Mercanteinfiera: An Italian Love Affair

lancias-fiats-and-alfas Lancias, Fiats and Alfas © Christopher Poehlmann

I fell in love in 1985. And honest to God, I’ve never lost that first love. I was in Salzburg studying photography for a semester and found beauty where I had never noticed it before. Everywhere I went, there were displays of what would be my muse, my calling, my enduring love. I would go on field trips to museums and churches throughout Austria and Germany and would need to slip out to fuel my fire, feed my soul with this newfound love. Then, on a two-week solo trek through Italy during break, I found the source of my attraction that added lust to the equation. Ever since, there’s been no looking back, just continual learning and rediscovery, like old friends or a married couple who miraculously have never needed marriage counseling.

Ever since, there’s been no looking back, just continual learning and rediscovery

My love, in a word, is design. Italian design in particular. From the post-war 20th century to the present. Due to my first encounter with a window display of Palazzetti furniture in the streets of Salzburg in the early fall of 1985, my life was changed for the better, permanently. Though I didn’t know it at the time, those Corbu and Mies chairs and tables were manufactured by an Italian company. After the third or fourth Pieta in some now barely remembered church or museum, I felt plenty sated; but the third or fourth lamp by Achille Castiglioni only left me wanting more. l had never sketched for myself, as I was a photographer and images came to me fully as I hid behind my viewfinder. But this newly discovered furniture needed a different type of documentation: I suddenly needed to draw it, to alter it, to make it mine. It was a beautiful thing finding my muse.

Colorful glass lamp, detail © Christopher Poehlmann


Glass lamp, detail © Christopher Poehlmann


Stil Novo © Christopher Poehlmann

My trip to Italy then put everything in focus. Italy was the locus. It was the mothership of where design happened in the 20th century. Sure, there were the Bauhaus and Weiner Werkstatt and Chzech Cubist and De Stijl and Thonet, but they were all more or less isolated moments in European culture. Sometimes they cross-pollinated with each other, but they almost always felt like discrete parts of the culture of the countries from whence they were seated. Italy however seemed to embrace design in a larger, broader way. It was, and still is, bountiful with factories dedicated to producing furniture, lighting and design objects for daily use. Their dedication to contemporary design and partnering with architects and industrial designers to lead them in brave new directions made these Italian factories extra special. Factories across Europe and even the US of course were partnering with designers but they tended to have very small stables, Artek worked with Alvar Aalto for instance, and Braun with Dieter Rams, but Italian companies like Artemide or Alessi saw a bigger picture and sought to engage the talent of many qualified designers over a single designer. Everywhere I went on that two-week trip was steeped in history coupled with the inventive originality of contemporary design.

Parma map
Parma © Christopher Poehlmann
Parma © Christopher Poehlmann

Studio Alchimia and Memphis, Joe Colombo, the Castiglioni’s, Gio Ponti, Luisa and Ico Parisi, Franco Albini, Marco Zanuso, Gaetano Pesce, Osvaldo Borsani, Andrea Branzi, Antonio Citterrio, Vico Magistretti, Anna Castelli Ferrieri, the list of designers seemed endless. I learned so much and have continually fueled my lust for studying for decades. The brilliant found object combines of Castiglioni, like his Toio lamp, taught me how to make my own objects without an apprenticeship in a wood or metal shop, just a trip to the local hardware store. The Bolidist designs of Massimo Iosa Ghini informed the fluidity of my first series of welded steel work. My other primary influence at the time was the expressive made to order steel furniture of architect Ron Arrad: his London based One-Off practice may never have found the international mass market if it wasn’t for the Italian factories who initially embraced his work and continue to do so to this day.

Magestretti © Christopher Poehlmann
Pair of chairs © Christopher Poehlmann

I recently found myself back in Italy 32 years later to visit and write about Mercanteinfiera Parma, the largest antique market in Europe. Almost every exhibitor was from Italy — regardless if they were on-line dealers or actual brick and mortar shops. This bi-annual event is a singularly Italian event: the place to show and sell Italian antiques for Italians. Granted, plenty of foreign buyers were there too, as I overheard many languages spoken, but this event is still a hidden gem for the foreign buyer.

Show panorama © Christopher Poehlmann

As I walked the show, I was flooded with memories of design discoveries. That’s one of the prime joys of antiquing — the discovery. For me as both picker and collector, researcher and consultant, I find the hunt totally captivating. Discovering new designs or themes in such a chaotic yet oddly focused atmosphere was a complete joy. I’m singularly focused on Modernism and there was a lot to sift through. Nineteenth century and older stuff was more than plentiful, thousands of square meters of antiques of all eras in multiple buildings. I’m typically not one for mooning over antiquities, but scattered throughout were many modern works by Italian designers spanning the whole of the twentieth century. I was in my element.

Show floor © Christopher Poehlmann
Set up © Christopher Poehlmann
Art booth © Christopher Poehlmann

The show opened with a lovely small photography show, a display of Franco Albini’s architecture and furniture designs, and a couple of book vendors. A quick scan through the books came up with the catalog raisonne of Luisa and Ico Parisi. I once owned and sold at auction a Parisi tea cart. I had been certain it was legit, but I had never could properly authenticate it, nor was the auction house. A quick thumb through the catalog raisonne showed it plain as day: Model 58 on page 496 and 497. Indisputable. I took a couple pictures of the two-page spread for my archives and personal satisfaction.

Franco Albini building © Christopher Poehlmann
Albini © Christopher Poehlmann

Not more than 15 minutes later, after marveling at the sheer number of tea carts I was seeing in various booths — Victorian to Mod in period—I came across a vendor with that very same Model 58 cart. This was not a buying trip for me, but I started the conversation through my PR guide as if I was a buyer. The price was a bargain and the vendor (from Bologna I believe) told me that it was very much like the work of Ico Parisi. Feeling like spreading the love, I replied that indeed it was a Parisi. My guide was startled that the vendor adamantly stuck to his guns. Impressed by his unwillingness to upsell something he didn’t believe was authentic, I gave him the gift of authentication and showed him the photos of the book. Knowledge is power and sometimes it feels good to share. Of course, he immediately raised the price.

Tea carts © Christopher Poehlmann

My two days at the show kept unearthing new finds at every turn. After the tea cart incident, I did not feel the need to educate, but rather to be educated. I found tables, chairs, and lamps both familiar and completely foreign to me. There were remarkably few examples from 80’s Memphis, literally just a handful. Not much of a surprise I guess as the production was limited and they are highly collectible, but I did expect more. What I did find in abundance were arm chairs in the style of Marco Zanuso. At once bold and animated, Zanuso’s chairs give a gestural sense to his designs and seem almost like caricatures of armchairs on the move. There is a certain irony to giving a feeling of motion to chairs designed for relaxing. Not so much speed as Iosa Ghini imbues in his work, but motion none the less. I now believe that Zanuso was a prime influencer for the populace during the mid-century, much like the still underappreciated Paul McCobb in the United States. There are signs of Zanuso’s style developing in the 1940’s where fluidity starts becoming apparent in bent wood arms, then suddenly that iconic Zanuso arm treatment — a softened triangle or oval added to the outer frame of the chair — starts showing up everywhere. The style obviously was a definitive moment in mid-century Italian design. I must have photographed 50 different variations on this theme. It was an epiphany for me — design is a continuum where often one feeds from the other, and Zanuso’s maverick use of the newly developed foam rubber upholstery in 1948 and `49 obviously was a definitive gesture in terms of establishing an “Italian look” of the time.

Zanuso chairs © Christopher Poehlmann
Zanuso, detail © Christopher Poehlmann
Zanuso style with chinz © Christopher Poehlmann

Spent and satisfied, I’m now thinking it’s time to make a commitment as a buyer. My love has been reinvigorated and I crave more. I’m not one for design monogamy, the more the better, in all its varied forms and degrees of beauty, frailty, strength and inherent challenges. This love of Italian design may indeed be as much a part of my future as it is an extension of my past. A new road to take my love on. It deserves a regular rendezvous, like the 1978 film Same Time Next Year, a liaison to anticipate, cherish, and change with as we grow old together.

Plaid © Christopher Poehlmann
Car hall © Christopher Poehlmann
Fornasetti © Christopher Poehlmann
Couple walking a starburst chandelier © Christopher Poehlmann


Christopher Poehlmann is an artist, designer, curator, photographer and writer based in Philadelphia, PA.