Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940)
When his Snail Room won the Turin International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in 1902, Carlo Bugatti was lauded by its jury as the "the first in Italy to realise rather than dream modern furniture". Yet it may be more accurate to say that he realised a dreamlike turn in modern furniture. Equal parts decorator, architect, furniture designer and maker, creator of jewellery models, inventor of instruments and of a racing bicycle, Bugatti’s countless occupations are reflected in a style that consistently stretched forms to their imaginative limits.
Born to a Milanese decorator in 1856, Bugatti studied at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris before he began manufacturing furniture in his hometown in 1880. And it was here, until he left for Paris in 1904, that his unmistakeable pieces were dreamt and realised. In line with a contemporary tendency towards designs that defied the exigencies of industrial manufacture, Bugatti looked to the Far East and North Africa for pre-industrial inspiration. Yet his incorporation of different styles never wavered into pastiche. His products were always his own, and their idiosyncrasies were a point of pride for their maker. It is thus unsurprising that when, in 1902, the Queen of Italy congratulated the ‘Mooresque’ elements in his work, Bugatti should rejoinder, ‘You are mistaken, Majesty, this style is mine!’
Bugatti’s formal explorations extend to his choice of materials, cherry-picked, again, from diverse traditions, and whose use can help mark out a chronology. Brass pressed with geometric patterns remained a staple, as did pewter inlays, silk cords, tassels, ivory, and mother of pearl. But by the Turin Exhibition of 1902, his studio was producing furniture clad solely in vellum. The last six years of his life in Paris saw Bugatti turn to cast metal work, alongside his furniture.