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Design Classics

Mezzadro Stool, 1954

Designer: Achille Castiglioni and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni
Manufacturer: Zanotta

Achille Castiglioni and his two brothers trained as architects but turned to product design because there was little building going on during the war. In the 1950s, they collaborated with ambitious export-minded manufacturers to design the products that helped shape Italy's design renaissance. The best known of the three, Achille produced more than 150 pieces of furniture, lighting and household products and taught generations of students until his death in 2002.

Ever since Pablo Picasso welded together a rusty bicycle handlebar and seat and called it a bull, creative types have been fascinated by the potential and irony of transforming ready-made objects into art and design. Mezzadro means sharecropper in Italian, and Castiglioni's use of a simple farm object – a stamped metal tractor seat – reflects his interest in how humble objects reflect design intelligence. But look closely and you'll see something of refinement and style. The brightly enamelled seat is attached to a resilient bent-steel bar with an oversize wing nut. The whole construction is stabilized with an elegantly turned wooden crosspiece.

The Castiglionis were not the first designers to use a tractor seat for serious furniture. Mies van der Rohe proposed the idea in the early 1940s. The first version of the Castiglioni stool was shown in Milan in 1954. It went into production in 1973.

There are functional design classics. There are beautiful and luxurious design classics. But there are also classics that make us smile. The Mezzadro stool is one of these. While Castiglioni was a serious designer, he never lost his sense of whimsy. “There has to be irony in both design and the objects,” he said. “I see around me a professional disease of taking everything too seriously. One of my secrets is to joke all the time.”

With its brightly painted metal seat and springy movement, this clearly isn't a piece of furniture where you would want to spend a long time. But consider the improbability of bringing the language of the farm into the environment of an urban sophisticate and you have to laugh.

National Post, January 19, 2006.