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Joe Colombo


by Brook S. Mason
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The furniture of the Italian pioneering designer Joe Colombo (1930-1971) wasn’t always held in high regard in this country.

“Back in the ‘60s, people would put his designs on the back porch and then toss them, because they were plastic,” says Zesty Myers of the Tribeca-based R20th Century. Now, Myers is working to change that perception with the important if short-run “Homage to Joe Colombo,” Feb. 1-10, 2012, an exhibition at his gallery devoted to the designer, who also painted as part of the 1950s "Nuclear Movement."

Colombo’s heyday in design began in the 1960s and lasted until his early death from heart failure. Way ahead of his time, he championed plastic as a viable modern material, and his Universale chair from 1965 was made from a single piece of plastic. It still remains in production today.

Colombo began working in plastic to create self-contained units, like his cocoon bed, that did everything in a room. He believed that "all the objects needed in a house should be integrated with the usable spaces; hence, they no longer ought to be called furnishings but 'equipment’."

Of his dynamic pieces of furniture, Colombo said, “Habits change; the interior of rooms has to change with them." Some examples of that ideology are embodied in his Mini-kitchen, from 1963, and the Total Furnishing Unit (1971), both of which break domestic living into a simple set of functions carried out within a modular kitchen, cupboard, bed and bathroom. Many of these products were released in a Pop Art palette of bright, flashy hues.

“What makes Colombo unique is that so many designers like Harry Bertoia are known for a single piece of furniture rather than an entire body of work,” Myers explained. Colombo, on the other hand, is known for over 200 products. Even the Centre Georges Pompidou has held an exhibition devoted to his work, approximately five years ago. “Most of Colombo’s collectors are based in Europe, not here,” says Myers.

On view at R20th Century gallery are many of his designs from the Kartell Museo in Novigilio, Italy. Front and center is Colombo’s 4801 Armchair, 1965, which was originally produced by Kartell in wood, and has recently been reissued in plastic. Two limited edition lacquered versions of the chair (dating from 1965) are on view in the show, as well as a number of Kartell’s new plastic editions. “Now we have the technology to produce it in plastic,” says Myers.

“People forget that an entire group of designers like Wendell Castle first looked to Colombo for inspiration,” says Myers.

“Kartell: Homage to Joe Colombo,” Feb. 1-10, 2012, R20th Century, 82 Franklin Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.