Tomaso Buzzi (1900-1981) architect, designer, graphic artist, writer
Born in Sondrio, Italy, Tomaso Buzzi graduated in architecture from the Politecnico di Milano in 1923, and trained with Gio Ponti, who he became professional partners with. Before graduating, he had already associated himself with the Studio di Sant’Orsola group, which included Ponti, Michele Marelli and Emilio Lancia. The group shared Buzzi’s passionate interest in the revival of classical architecture and artistic craftsmanship, traits evident in the Novecento movement and in Milanese Deco. By 1926 Buzzi and Ponti were working together designing furnishings for commissions and contests. They incorporated classical elements, notably Serlio, Palladio and late 16th-century influences, together with Deco stylistic principals into a nationalist style. Buzzi shared Ponti’s sense of unpredictability, with a capacity to switch between Cinquecento, Mannerist and Rococo traits, interpreting them with balance and humor. Together they forged a new, recognizably Italian aesthetic and taste. For example, in their designs for an embassy commission, Buzzi drew from Louis XIV furniture, creating polygonal tables with sabre-shaped legs. The Italian Foreign office commissioned many works from Buzzi and Ponti wherein their aesthetics were indistinguishably melded.
In 1927 Buzzi and Ponti, along with Marelli, Lancia, and Pietro Chiesa, established Il Labirinto, a production house dedicated to promoting modern decorative arts in the home, with an emphasis on comfort, taste, quality materials and original innovative design. Il Labirinto produced mirrors, windows, ceramic and porcelain objects, along with finely handcrafted wood furniture. Their designs were lauded at the 3rd Monza Biennale as “an outstanding and aristocratic series of luxury furniture,” and as “the first step towards the establishment of a modern approach to Italian Furniture design, far removed from French frivolousness and rigid German severity.” Buzzi saw to the layout of all furnishings produced for Labirinto’s commissions, including writing desks, storage cabinets, dressing tables, collapsible gambling tables, armchairs, and lamps. These pieces stood out for their flexibility, owing to the use of sliding and collapsible panels, and foldaway drawers, all designed with classical lines and refined metal finishings that were at once practical and decorative. Buzzi focused on creating furniture with clean, simple lines without pointless ornamentation, beautifully crafted and finished, and rich in historical references for the discerning eye.
Buzzi’s drawings for 1928 issues of Domus Magazine show strong pieces with feather-pattern motifs, tables with reversed truncated pyramid bases, sofas and benches with carved backrests. That same year, Buzzi created furniture for the Bestetti-Tuminelli publishing house. He continued designing works that especially drew from Renaissance architects interpreted via the Deco vision. His designs with Ponti for Italian embassies, for example, featured cornices with open pediments, parapets with ancient scroll motifs, stucco ceilings with Mannerist designs, and original details such as a bookcase built into the side of a staircase. Removed from large-scale industrial production and decidedly luxurious, Buzzi’s style especially suited the contemporary aristocracy and upper classes, together with the general exuberance of the 1920s. His only real contribution to massmarket production was a chair design with a tall carved backrest inspired by traditional 17th-century designs from his native region of Italy. Together with Ponti, Buzzi was on the design team commissioned for the War Memorial in Milan (1929). Supervised by Ugo Ojetti, one of the most important art critics in Italy and who oversaw official wartime propaganda, the association led to Buzzi designing furniture for Oejtti’s Florentine residence and garden, as well as working on furniture for Italian ships.
The 1930s saw Buzzi’s last collaboration with Ponti, which was for the Villa Vittoria in Florence. Perhaps tellingly, each of them worked on separate floors and rooms. Buzzi had his designs for the Villa implemented by Quarti, the most prestigious furniture manufacturer in Milan. Beyond this commission, Buzzi and Ponti went their separate ways. Buzzi took on more industrial design projects, creating metal furnishings for Sambonet in Milan, and Christofle in France, as well as glass décor for Fontana Arte, under the design direction of Pietro Chiesa. He also collaborated with Mariano Fortuny, designed fabrics for Ravasi, and chandeliers and glass pieces for Venini. Buzzi grew very involved in organizing the Triennales, using them to distance himself from Ponti and become more individually recognized both in Italy and abroad while establishing new connections for projects. Significantly, the Triennalles helped prompt Buzzi’s passion for ceramics and glass, as well as for garden décor, leading to his sketches for Prince Borromeo’s Ceramica Isola Bella, and his work as consultant for Venini & Company.
From 1932 to 1934 Buzzi became artistic director at Venini, for whom he designed highly refined series of works with classical shapes, notably the amphora, in elegant Novecento styles. These included lattimo and opaque turquoise glass with black detailing, as well as clear pieces with plant-motif applications. Inspired by ancient art, he designed vases, vessels and bowls in unusual colors obtained through experimenting with traditional techniques. His Alba, Laguna, Alga and Tramonto series, for example, feature pastel tones resulting from several successive encasements of the glass, which are then decorated with gold leaf. Buzzi extended his glass designing into the field of lighting as well, utilizing new applications for Murano glass in light fixtures, and maintaining that association through the years. Upon discontinuing working with glass art, Buzzi returned to his other professional activities.
In 1938 Buzzi was approached by Ponti regarding curating a section for the Triennale around the theme of ancient influences in modern design, which Ponti knew was perfectly suited to his former partner. Buzzi, however, had decided to retreat from public life, largely owing to the onset of fascism. Unlike a number of his colleagues, he preferred isolating himself to collaborating with the fascist regime, an insinuation he largely aimed at Ponti. After World War II he returned to the public eye, and was appointed Technical School representative of the National Liberation Front. Ultimately, he concentrated on his vision of luxury furniture, infusing classically-influenced design vernacular with a modern sense of irony, at times making more extravagant statements. Acquainted with many of the aristocracy and upper class, he became a trendsetter and custodian of good taste right up until the late 1960s. The Scarzuola, the 13th-century convent estate he retired to and where he collected what would become his archives, is regarded as his testament to nostalgic architecture. This vision was premised on the belief that fine decorative arts and craftsmanship being based in the past (as opposed to industrial manufacturing) required a nostalgic perspective, ideas he would continue to elaborate in his retirement. Outlandish, solipsistic, something of a genius, sometimes over the top, and indeed nostalgic, Buzzi was, along with Ponti, one of the key players in the creativity, modernity, elegance and style typical of 20th-century Milanese culture. More recently Buzzi has had several gallery and museum exhibitions, including at The Wolfsonian of Florida International University.
Le Stanze del Vetro, Institute of Art History, San Giorgio Maggiore, 2014-15
Palazzo Cini Gallery, Venice
Tomaso Buzzi: At Venini, by Carla Sonego, published by Skira, Milan, 2015
La Scarzuola, l’arca delle idee pietrificate. Storia, fantasia, paradosso nella Scarzuola de
Tomaso Buzzi, Published by Provincia di Terni, 2004