For a long time I have paid attention to the work of the Italian architect/designer Umberto Riva (b 1928) – particularly his product design work. His industrial design artifacts are noticeably sculptural, they do not look like mini buildings as architects product design work can, and they have a hand-hewn aspect to them that can deceive one into thinking that anyone with a modicum of craft skills could create one of these things. I suspect nothing is further from the truth. His designs for furniture and lights need to be experienced empirically, they invite use.
In placing Riva in context it is arguable, for example, that his Table Lamp – first made using ABS plastic in 1969 for Bieffeplast and then reissued in metal for Fontana Arte in 1991 uses abstracted bio-morphic forms and is thus indirectly linked to the sort of scalloped flowing outward appearance of Futurist work such as Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913.
At the same time his wood and plywood chairs from the 1990s divulge a Wrightian “turn” by invoking Frank Lloyd Wright’s forays into contemporary furniture in the 1930s. The matter of Wright and his influence on Italian architecture and design after the Second World War – related to the activities of Bruno Zevi, Carlo Scarpa and others – is a story of theoretical and the concomitant practice activity in Italian design that awaits historical documentation in English at least.
As I do not like classical architecture, so I do not like the right angle. I was always more interested in architecture that ignored (received knowledge) and … I understand everything through experience.[i]
Riva’s reflections on his approach, and indeed the work itself it, reveal his work to empirically “grounded” in an engagement with life as it is lived- concretely and in the first person so to speak.
And there is also something of the everyday folded into his work. This is especially evident in his furniture with its direct presentation of familiar forms, craft technique and traditional materials. At the same time as being comfortably familiar, Riva’s furniture is also elegant and refined. All of his designs are worked out in the medium of meticulous pencil drawings which (as with Scarpa) become a record of the whole design process – in effect, in one telling document.
In a similar way his bold light fittings – some of which are still in production – combine aspects of the sculptural, a familiar materiality, the implication of craft technique and a stylistic timelessness that invokes the objet-type mentality of Corbusier, a forerunner Riva considers singular.
[i] Vargas, David (2003) “Conversation with Umberto Riva”, archimagazine.com