Guglielmo Ulrich Milanese Design Between Classicism and Modernism

Page 1


With an Essay by Daniel Sherer


Published on the occasion of the exhibition


May 21 - July 9 2004

Doris Leslie Blau, Ltd. Decorative Arts, The Fuller Building 41 East 57th Street, 3rd floor New York, NY 10022 T: 212 586 5511 F: 212 586 6632

Publication Š 2004 Doris Leslie Blau, Ltd. Doris Leslie Blau, Ltd. would like to thank Giancorrado Ulrich. Edited by Vera Alemani, Markus Winter Curated by Markus Winter, Brian Kish Essay by Daniel Sherer Design by Piotr Bondarczyk Printed by Selegrafica 80, Rome All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without prior written permission from the copyright holders. ISBN 0-9755237-0-8

The descendant of an 18th century Danish noble family who settled in Italy, Guglielmo Ulrich (1904-1977) possessed a sensibility as singular as his unusual confluence of cultural origins. After five decades of searching inquiry, Ulrich left behind a complex and multifaceted body of work whose renown in Milanese design circles continues unabated, though it is still largely unknown in the United States. Doris Leslie Blau's exhibition, co-curated by Markus Winter and Brian Kish of Brian Kish Gallery, is the first to be devoted to this architect/designer on this side of the Atlantic. Its primary aim is to explain Ulrich's importance by revealing the roots of his originality in Milanese and European design from the late 1920's to the early 1960's. Imbued with a high degree of formal elegance, a keen historical awareness, and a strong commitment to craft – qualities manifest chiefly in his furniture and interior design, but informing his architecture as well – Ulrich's achievement defies accepted schemes of classification. Moving with ease, and with a viewpoint all his own, between the values of tectonic integrity, an unusual refinement in the choice of materials, and a potent sense of organic structure, his work synthesizes and renews disparate, even incompatible codes. Avoiding the extremes of avantFig. 1 garde eclat and bourgeois conventionality, Ulrich fused modernist sobriety with a profound understanding of the historical stratification of modes of design, providing new solutions to the problem of variation within the classical tradition. Throughout his career, Ulrich catered to a haut-bourgeois Milanese clientele, making the most of his extensive social connections to overcome barriers between modernism and classicism. Except for a brief foray into mass production at the end of his life, he relentlessly pursued the path of the exception, producing "one-offs" and meticulously crafted objects marked as much by extreme finesse as by artisanal simplicity. A graduate of both the Brera Academy of Art (where he studied painting and figure drawing) and the more forward-looking Politecnico (where he took his degree in architecture in 1927), he was equally well-versed in the practice, theory and history of design, art, and architecture. Au courant with the latest Italian developments ranging from Muzio's Novecento, through the organicist Modernism of Albini, to the Rationalism of Terragni and Figini and Pollini – see, for a fine example of Ulrich's monumental transformation of the Rationalist approach, the Lombarda Finanziaria Building of 1944, designed with Piero Bottoni (Fig. 1) – Ulrich

placed these antithetical tendencies within a broad European perspective. One might even say that his peculiar contribution lies in his highly original appropriation of diverse currents of Viennese modern design, especially Adolf Loos on the one hand, and Josef Hofmann on the other, which he combined ingeniously with the legacies of classicism from all periods, including ancient and Hellenistic Egypt, Imperial Rome, the Roman and Milanese Baroque, and the Style Empire. That he managed to do this without lapsing into preciosity, provincialism or the banal reiteration of familiar themes testifies to the consistency of his vision.1 Although one must be wary of rigid schematizations, Ulrich's career can be divided into three stylistic phases. Throughout the late 20’s and 30’s, his work is heavily indebted to Novecento concepts in its studied interplay of mass and profile, idiosyncratic adaptation of classical motifs and paradoxical articulation of structural forces balancing weighty volume on tapering supports. Evident from the beginning is a characteristically refined use of recherche and luxurious materials, employed in unexpected, often unorthodox ways. Egyptian marble, parchment, animal skins, and rare woods are deployed simply and without ostentation. The effect is generally one of spare magnificence (though in some of the boudoir pieces of this period a certain tendency to full-blown luxury is undeniable). Imaginative, yet restrained solutions elaborate a new type of design poised precariously, yet always with great skill, between modern reduction and classical dignity. The oak and giallo di Sahara marble console of 1932, with fluted sides, tapering angled wedge supports and a marble floor slab parallel to a top made of the same material and the centerpiece of the show, is an excellent example of this moment in Ulrich's development: its rarefied modern classicism merits comparison with Loos, especially the "Hellenic" Loos of the Villa Karma (Plate I). However, it is also true that at this point some of his most effective responses were called forth by contemporary French models: see, for instance, the wooden chest of drawers covered with parchment dating to the late 30’s, whose movable portions display a surface articulation of bent glass recalling Art Deco precedents (Plate XXV), or the parchment vanity table of the early 1930’s (Plate XVI), whose distinctive combination of linear simplicity and precious materials betrays a familiarity with the work of Jean-Michel Frank (many of Ulrich's subsequent boudoir productions of the same period recall the

1 On Ulrich's reception of Viennese design, and Loos in particular, see G. Alfarano, "Stile senza dottrina," in Guglielmo Ulrich: Gli oggetti fatti ad arte, ed. U. La Pietra (Milan: Electa, 1994), 16.

French ebenistes, and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann in particular).2 In the same vein, English Regency precedents are evoked in a rosewood dining room suite of the 1940’s whose supports are set off by strip inlays of gilded bronze, a piece that is significant in that it reflects a strategy typical of Ulrich aimed at integrating new works in the context of older pieces owned by the client by consciously adapting similar forms and materials (Fig. 2, Plates III, IV).

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

2 Alfarano, "Tipologia dei Mobili e degli Oggetti", in La Pietra, ed. Guglielmo Ulrich, cit., 131.

Fig. 4

Concurrently, Byzantine, Islamic, and even Chinese motifs inflect some of the more unusual explorations of the mid1930’s, revealing an openness to different cultures and anticipating the subsequent formal inquiries of figures as diverse as Scarpa and Caccia Dominioni. One good example of this tendency is a wall table of 1936 upholstered in translucent parchment whose points of intersection between vertical and horizontal planes are marked by faceted crystal inlays (Fig. 3); another is provided by a low wood table f the 1930’s which forms part of an overall ensemble of objects drawing on Eastern and Western traditions (Fig. 4). Yet from the outset Ulrich's ethos was resolutely classical, persisting in an adherence to monumental responses despite selfFig. 5 imposed restrictions of scale: to verify this observation it is enough to recall the massive forms of the cherry-wood desk of 1940, whose sliding top only serves to enhance the refined effect obtained by attenuated legs (Fig. 5, Plate XXIII). Here, as elsewhere, Ulrich maximized the expressive and tectonic potentials inherent in everyday functional objects by fusing neoclassical lines with hieratic solidity. This strategy, evident in his work for the furniture company L'Arca, founded by the design entrepreneurs Attilio Scaglia and Wild in the early 30’s, endows fixed, monumental forms with an energetic structural impulse without parallel in Italian design culture of the period. In the second phase, from the mid-40s on, Ulrich began to experiment with skeletal forms invested with a unique tectonic dynamism. If the best example of this is the ethereal Trobis chair of 1945 (Fig. 6), whose fusion of the globular and the spindly resembles an anatomical dissection translated into abstract form, eloquent solutions of this kind are also found at the most diverse scales, and in a wide variety of contexts. On the small end of the spectrum, there is the flame-like profile of the wall lamp for the Dazza residence of 1942 (Fig. 7); on the more ample end, the same tendency is

evident in the horizontal articulations of mass and support manifest in a console made between 1939 and 1942 (Plate II). At first glance these works read like attenuated, less eccentric versions of Carlo Mollino's production from the same period. Closer scrutiny suggests, however, that Ulrich, who surely knew Mollino's pathbreaking innovations, gave as much to the Torinese master as he received. One might even say that Ulrich's output in the 40’s, with its rich woods, spindly forms, and energized, organic line, is a muted, less outre reduction of a vocabulary Mollino himself would make famous. In the 1950’s, Ulrich moved definitively in the direction of the Modern Movement, and his works attain a restrained elegance associated with Rationalism in its more curvilinear and heterodox variants, presenting points of contact with figures as diverse as Albini, Ponti, and Levi Montalcini. Here Albini stands out as a privileged interlocutor if only because of Ulrich's fusion of minimalist codes with traditional ideals of artisanal production. And like Albini some of Ulrich's most characteristic work from this period takes the form of design ensembles for the interiors of fashionable shops, boites a miracles for a hautbourgeois public. This is most evident in the Fig. 6 Galtrucco textile store of 1950, where refined scenographies set the tone for what is, in the final analysis, the aesthetic consecration of luxury commerce. Here, in a capacious rectilinear space, rhythmic juxtapositions of polished surfaces and the flame-like involutions of Fausto Melotti's sculptures frame a complex balance of the streamlined and the informe (Fig. 8). On the other end of the spectrum, one must situate the Radaelli Florist shop, where rustic forms and pan-Mediterranean accents are deployed within a miniaturized series of concentric circular ranges reminscent of a classical ampitheater (Fig. 9). Near the end of his career, partly in response to Ponti's remarkable success with the Superleggera chair of 1957, Ulrich moved into the area of standardized industrial production with the Fiera di Trieste chair of 1961 (Fig. 10, Plates XX, XXI). In its refined combination of stained nutwoods and a pared-down, minimalist profile, this project paradoxically underscores Ulrich's dual response to the Bauhaus ideal of standardization and to the typically Milanese attachment to what Ponti called the "necessity of luxury". In this respect, if Loos provided the ideal model of classical/modernist syn-

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

thesis at the beginning of his career, one might say that, at its end, Ulrich comes closest, perhaps without even being aware of it, to the spirit (though certainly not to the forms or to the aesthetic claims) of a modernist luxury epitomized by the early furniture and interiors of Mies van der Rohe (the Barcelona Pavilion and Tugendhat House).

Fig. 10

In this sense, Ulrich pursued what his son calls "amore per la manualitรก, la costruzione dei modelli, la comprensione interna degli oggetti, del come sono fatti.'"(A love of manual activity, for the building of models, the internal comprehension of objects and how they are made).3 Like Ponti, Ulrich has sometimes been regarded as an inveterate eclectic; yet, also like Ponti, his multifaceted approach resists this simplistic characterization by virtue of its internal understanding of design as a complex formal act and its predilection for stylistic synthesis. More specifically one can say that Ulrich's "will to synthesis" resides in a comprehensive inversion of formal and material values: where doctrinaire modernists rejected luxury in favor of the demand for standardized products and poor materials, and utilized formal inquiry chiefly for functionalist, ideological, or programmatic ends, Ulrich experimented with the differentiation of material properties, using out-of the-way materials to realize expressive and structural potentials. As a result, his best work transcends the bourgeois milieux to which it responded and which established its initial conditions of production, reception and diffusion. Treating materials with the same experimental attitude that other designers approached diverse problems of form or better, approaching formal and material considerations as two aspects of the same problem, Ulrich imbued inherited craft traditions with a sense of radical modernist inquiry. In this he is more like Loos than any other protagonist on the Milanese scene, simultaneously progressive and historicizing. Indeed, it is only by emphasizing Ulrich's uncanny ability to extrapolate modernity from tradition, to find solutions to contemporary problems by conceiving of them as integral parts of a history advancing into the future, that it becomes possible to understand the specific place he occupies in the universe of European architecture and design. Daniel Sherer, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

3 Giancorrado Ulrich, "Breve ricordo di mio padre con matita," in La Pietra, ed. Guglielmo Ulrich, cit., 27.

Decorative Arts | The Fuller Building | 41 East 57th Street, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10022 | T. 212 7527623 | F. 212752 1004

I Tavolo da muro in marmo giallo di Sahara

Console table, c. 1936 Carved and sanded oak and giallo di Sahara marble 32 in. high, 50 in. wide, 20 ½ in. deep

Ia Console table, 1939, in giallo Siena marble, mahogany, brass For Cav. Cirillo, Naples

Ib Console table, 1937 For Sig. Magnaghi, Milan

Ic Two tiered table, 1933 For Sig. Palambe, Rome

II Tavolo da muro in mogano

Console table, 1939 - 1942 Mahogany, glass and brass 59 in. high, 34 in. wide, 13 ½ in. deep Mary Stowell collection

II a Console table, 1942 For Casa Mondadori, Milan

II b Console table, 1939 - 1942 For Sig. Volpi

II c Dining table, 1941 For Agosti, Milan

II d Console table, 1941 For Agosti, Milan

III Coppia di tavoli da muro in palissandro

Pair of console tables, 1940's Rosewood with brass inlay 31 in. high, 32 ½ in. wide, 12 in. deep

III a Interior, 1940 For Casa Cirillo, Naples

IV Tavolo da pranzo in palissandro

Dining table, 1940's Rosewood with brass inlay 31 in. high, 71 in. wide, 35 in. deep

IV a Sofa table, 1940's Cherry wood

IV b Coffee table, c. 1940

IV c Dining table, 1940's

V Lampada

Floor lamp in the style of Guglielmo Ulrich, 1940's Brass, painted wood and silkscreen shade 66 in. high, 15 in. diameter

Va Slipper chair, 1935 For Trombini, Milan

Vb Interior, 1941 For Sig. Santagostino, Milan

Vc Three sconces, 1940's

VI Lampada in ottone

Floor lamp, c. 1941 Leather and brass 71 in. high, 24 in. diameter

VI a Interior, 1941

VI b Interior, 1936

VI c Interior, 1941

VII Tavolo tondo in palissandro

Side table, c. 1938 Rosewood 17 ž in. high, 23 ½ in. diameter

VII a Small table, 1943 For Casa Campanini Bononi

VII b Interior, 1946 For Casa Masciadri

VII c Large Bedroom for the 6th Triennale, 1936

VIII Tavolo basso in pergamena

Low table with drawer, c. 1932 Parchment Branded mark 20 ½ in. high, 31 ½ in. wide, 17 ¾ in. deep

VIII a Interior, 1932 For Casa Sugar

VIII b, c Table, 1932 Parchment and leather

IX Tavolo con piano in galuchat

Low table, 1930's Galuchat and parchment 19 ½ in. high, 35 ½ in. diameter

IX a Table, 1942 Porphyry top and walnut

IX b Two tiered table, 1932 Galuchat and wood For Sig. Conte Cicogna, Milan

X Tavolo in pergamena blu

Low table, 1939 Blue parchment and brass 14 in. high, 39 in. diameter Giancorrado Ulrich collection

Xa Low table, 1941 For Sig. Giacomini, Milan

Xb Low table, 1939

Xc Library, 1940 For Casa Pasquinelli, Milan

XI Tavolo da caffè

Coffee table, 1930's Giltwood and marble 20 in. high, 33 in. diameter Giancorrado Ulrich collection

XI a Veranda table, 1937 For Sig. Campiglio, Milan

XI b Interior, 1930's

XII Tavolo basso

Low table, 1936 Leather and brass 23 他 in. high, 75 in. wide, 28 in. deep Giancorrado Ulrich collection

XII a Low table, 1936

XII b Large bedroom for the 6th Triennale, 1936

XIII Divano in pelle

Sofa, 1930's Leather 35 in. high, 80 in. wide, 32 in. deep

XIII a Sofa, 1930's Leather

XIII b Sofa, 1936 Green silk and walnut For Sig. Fossati, Milan

XIII c Interior, 1936

XIV Due poltrone in pelle

One of two club chairs, 1930's Leather 30 ½ in. high, 26 in. wide, 30 in. deep Giancorrado Ulrich collection

XIV a Club chair, 1942 Leather

XIV a Club chair, 1934 Leather

XV Poltrona in seta

Slipper chair, c. 1936 Sea foam green silk 31 in. high, 29 in. wide, 29 in. deep

XV a Slipper chair, 1937 For Sig. Borletti

XV b Slipper chair, 1941 For Miss Daisy Dankers

XV c Slipper chair, 1936 Yellow silk satin

XVI Toletta in pergamena e cristallo

Vanity, 1932 Parchment and glass 30 in. high, 46 in. wide, 25 in. deep

XVI a, b Desk/vanity, 1932 Parchment with copper central panel

XVI c Vanity, 1934 For Sig. Silva, Milan

XVII Quattro sedie

One of four chairs, 1942 Stained fruitwood 34 ½ in. high, 17 in. wide, 18 ½ in. deep

XVII a Table and chairs, 1942

XVII b Chair, 1942

XVIII Sei sedie

One of six dining room chairs, 1940 Stained Beech 30 in. high, 16 ½ in. wide, 16 ½ in. deep

XVIII a Chair, 1940 For Casa Silva, Rome

XVIII b Chair, 1953 For S.I.A.E., Rome

XIX Coppia di sedie in legno di noce

One of two dining Chairs, c. 1936 Walnut 32 in. high, 17 in. wide, 18 ½ in. deep Giancorrado Ulrich collection

XIX a Game table with chairs, 1936

XX Sedia Fiera di Trieste

Prototype of the Fiera di Trieste chair, c. 1960 Walnut 33 in. high, 16 ½ in. wide, 15 ½ in. deep Giancorrado Ulrich collection

XX a, b Fiera di Trieste Chair, 1961

XXI Sedia Fiera di Trieste, con braccioli

Prototype of the Fiera di Trieste arm chair, c. 1960 Walnut 33 in. High, 16 ½ in. Wide, 18 in. deep Giancorrado Ulrich collection

XXI a Fiera di Trieste arm chair, 1961

XXII Scrittoio in pergamena

Desk, 1930-36 Parchment and Walnut Branded mark 30 in. high, 43 ½ in. wide, 21 in. deep

XXII a Console, 1936-37

XXII b Desk, 1935

XXIII Scrittoio in ciliegio

Desk with chair, 1940 Cherry wood 31 in. high, 63 in. wide, 35 ½ in. deep Giancorrado Ulrich collection

XXIII a, b Desk in Ulrich's house, 1940

XXIV Cassettiera bianca

Chest of drawers, 1934 Parchment 37 ½ in. high, 33 ½ in. wide, 16 in. deep Giancorrado Ulrich collection

XXIV a Chest of drawers, 1934

XXIV b Chest of drawers, 1937 For Sig. Fossati, Milan

XXIV c Chest of drawers, 1937 For Sig. Sinai, Milan

XXV Cassettiera a specchio

Commode, c. 1936 Parchment and mirror 36 in. high, 54 in. wide, 17 ½ in. deep

XXV a Commode, c.1936

XXV b Commode, 1932 For Sig. Sandoz, Rome

XXV c Interior for the 5th Triennale, 1933

XXVI Lampadario

Chandelier, c. 1940 Brass and etched glass 36 in. high, 17 in diameter

XXVI a Candle stick holder, 1930's

XXVI b Brass chandelier, 1961

XXVII Armadio con specchio

Armoire, c. 1935 Mirror and pear wood 81 in. high, 79 in. wide, 19 in deep

XXVII a Low storage unit, 1933 For Casa Sorcinelli in Cagliari, Sardinia

XXVII b Armoire, 1935 Pear wood, mirror, brass with ivory handles

XXVII c Armoire, 1935 For Sig. Panebianco