Ugo La Pietra: Born in Bussi sul Tirino, Italy, 1938
"Art furniture" is a fairly detestable moniker. It carries with it a sense that said pieces are not quite art and not really furniture—either art is slumming or furniture is longing. Clearly, and it may seem overly reductive (but I can't see much actual distortion), for all human endeavors, some creations are simply good and some not so much. All things have value but not all are superlative, whether art or decorative art, sculpture or industrial design, painting or graphics, drawing or illustration, essay writing or whatever. To separate the functional arts from the fine arts is like trying to differentiate between the acceleration rate of a falling pound of goose feathers and a falling pound of duck feathers. Art and design are not dualistic—and our subject, Ugo La Pietra, is really the most instructive on these matters. He considers his life's output (50-plus years, spanning a wide range of disciplines) to be, plainly, research.
La Pietra came of creative age during the ambitious days of radical 1960s culture. Working with and alongside such provocateurs as Hans Hollein, the Haus-Rucker-Co, Ettore Sottsass, the Situationist International, Coop Himmelblau, Archizoom and Superstudio, he developed his own critical method of making. In his own words, he pushed for the "decoding and rereading of what has been forgotten, or ill used, or is somehow, for more or less legitimate historical reasons, petrified" (Ugo La Pietra, "1960-1990: Thirty Years of Experimental Research").
Above: the 1966 Globo Tissurato lamp (left) and a ceramic piece from 1991. Top: the Libreria shelving unit (left) and La Pietra with his Globo Tissurato.
La Pietra's furniture spans a huge range of moods. There are meandering decorative reinterpretations (his mid-to-late 1980s cabinets for Boffi), aggressively undermined domestic objects (a suite of ceramics for Mangani circa 1986) and subtly and beautifully tweaked existing models (toilets and washbasins for Tenax). But his Libreria shelving unit (for Poggi, 1968) and his Globo Tissurato lamp (for Zama Elettronica, 1966) are perhaps his hallmarks.
The Libreria is a shelving piece that acts as sculpture, utilitarian furnishing and architectural augmenter all at once. It's an arresting interplay of planes to rival Paul Rudolph, and its two-sided aspect makes it impossible for an interior plan to ignore—it has to find its place, so to speak. The Globo Tissurato, compelling as an object in its own right, was simultaneously an attempt to modulate a light source beyond a simple dimmer switch. La Pietra's use of methacrylate—relatively novel at the time—allowed for the insertion of bubbles into plastic, so as to modify the outgoing light (a dynamic and pleasing effect).
Left: La Casa Telematica, from 1982. Right: La Pietra's Italian Garden, from 1989.
Something to keep in mind when looking at La Pietra's work is the way we take ordinary objects for granted. Why do we pot plants? Or put cut flowers in a vase? Or have a predilection for varying temperatures of "artificial light?" Are these manifestations of larger import, or simply dalliance? Are the plants "asking" us to put them in pots? One thing is certain, though not commonly thought—vases don't just hold flowers, they also hold the whole concept of holding flowers.
It should be clear that pinning down La Pietra with a particular title (designer, artist, situationist) is impossible; and I would hope that, after seeing his work, the prospect of labeling him is wholly unattractive. I think it helpful here to reproduce an index of La Pietra's own making, also from his essay "Thirty Years of Experimental Research." It is a lovely, though almost a clinically resolute, methodology of struggles and elective affinities.
1) Research and design of the object in rapport with the environment, the territory, and history (I mean all of history: not only what relates to the history of the mass-produced object!);
2) Definition of useful objects which can be put into production and which nevertheless at the same time posses the virtual qualities proper to the art object;
3) Exploration of the points of conflict between and overlapping of the two disciplines, art and design, in order to determine whether the historico-cultural reasons which lead to their separation in the past rare still valid;
4) Greater attention to the diffusion of the so-called culture of living, with particular attention to local territorial resources;
5) References to tradition (techniques, materials) together with approaches charged with unforeseen, chance elements.
A bench from La Pietra's Mediterranean Villas series
A bookcase from the Three-Dimensional Memory series
From left: a sideboard from the Three-Dimensional Memory series; La Pietra with his 1979 Arcangeli Metropolitani lamp stand; and a credenza from the late 1980s
A La Pietra photomontage circa 1970
A 1984 sofa for Gruppo Industriale Busnelli
A photo and drawing of a 1984 armchair for Gruppo Industriale Busnelli
La Pietra's Medi ceramics collection
The Mangani plate from 1986
Woman 01, a 2007 limited-edition Plexiglas sculpture for Superego