardo Scotti recreated some of the iconic clichés you conceived with the late architecture photographer Gabriele Basilico in the early 80s for Flexform’s advertising campaigns. How did you start working with Basilico?
As with so many things in life, the campaign is a question of relationships. In the mid-70s, I introduced the graphic designer Natalia Corbetta to Flexform, and she introduced me to Gabriele. We all became friends. We went on trips together to New York and traveled across America. Gabriele was originally an architect, but he had just taken up photography. We discussed ideas for a campaign more like architecture photography — showing the product in an environment and shooting it all in black and white. It felt very fresh. It’s an excellent example of how sometimes you can create magical moments when you work in a team with friends. You might not realize until later that what you were doing was iconic.