A New Kind of Contemporary

Antonio Citterio’s imagined worlds for Maxalto

The apartment, viewed from outside

In the world of furniture, there is nothing else quite like Antonio Citterio and his 30-year relationship with Maxalto. What began as a casual conversation with Giorgio, the son of B&B Italia’s founder, Piero Ambrogio Busnelli, about reviving the company’s defunct artisan timber range has become a significant brand in its own right. Each piece of furniture made for Maxalto is designed by Citterio. But over 30 years, time has seemingly stood still. In every catalogue it is never quite clear which pieces are new, and which were designed in 1995. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it is not so much that time has stood still, but that a new generation has caught up with an idea that took shape in Citterio’s mind a long time ago. When he started on Maxalto, Citterio had an instinctive sense that there might be a moment when a new generation would become more interested in a way of living that was more formal than his own, and which he had begun by designing for.

Maxalto – which had a false start in the 1970s and came back to life in the 1990s – now has a unique identity. The architects Tobia and Afra Scarpa, who were from Venice, came up with the name; Venetian dialect for ‘of the highest quality’. They designed some exquisite craftsman-made chairs that were impressive in themselves but did not present a broader point of view.

Citterio has turned Maxalto into a complete and convincingly imagined world. If Ralph Lauren conceived a world of WASP privilege and made the clothes that brought it to life, Citterio has made the furniture for a way of life inspired by progressive, cultured, bourgeois Parisians. For Citterio it’s not nostalgia, but an alternative form of the contemporary. You can imagine the invisible occupants of the rooms portrayed in successive Maxalto catalogues reading Sartre and Les Cahiers du Cinema, listening to jazz, collecting African art and waiting anxiously for their teenage children to come home unscathed from the Boulevard Saint-Michel, protesting against the colonial war in Algeria.

The first idea had been to produce a few pieces of furniture using oak or wenge wood, and see what happened. The design language would be contemporary, but as Citterio puts it, with perhaps with a warmer atmosphere than the work that Citterio himself, and many other designers, from Gaetano Pesce to Mario Bellini, were producing for B&B Italia at the time.

Some of Citterio’s preparatory drawings

In fact, what Citterio had in mind was to follow the example set by Jean-Michel Frank, the gifted French designer who died in New York during World War II aged just 46. Frank belonged to the same generation as Le Corbusier but did not feel the need to make his furniture look like a piece of mechanical equipment. Citterio has never replicated specific pieces of other designers’ work, but for those who share his encyclopaedic knowledge of the evolution of 20th-century furniture from Charles and Ray Eames to Jean Prouvé, the quotations and references are part of what gives Maxalto its character.

“The beginning was casual. It was not totally clear what it would be. OK, some wood, a little bit traditional, but it was not yet a total concept, or a new brand. Certainly it was not yet the possibility to create a complete 160 piece collection. In 1995 Maxalto was just five products,” Citterio says. “It was modern, not traditional. Traditional is when you design scenery. I am doing something for real people.” His thinking began to crystallise after he rented a classic Parisian apartment for a three-week shoot for the first Maxalto catalogue.

Filling a real apartment with chairs and tables got Citterio focussing on the lives of the people who would be using them. “After two or three years we understood it would be the real idea of the scenography. We had a family in mind.” He continues to use the same apartment for catalogue shoots to this day.

Furniture exists in the context of an architectural framework. Citterio came to see Maxalto’s essential character as rooted in the concept of equipping individual rooms. He characterises B&B’s furniture as designed for “contemporary space, which is to say, a series of fluid spaces, with no separations between one and another. You don’t distinguish where you eat from where you relax.” In clear contrast, Maxalto furniture is designed for distinct rooms, each with a defined, formal character. “Maxalto has a dining room, with a table, it has walls and cabinets that are all arranged symmetrically in space.”

Citterio has always seen that the best way to design furniture was to think about the people who would be using it, and their way of life. In his early days, he used himself as his own model. “To do a new sofa you must imagine somebody. For B&B’s Sity sofa, I imagined myself, partying. I thought what are all the things I can I do on this sofa, and I tried to imagine all the different things that can happen on a sofa. The new generation of my son is more formal than I was, they invite people home. You are served with a perfectly arranged plate, not just some salami, red wine and a bit of gorgonzola the way I did it. Now they like a little formality. They like Maxalto, they like the ritual that it implies, and the symmetry.” Maxalto gave him the chance to think about other lives. In making each successive catalogue, he saw himself as working like a film director, evoking life through spaces, images and objects. The photographs showed the way that Citterio expected his pieces would be used, but he was also beginning to design for the specific spaces evoked in the Maxalto catalogues.

The still photography for the catalogue has been brought to life in a series of short videos that reflect Citterio’s cinematic ambitions. One of them opens with the camera confronting the elaborate double doors of a Parisian apartment building. Twin cast iron lion’s heads holding brass rings in their jaws fill the screen. The camera pulls back suddenly and cuts to show a French hero on top of a column in the middle of some nameless square in a fashionable bourgeois quartier of Paris. There is a jerky tilt up to the sky, revealing the facades of a couple of Haussmann’s boulevards. Then you are back inside the building in a glass elevator rising in the stairwell, glimpsing stained glass. The door to the apartment opens, and you find a sequence of enfilade rooms, parquet floors, panelled plaster walls and a ceiling that is ornate, but not too ornate. In the background is a pair of double windows, each one reaching down almost to the floor. Cast iron fireplaces sit within marble surrounds. On the console table is a polished Cambodian head looking out over the cast iron balcony towards what is not the Seine or the Eiffel Tower, but the presence of both is implied. The head shares the console with Anton Corbijn‘s book, The Living and the Dead, and a heavy slab of an Eileen Gray monograph. The camera lingers on the stitched leather of a sofa, the grain of a solid oak table, the texture of the wool upholstery of the sofa. Later, a glimpse of the railings on the Rue de Rivoli next to the gardens of the Jeu de Paume hint at its actual location.

We briefly see a writing desk. The urge to look inside what, in itself, is a highly suggestive piece of furniture – given that most people have given up handwriting – to learn more about occupants temporarily in another room, is all but irresistible.

Inside the desk there is a diary and clutch of pencils, but no computer. In fact, nowhere in the apartment is there a television, or a music system, or any other piece of technology, not even a telephone. There is an Art Basel catalogue, but no newspapers. There are suggestions of a meal on the table, but young people aren’t much in evidence, not even seen-but-not-heard children. There are no toys to be seen, but you can spot a Bauhaus teapot, what seems to be a constellation of Fornasetti plates on the wall, Tom Dixon candlesticks and Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s Taccia table lamp, to suggest occupants with eclectic tastes.

Citterio has maintained the Maxalto idea with a remarkable singlemindedness. On occasion he was ready to abandon the project, rather than compromise it. “I believe in it. In the muddle of 30 years, it’s not always easy to keep the direction, and there have been different owners. Over the years I have been asked ‘why is it always black and white, why is it always the same approach, why can’t you change?’ I always said ‘no, I can stop if you want.’ Now they understand. If I tried a colour, or changed the house, or did other kinds of furniture, it would destroy the idea of the movie.”

Where can Maxalto go next? “I still think that I am a contemporary architect,” he replies. “But in designing furniture there is a lot of memory involved. Maxalto is another version of contemporary. If I ever did another Maxalto, I would need to find another house. In the future it’s going to be virtual, but I could imagine an indoor-outdoor house in Brazil.”


This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here