I had a deeply moving and unexpected experience during my visit to the Milan Design Week in 2018. While flicking through the plethora of literature and blogs at Fourisalone 2018, I came across an opportunity to visit Villa Borsani, Italian Modernist Osvaldo Borsani’s design for his family home in the town of Vareda, in Milan’s northern outskirts.
The 1943 villa was open to the public for only 4 days from 16th to 20th April to coincide with other Salone events after having been closed for over a decade. I wasn’t about to pass up this rare opportunity! I hadn’t really heard of the low key Osvaldo Borsani, but what compelled me to go was to see a perfectly intact example of mid-century and post-war Italian modernism. What compelled me to write this piece is that Borsani’s legacy has been relatively unknown in the world outside of Italy, and even less so in India.
On reaching the Villa I was asked to wait at the forecourt with its stunning wisteria covered pergola - I was immediately able to absorb the richly layered 3000 sqm garden with its stucco portals, ancient ivy-covered walls and grand old trees, and was instantly transported back in time, eager to experience what lay beyond.
Our guide, an art history student who was now working with the Borsani family archives ushered a small group of us in. After giving us a synopsis of the Villa’s history and the Borsani family, she invited us to experience the Villa at our own pace.
I soon learnt that London-based design consultant Ambra Medda with a bunch of stylists had worked very closely with the Borsani family to curate the sensory experience of walking through the space as if time had stood still since the 1960’s. They had brought the interiors alive with fresh floral arrangements and fragrance, a music playlist ranging from Sinatra’s ‘Come Fly With Me’ to Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’, and accessories such as books, towels and bathroom slippers, to evoke the feeling that the family members were still staying in the Villa and had just stepped out for a while.
On entering the main door, I was sure I had encountered something very special. My first visual was of a dramatic floating staircase framed against a full height window with a grid of square wooden mullions inserted with hand-rolled glass.
It took my breath away! The staircase treads and risers were crafted out of white marble with a hint of a pinkish glow - the same Candoglia marble, I was told, had been used in the Duomo in Milan. The railing was made of walnut and inserted with tapered sections of Murano glass, held elegantly to the sides with copper bolts. The underside of the staircase was formed in ribbed plaster and the entryway flooring draped in a patterned organic marble inlay. Borsani was obviously an architect with impeccable taste in materials and an evocative sense of detail. I had to learn more.
I learnt that Borsani’s father Gaetano was a bespoke cabinetmaker with a workshop in Varena in the 1920s. Osvaldo first began working in the atelier when he was only 12 years old and then went on to study architecture at the Politecnico di Milano. During his time in architecture school, he won the silver medal at the fifth Triennale awards, indicating the originality that he would continue to demonstrate in his career. In 1953, Osvaldo and his twin brother Fulgenzio turned the company into Tecno, a furniture brand that still exists today (www.tecnospa.com). Many of Osvaldo’s creations (such as the P40 adjustable armchair, the D70 seat sofa and the AT 16 coat hanger) created under that label are now considered modern classics.
On one side of the stairs was a study room, where on the desk I was able to browse through a folder with original cabinetry drawings and sketches from Osvaldo’s father’s workshop. I then started wandering about - from the spacious living and dining areas on split-levels to the private bedrooms and office on the first floor. I was impressed by the rigorous articulation of volumes and the way that the spaces seamlessly flowed into one another. I was also struck by the verticality of the volumes, further emphasized by tall floor to ceiling windows. The soaring heights and generous cross ventilation in each of the spaces was an obvious choice to keep the villa cool during the Italian summers. The relationship of the house to the garden was also important with great vistas from the living room on the ground floor and the master bedroom on the first floor. This was a rationalist design but so richly layered from the inside. The entire house was dotted with custom designed pieces of furniture, some artisanal and others that were symbols of post-war industrial design. As a designer, architect, and entrepreneur, Borsani considered and designed every facet in his projects – from ceiling and wall embellishments to custom-made curtains.
There was also a spirit of collaboration evident while walking through the spaces. Borsani collaborated on artworks with several of his contemporaries who were his childhood friends; the dramatic ceramic fireplace in the living room by Lucio Fontana and the mosaic mural in the master bathroom by Adriano Spilimbergo are some such examples.
What is interesting to see in the Villa is that there is a bridge between Traditionalism and Modernism and one can see both influences quite clearly in the way the furniture pieces are placed. It shows Borsani’s progression from the handcrafted to something very engineered and mass-manufactured. There is craft evident everywhere but also technological innovations in the pieces by Tecno. Innovations extend into the heated marble floors in the bathrooms, and the hand-rolled double glazed glass windows, which were a first in any house of that time period in Italy and electric call bells under the onyx dining table.
It is always powerful to see such a personal vision in a house and Villa Borsani is a great example of customization, collaboration and obsessive attention to detail. It is also a perfect synthesis of practicality and aesthetics, which Borsani was known for. Osvaldo Borsani died in 1985. The shy and reserved architect was overshadowed by the fame of other contemporaries like Gio Ponti, but the world is taking notice now with a major retrospective of his work curated by Sir Norman Foster and Fantoni, that was shown at the Triennale de Milano. It took one afternoon at this modernist gem for me to discover Borsani’s genius.
(This article was first published in Issue#20 of mondo*arc india journal- an initiative by STIR.)