THE INTELLIGENCE OF CREATIVE HANDS
The List #20
By Antonella Dedini
Edoardo Marchioro; “Pechinese in poltrona” (Pekingese in an armchair);
1921 poster portraying the Poltrona Frau 2019 armchair
Renzo Frau founded Poltrona Frau in Turin in 1912. Born in Sardinia but Piedmontese by choice, he crafted beautiful and well-made designs in his workshop that featured exquisite quality in terms of form and craftsmanship.
In the 1960s, the turning point began with the relocation of Poltrona Frau’s production to Tolentino in the industrious Marche region. Visionary Franco Moschini, the historic chairman who led the company for more than 50 years starting in 1962, wrote: “Thanks to Renzo Frau, for me armchairs mean life, passion, work and dreams, reflection and hope, future and also power”.
Today, Poltrona Frau has 111 years of history, experience and prestige. The now-internationally recognized brand is known and respected for its blend of tradition and continuous innovation. Poltrona Frau has also masterfully created timeless objects thanks to fostering craftsmanship and entrepreneurial skills.
Its values and mission are clear: high craftsmanship, able hands, attention to detail, leather as the material of choice, sustainability, and characteristic uniqueness and unrivaled talent. Thanks goes to the company for providing photographs and valuable information that enabled me to put together this month’s The List.
THE TIMELESS ARMCHAIR
In Turin in 1912, the world was still immersed in the Belle Époque but was curious about modernity. The city was in a buzz. “Over time it became the capital of the automobile, publishing, finance and fashion industries. In this setting, cinema, radio and television, and then the artistic avant-garde, metaphysical painting and Arte Povera were born. It was a hotbed of thought and of that intelligence which is as industrious and rigorous as it is probable and dignified on an ethical and moral level” (from the book Torino. Elegante Follia (Turin. Elegant Madness), by Valentina Nasi and Antonella Dedini). It was here that something new was brewing in how people lived: the imaginative houses by Carlo Mollino with his anthropomorphic furniture, or the luxurious upholstery and leather seats that the best coachbuilders knew well.
Poltrona Frau’s genius was that of pinpointing a type of armchair that was both comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. Leather is a material that becomes more beautiful as time passes. The armchair over the years becomes an irreplaceable space for the body, with a scent that you’ll never forget. In my Milan apartment I still have the two old Poltrona Frau armchairs my uncle and mother bought in 1930 and which I inherited. I grew up with these armchairs. For me, today they represent joy and timeless memories.
RETURNS AND REAPPEARANCES
now renamed Nella and revisited in 2019 by designer Roberto Lazzeroni, Poltrona Frau
Renzo Frau convinced the Royal House to sit in his impeccable quilted chairs. Armchair 128 was designed and made for Prince Filiberto Ludovico di Savoia, a great cigar smoker who is said to have placed it in different colors in his apartments. An armchair with the opulent features of the Rococo bergère chair with the special addition of an extension to rest the feet.
Exactly a century later, the armchair was reborn with a new name, Nella, and new proportions, while still retaining its original spirit. Designer Roberto Lazzeroni worked on the new dimensions of the chair, making it more comfortable by widening and lowering the seat for more relaxed and informal comfort. The famous quilting work on the backrest was lightened in terms of the quantity of stitching and the typical pleated folding of the armrests. Nella is ready for another 100 years.
LEATHER AS A SUSTAINABILITY MANIFESTO
from blues to reds and spotted leather that are pleasing to the touch
From the very beginning, Renzo Frau began in his workshop making furniture in leather, the material of choice for the future company's success. At the time, it was a complete novelty both in terms of the type of material and the processing techniques which had never before been seen in Italy. For the first time, color was introduced for furniture upholstery. And only natural full-grain leather, the finest layer of the dermis, which is very soft and durable with few pores, with chrome processes that would ensure greater chemical and biological stability.
Today, Poltrona Frau's leather research has reached important milestones in reducing its environmental impact. The Research and Development Center was created internally, and Pelle Frau’s Impact Less leather was born, aimed at the lowest use of energy resources and substances that impact the environment and humans during production and processing.
THE FRAU LABORATORY
from fatigue testing to checking the leather under a microscope
This is where each detail is studied and tested by people in white coats. Physical and chemical testing, strength and durability testing. Not only leather, but also testing of horsehair, nails, thread and goose down as components of new patterns and new goals.
Know-how gives way to technical expertise regarding materials. In the Poltrona Frau Tolentino laboratory, all products, from seating to leather upholstery for the automotive industry, undergo testing. There is a continuous dialogue with the R&D lab, which precedes and follows the creation of a new product so as to ensure quality, innovation and performance.
cutting by hand and using a laser machine, bakelite patterns
Only when the leather is flawless and has passed various tests can it then be cut. The cutting department retains the charm of an old tailor’s shop where the stacked bakelite patterns of discontinued models are ready to spring back into action if a customer requests an old seat cover to be redone. There are also large cutting machines, and craftsmanship skills are blended with the latest laser technology. The goal is to maintain the naturalness of leather. A “map” at first glance laid out on the table, leather reveals every trace of its history because not all imperfections are flaws. Indeed, in a world today where it is sometimes difficult to distinguish real materials from fake ones, flaws can become an essential signature of authenticity.
ROUGH CUT FRAMES
certain seating are processed
“The secret is in the tension of the thread. The needle searches for the position. When it finds it the twine is stretched, the spring is hooked….technical testing for padding” (From the book L’Intelligenza delle mani (The Intelligence of Hands), edited by Mario Piazza, Rizzoli, 2012).
Tolentino’s rough cut frames are entrusted to the “intelligence of hands”. The first stage starts with the assembly of the “muscles”: the strictly solid wood frame. “Handmade” in the department means applying straps to each model”. The burlap of the straps is completely natural, and it is unrolled and then stretched before the springs and padding are attached. Everything is assembled before expert eyes and the precision of experience that knows how to calibrate shapes and weights. Each process takes its own time, ranging from 6 to 10 hours, and once the base is finished, it’s only halfway done.
STITCHING AND UPHOLSTERING
Pure tailoring: 1,940,400 meters of thread each year. A suit in each seat. Strong seams that last over time, but also decorative as graphic elements that define a pattern or line, tone on tone or as a contrast.
Pleating is done strictly by hand, crease by crease, giving the idea of softness to the product, then the upholstering stage takes place.
Renzo Frau, Chester sofa (1912-2019),
“The first time you complete a Chester chair you feel like you've climbed a skyscraper. Then you realize it takes the physical: trained muscles and physical endurance. Only passion is the same. You know you're one of the few, you know that the Chester will forever bear your signature, in pencil, on a wooden slat of the stem”, says a master carpenter, tailor and costume designer.
Here, it is the secret memory of things.
In Chester, the construction of the triangular sections, following the traditional English technique of the Edwardian period, starting from the bottom, row by row, one button at a time, fold by fold. Like a piano tuner.
… WHAT’S QUILTING ALL ABOUT?
“Padding technique that started in the 17th century and was developed in the 18th century. Made by hand with vegetable horsehair, twine and hemp cloth. Consists of the creation of a sequence of padded pads of vegetable horsehair in the shape of triangles, finished with leather buttons applied by pulling strings. Since the 1930s, the strings have been hooked to the burlap, after the canapina has been pierced (From the book L'intelligenza delle mani, edited by Mario Piazza; Rizzoli; 2012).
AN ICONIC ARMCHAIR
The Vanity Fair armchair in numbers:
21 hours of work
9 square meters of leather
19 kg of seasoned beech
48 biconical steel springs
12 meters of twine
20 meters of jute straps
7 kg of horsehair
5 kg of goose down
275 leather-covered nails
20 meters of stitching
100 meters of thread
Vanity Fair is the contemporary armchair par excellence. It captures the echo of a world open to new fascinations and innovative formal experimentation. It was created in the Art Deco period (a name which came from the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925), and it features a streamlined, luxurious and voluminous style, likely as a reaction to the austerity imposed by the years of World War I and the ensuing economic crisis.
The armchair reflects all this: it is compact yet sinuous, classic yet modernist, and geometric yet steady and exquisite. It communicates solidity and reliability without being opulent. It appears in the catalog in a bold red color that emphasizes its subtle folds that transform the arms into a seductive silhouette. Its name is a tribute to the famous American magazine born in the early 1900s. It is one of the best-known and most sought-after armchairs in the world.
DESIGN AND INDUSTRY: MUTUAL CONTAMINATION
Poltrona Frau; 1954 Compasso d’Oro award
Over its lengthy history, Poltrona Frau has collaborated with designers and architects from all over the world in relationships of mutual exchange that have contributed over time to the brand’s values. A constant two-way research and co-design between Tolentino’s craftspeople and technicians with the best designers.
Poltrona Frau continuously confirms the all-Italian capacity for complicity between creative people, artisans and enlightened entrepreneurs that have made “Made in Italy” design great and famous around the world. A synergy of ideas and skill in interpretation that become pure empathy. With various designers, the company has not only experimented with materials and techniques, but also with the changes and transformations in how people live in spaces.
FROM LEATHER TO OTHER MATERIALS. LEATHERSHIP®
Neri&Hu, Zhuang leather tray, Poltrona Frau
Neri&Hu, Zhuang stackable unit, Poltrona Frau
From the outset and over time, Poltrona Frau has wanted to identify its strength and uniqueness with the sophisticated processing of leather: uncompromising quality thanks not only to exceptional workmanship, but also to the relationship closely connected with the world of research to transform leather into a protagonist. The meticulous selection of leathers means creating extraordinary tactile and aesthetic delight.
All this has allowed the company to create a veritable brand under the name of Pelle Frau® (10 leather collections with 153 colors for an annual total of 365,000 square meters of processed hides) and to coin a new word that represents the expertise and continuous research of leather: Leathership® as a new dominance in leather in the industrial design scene. Today, Poltrona Frau Leathership® is much more, extending its methods beyond leather: solid wood, marble, stone, glass, metals, and textiles are explored and processed with the same mastery and uniqueness.
Complementing Poltrona Frau’s upholstered leather furniture is an entire collection of furnishings and home decor that offer the possibility of creating entire settings in full “Frau style”.
RE-EDITIONS OF VISIONARY PIECES
Poltrona Frau has always had the ability to guide know-how and modernity in design into the future. Re-editing pieces from the historical archives means working so that the relevance of certain historical evidence resurfaces, making the project relevant again. It is a painstaking process of studying and fine-tuning the product in light of the potential offered by contemporary materials and how it will be used. These are pieces that once again become part of the catalog today with the same weight as a new product, reinforcing the company’s mission in the name of greater market recognition.
THE POLTRONA FRAU MUSEUM
Created in the Tolentino production area in 2012 to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary, not only is the Poltrona Frau Museum a complete corporate museum that is open to the public, it is a community project that tells the story of Italian savoir-faire.
The 1,400 sq m space was poetically designed and orchestrated by architect Michele De Lucchi. The innovative approach chosen for the project highlights an intimate relationship with the Marche region and its artisanal traditions: a collection of paradigmatic furniture, drawings, sketches, and tools and working materials that had never before been exhibited are accompanied by the results of quality and research for new sophisticated solutions and where “the future finds its genesis”.
“The Poltrona Frau Museum cannot just be a container for product exhibitions; it must also be a place that tells the story of the evolution of the human living environment. This environment is the stage upon which we perform our existence, and we decorate that stage with objects that are expressions of the most sophisticated and advanced ideas we have of the meaning of being on Earth.
The Poltrona Frau Museum must aim to describe the image that we have built for ourselves and our living environments over the last 100 years." (Michele De Lucchi, 100+10 Years of True Evolution. Heritage, Projects and Visions by Poltrona Frau, 2023)
SPECIAL EDITIONS AND BESPOKE DESIGN
A “tailor-made" challenge that becomes more challenging each time for three business units in different project fields: Residential&Office, Custom Interiors and Interiors in Motion.
For travel by land, sea and air and for home and office spaces. Each sphere is a cue for research and a mutual transfer of skills and knowledge. It is work that is always sartorial, starting from the first chair designs for ocean liners of the time, to institutional spaces, to important corporate headquarters or for special clients in the automotive and nautical fields. Each project is unique and has a specific stylistic identity that interprets the values of the brands in a mutual creative interpretation of the needs and challenges that gradually arise when starting a project with a new client.
LIMITED EDITIONS. DIALOGUE WITH ART
Felipe Pantone, Archibald Anniversary Limited Edition,
110 chairs produced, 2022
For Poltrona Frau, limited edition pieces have always been an important opportunity for in-depth study, dialogue and comparison with realities and design solutions that – precisely because they are deliberately not aligned with the company’s philosophy – offer the brand a constant opportunity for research.
Unexplored design worlds, dialogue with disciplines outside of design, like contemporary art, or experimentation with new materials and scientific research of colors, have taken processing techniques to extremes with surprising aesthetic results. Importantly, however, each limited edition has always been able to respect the needs of its audience. As critic Gillo Dorfles (2010) said: “Design is partially art, or better a combination of planning, art and marketing.
An object being designed should not be conceived and created as an object of art: it also needs to fulfil its function.”
Read the previous article of The List here