Osvaldo Borsani (1911-1985) architect, furniture and interior designer

Osvaldo Borsani was one half of twins boys born in 1911 in Varedo, Italy into a family of fine furniture makers. His father was the owner of Atelier di Varedo, which created custom furnishings and interiors in Italian Deco style. Bosani attended art school and worked in the family business, where he learned to appreciate quality craftsmanship. In the late 1920s, taken with the Modernist Movement, he traveled to see the works of La Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, and Walter Gropius, influences that would change his ideas about production and inspired his advocacy of progressive design. 

Borsani studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano and, while still a student, won the silver medal at the 1933 Milan Triennale for his Casa Minima project, a Rationalist-inspired, forward–looking housing design. This success allowed him more sway over the family business, and more freedom to experiment with new design ideas and technologies. Upon graduating in 1937, he took up work in his father’s workshop. He also started befriending avant-garde artists such as Lucio Fontana, Agenore Fabbri, Aligi Sassu, Roberto Crippa, Fausto Melotti, and Arnaldo and Giò Pomodoro. Soon he was inviting them to collaborate on interior and furniture design projects, associations that would continue flourishing after World War II. Among his peers, Borsani was often called “the American” because of his penchant for innovation. 

Between 1939 and 1945 Borsani worked on designing and building what would be his lifelong home, Villa Borsani. Here he was able to concretize his modernist ideas, simultaneously incorporating some of the more traditional design traits he was well versed in. The resulting Villa is an amalgam of 20th-century Italian design encompassing pre-war artisanship and post-war technology. Borsani deigned the brick and stucco house and its garden pergola with clean rectilinear lines and a strong vertical emphasis, reiterating these in the elongated windows and doors, which together the many handcrafted wood details echo the style influence of earlier Modernists such as Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1953, together with his twin brother Fulgenzio, Borsani founded Tecno, the design and manufacturing company he would dedicate his career to, and where his daughter Valeria and her husband Marco Fantoni would remain company designers for over 30 years. Tecno became a design research and technology center, and the birthplace of a number of iconic 20th-century pieces. Among the first of these was Bosani’s P40 adjustable lounge chair in 1954. Fabricated of enameled steel, brass, rubber and upholstery fabric, the chair boasted the ability to adjust in 486 positions. The chair’s sleek silhouette, articulated frame, and elegant sculpted form rendered it an instant classic. Continuously in production by Tecno since, the P40 looks every bit as modern today, and is in institutional and private collections worldwide.

Next from Tecno was the D70 sofa, a design prompted by a client’s request for a sofa that could be appreciated from two opposite sides. Borsani’s solution was a metal-framed reversible sofa with two pivoting leaves, or wings, that allow it to adjust from right- to left-facing, as well as to a flat bed, with a range of twenty positions in-between. Presented as a “divan-bed” at the 1954 Triennial, it beautifully emblemized the young Tecno company, and received the gold medal for individual furnishings. Comfortable as it is adaptable and formally harmonious, the D70 can be found in many a home and reception area today, and has served as prototype for countless other modern sofa designs. 

For the 1968 Triennale, Borsani, together with Eugenio Gerli, presented Graphis, the first Tecno office furniture system offering unlimited, flexible combinations of elements that could adapt to and grow with a changing workspace over time. Graphis revolutionized office design, and made Tecno a world-leading manufacturer of modern office furniture. In 1970 Borsani, Marco Fantoni, and Valeria Borsani created the Centro Progetti Tecno, a collaborative design center for experimenting with new technologies and developing new products, as well as tackling large interior design commissions. In the 1980s Borsani opened Tecno to outside designers, beginning a succession of contributions from the likes of Gae Aulenti, Roberto Mango, Eugenio Emilio Ambasz, Norman Foster, Vico Magistretti, Carlo de Carli, Mario Bellini, and Robin Day.

Osvaldo Borsani died in 1985 in Milan. Certain designs, never went into production until after his death. Other of his early Tecno pieces can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, and the Neue Sammlung in Munich. Vila Borsani, meanwhile, his home in Varedo, near Milan, has been opened to the public by the Borsani family. Set within 3,000 square feet of gardens, Borsani’s architectural gem remains relatively unchanged, a veritable testament to his 20th-century design legacy.

Collections:
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Brooklyn Museum, New York
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Museo Del Design, 1880-1980, Milan

Publications:
Osvaldo Borsani: Frammenti e ricordi di un un percorso progettuale, by Gillo Dorfles, edited by Aldo Colonetti, Mazzotta, Milan, 1996.
Osvaldo Borsani, by Giuliana Gramigna & Fulvio Irace, Leonardo De Luca, editori, 1992