Marco Zanuso

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Marco Zanuso, architect and designer: born Milan 14 May 1916; married (three daughters); died Milan 9 July 2001.

Marco Zanuso was an architecture graduate when he returned to his native Milan in 1945 after four years of wartime service in the Italian navy, but he realised that "my studies had taught me very little", he said in a recent interview.

Years on technologically advanced warships, on the other hand, had filled his head with ideas, he confessed. In subsequent close contacts with the group of second-generation Rationalist architects revolving around Ernesto Rogers, Zanuso developed those ideas into buildings and designs which would become benchmarks and bywords of the post-war period.

"If Italy succeeded in affirming itself as one of the world's industrial powers despite having emerged defeated and destroyed from the Second World War, part of the credit must go to masters like Zanuso who managed to convey the high quality of Italian design," wrote the architect Carlo Bertelli on Zanuso's death last week.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Rogers founded and Zanuso edited the influential Domus and Casabella magazines which married architecture with design in unprecedented fashion. Already by that time, Zanuso had begun ground-breaking experiments with new materials, bending tubular steel into sinuous shapes and slinging foam-rubber-filled seats from these frames: his "Antropus" chair for Arflex went into production in 1949; his "Lady" armchair for the same company dates from 1951.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, he would continue to breath new life into everyday objects, coming up with the Grillo telephone – a moulded plastic folding receiver with dial incorporated – for Siemens in 1962, futuristic radios and portable television sets for Brionvega, and the K1340 children's stacking chairs, the first item of furniture ever made of polyethylene, in 1964. His designs, though thoroughly innovative, were never élitist, and always conceived as useful objects for low-cost mass production.

According to Zanuso,

There is no dividing line between craft and design. Coming up with a prototype

involves all our craft, industrial and academic experience. The fact that 50,000 copies of the finished object are then produced by a machine is a coincidence that goes under the name of industrial design.


While lecturing at the Politecnico university in Milan from 1945, editing magazines and running his own design studio, Zanuso was also working on construction design, thanks in part to Adriano Olivetti, the philanthropist founder of the Olivetti business-machines company. Olivetti paved the way for Zanuso's international renown when he asked the then relatively unknown, untried architect to come up with a factory for his company in Argentina: this maximum working space with its air-conditioning equipment placed very visibly on the exterior was much praised when it was built in 1956-58; a year later, Zanuso followed this with a second Olivetti factory of interlocking honeycomb cells in São Paolo.

While the vagaries of fashion meant that most of Zanuso's furniture designs gradually went out of production – becoming instead cult objects: several now displayed in the design section of the Museum of Modern Art in New York – he remained in demand as an architect until illness prevented him from working last year.

But things did not go smoothly for him in this field, however, as he was swept up in the scandals and recriminations of the corruption-prone Milan of the 1980s. In 1978, he was asked by his friend the theatre director and impresario Giorgio Strehler to design a new theatre for Milan. The plan for the Teatro Piccolo was approved by the city council and the budget set at six billion lire. Twenty-one years and L8bn later, the Piccolo was finished, but not before Zanuso had been dragged into a welter of court cases in which much of the blame for wasted time and money was attributed to him.

Anne Hanley