Norman Foster: Why Osvaldo Borsani was a design pioneer

Updated 16th April 2018
Credit: Courtesy Tecno
Norman Foster: Why Osvaldo Borsani was a design pioneer
Written by Norman Foster
Norman Foster is a world-renowned English architect. He heads the international firm Foster and Partners and won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1999. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Osvaldo Borsani was a true innovator. Born in 1911, the architect, designer and visionary left his mark at a crucial time in Italy's design history. From the 1930s he started working with other creative luminaries like Lucio Fontana, Roberto Crippa, Aligi Sassu, Fausto Melotti, and Arnaldo Pomodoro.
In 1943 he completed his own Villa Borsani in the town of Varedo, near Milan, still beautifully preserved as it has always remained with the family. Along with the extensive archives housed on its grounds, it offers a rare insight into his richly layered modernism. In 1953, along with his twin brother Fulgenzio, he founded his own manufacturing company, called Tecno -- a project for which he worked his whole life.
A portrait of Osvaldo Borsani.
A portrait of Osvaldo Borsani.
My introduction to the world of Tecno was in 1983 when Marco Fantoni, the son-in-law of its founder, Osvaldo Borsani, visited our London studio. At the time I was working on the Headquarter tower for HSBC in Hong Kong and Marco was offering the services of Tecno for the interior fitout.
Although the idea of a collaboration on the Hong Kong Bank was never realized, Marco later proposed a commission to develop a new range of furniture for Tecno. This was not the first such approach by a furniture manufacturer. Alias, also in ltaly, and Knoll in the United States, had made similar overtures but for a variety of reasons they did not feel right. Whether it was the chemistry of the personal relationships or my research into the company and its background -- whatever the reasons -- I felt confident enough to take Marco's idea forward.
An interior view of Villa Borsani in Varedo, near Milan.
An interior view of Villa Borsani in Varedo, near Milan. Credit: Courtesy Tecno

Twin brothers

I eventually made a visit to Tecno's facility at Varedo, a fifteen-kilometer drive from the center of Milan. There I met the founder -- Osvaldo Borsani with his brother Fulgenzio. lt seemed to be the essence of a successful close-knit family enterprise that had prospered on a commitment to design and innovation.
Visiting this flagship on my trip it was difficult to believe that it had been realized almost thirty years earlier in 1955, shortly after the launch of Borsani's design classic, the P40 lounge chair.
Meeting the team within this building was to find an extraordinary cross-section of the Borsani family. One of the most challenging aspects of any design enterprise is how to balance the opposing forces of creativity and the commercial imperative. The Borsani bothers resolved this conflict by Osvaldo being the creative force and Fulgenzio taking care of the business side.
Their respective children, Valeria and Paolo, were very active in the company and with, Marco Fantoni and Robert Timosci formed the inner circle for our collaboration. This was the manner in which the so-called Nomos (from the Greek for 'law of custom') table and a related workplace systems of furniture was to evolve. In 1987, the design won the coveted Compasso d'Oro ADI Award.
Villa Borsani will be open to the public during Milan's Salone del Mobile.
Villa Borsani will be open to the public during Milan's Salone del Mobile. Credit: Courtesy Tecno

Designing an exhibition

The public launch of the Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid in June 2017 was an opportunity to show the Foundation archive and the Fantoni family were surprised to find such a wealth of material on Nomos and its evolution -- apparently lacking in their own archive ABV based in the family's original Villa Borsani in Varedo. lt transpired that they were planning an exhibition that would chart the life and times of Osvaldo Borsani, the story of Tecno and its significant projects.
Given the importance of Nomos in any such narrative, it is perhaps hardly surprising that within the space of a few days the two Foundations had decided to collaborate on the exhibition with a request from Tommaso that the project team within the Norman Foster Foundation should lead on the design of the exhibition.
Villa Borsani was completed in 1945.
Villa Borsani was completed in 1945. Credit: Courtesy Tecno
For me it has proved to be an opportunity to explore the life and times of a talented individual and the remarkable company that he created. Although the Nomos range is physically small, on the scale of the epic architectural projects which have engaged me over the years, it has a special personal significance, not just because it was my first involvement in product design for industry, but it was a manifesto for the importance of the furnishings within a building.
The central theme of a timeline is well established in the exhibition and will enable the visitor to walk through the different periods in the work of this not so well known but significant design pioneer and along the way to find insights into the wider process of design.

Dissolving barriers

Osvaldo Borsani spanned the custom design of a range of individual pieces which could change their shapes kinetically across to the systems thinking of large scale furniture installations for commerce.
Villa Borsani_Image Courtesy of Pietro Carrieri 12
An exterior view of the Villa. Credit: Courtesy Tecno
Part of the mission of my Foundation is to encourage the links between architecture, design and the arts -- to demonstrate the importance of dissolving barriers -- especially between industry and design.
When I described the way in which the Nomos products had evolved under the large modular roof of the Varedo factory, I remember Borsani present at many of the key visits, as a figure in the background, elegantly dressed in tie, white shirt, cardigan and jacket. He did more than engage with us and approve the project. He was responsible for an environment in which it was possible to do what we did. He had created and cultivated an attitude of mind which encouraged craftsmanship and an attention to detail and quality. These were instilled across a relatively small workforce but they ran deep and had been nurtured over decades.
There are several parallel themes running through this exhibition but for me one of the most important is the nobility and pride in the human touch that lies behind the making of something well.
Villa Borsani in Varedo, near Milan, will be open to the public during Milan's Salone del Mobile Apr. 16 to 20, 2018.