Our guest blogger today is Chip Kalleen who is a board member in the Design Arts Society.
Two members of the Design Arts Society explore the same work of art from different perspectives. Here is Part Two—
If you had to select a single symbol that best represents the world of agriculture, what would it be? That would definitely be a challenge. Once you had an image in mind, could you then take that image and design a piece of furniture with it—something perfectly utilitarian and practical, but at the same time sleek and sculptural? That would be the greater challenge. Fortunately, two brothers from Italy accepted that challenge in the 1950s and created what is today one of the world’s most iconic and timeless furniture pieces.
The Mezzadro (sharecropper) stool, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, premiered in 1957 but did not go into full production until thirteen years later in 1970. This elegantly simple stool married a standard metal tractor seat and bicycle wing nut with a strip steel spring stem and a cross base of natural beech wood. It was all about editing, editing, editing—eliminating anything that was not absolutely necessary and getting down to the simple basics of what a stool needed to be and could be. Simple, yes, but plain, definitely not!
While the brothers succeeded in having a minimal number of principle parts (4) and materials (2), they still wanted to take this visually quirky yet comfortable stool to another design level. Mezzadro needed to have an unexpected sense of style and, I think, glamour. Could those elements be combined with the basic function and material components and allow the stool to transition from ordinary to sublime? The answer is yes, and I think the brothers did it brilliantly. It was all about the finishes.
First, they chose to finish the humble metal tractor seat in a shiny colored lacquer. The tractor seat of the Mezzadro stool in the Design Arts collection of the IMA is finished in a glossy red lacquer. That color lends the seat a boldness and dynamism that belies its simple, utilitarian form (this is the same red you remember from your youth when you received the coveted Radio Flyer “little red wagon” for your birthday). The brothers then added the surprise element of “luxe” to their creation by taking the ordinary flexible steel bow and coating its plain steel in polished chrome. To me, the chromed steel is the piece de resistance—the element that transcends practicality and puts the stool in an entirely new category. It’s furniture as fashion! The red seat is now the equivalent of fellow countryman, Valentino, and his spectacular red couture gowns (from the same time period) and the chromed steel support is the glimmering necklace of diamonds at the model’s throat. The mirroring effect and the sparkle of the flexing chromed steel bow also add a dimensional twist, moving the overall stool into the realm of functional sculpture. Last, and not to be overlooked, is the natural beech “foot” that anchors all of the above. Like the other components the foot is so much more than just balance and support.
Keeping the wood as light as possible allows for the maximum material contrasts between the red seat and the chromed steel. The subtle graining also adds a natural pattern that complements the highly machined parts. It is the embodiment and fulfillment of Mies van der Rohe’s classic statement: “Less is More.”
As a designer, I feel the Mezzadro is one of those great accent pieces that can totally transform a room. Six of these around a rustic wood French farm table, a classic late 19th century American round oak pedestal table or a spartan Shaker cherry or maple table would create a memorable dining experience. That is the beauty of this stool. It works well with a diverse number of more traditional and antique furnishings and yet it feels perfectly at home in a more high-tech and minimalist environment. The Mezzadro is where agrian meets urban, and the rest is history.