AS A BOY visiting his family in the early 1980s, Tommaso Fantoni would dash through the garden of the villa completed in 1945 by his grandfather, the designer and architect Osvaldo Borsani . Along with his older brother, Giacomo, he raced bicycles on the stone paths behind the 30-foot-high ivy-covered wall shielding the estate from a main street of Varedo, a 20-minute drive north of Milan . They swam in the small pool by the austere stucco-and-brick manor, with its flat tile roof and 13-foot-tall living-room windows, through which slashes of light fell onto geometric parquet floors as well as the angular modern furnishings that their grandfather had designed and a towering ceramic fireplace sculpted by Osvaldo's friend, the artist Lucio Fontana .
The paterfamilias himself was rarely there to witness his grandsons play; though he was in his 70s by then, nearing the end of a half-century career, he still worked full time, conceptualizing new pieces and determining how to fabricate them. "What I remember most from those years," says Tommaso, 45, who now has a Milan-based architecture practice (his brother is a corporate executive), "was his voice as he came through the door: low and deep and calm."
Osvaldo, who died in 1985, was an understated yet monumental figure in the world of Italian Modernism, less well-known than his peer, the architect Gio Ponti , but perhaps as culturally significant. As part of the Rationalist movement of the 1930s — an unadorned alternative to the traditional classicism of Novecento Italian design, which also flourished in the prewar years — he was equally interested in the mechanics of mass producing his furniture and objects as he was in creating one-off designs, which set him apart from his purely artisanal contemporaries. He operated from Varedo only because that was where his father, Gaetano, had a custom woodworking atelier (Gaetano had acquired the land next door so that Osvaldo could build Villa Borsani for the family). Starting in the late 1940s, Osvaldo designed homes with Art Deco and Modernist touches for some of Italy's emerging industrialists, including the wool magnate Ermenegildo Zegna , but as the years passed, he was drawn to more forward-looking silhouettes. He torqued the polished-wood minimalism of the midcentury by designing chairs and sofas in materials such as black-enameled steel and rubber. He also pioneered so-called adjustable furniture, including the P32 armchair , from 1956, which swivels on visible metallic mechanisms and returns automatically to its original position.
Inside Casa Borsani
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More important, he found a way to manufacture these handcrafted pieces himself. In 1953, he and his identical twin, Fulgenzio, founded a company, Tecno , for which they built a sprawling factory in 1962 on the site of what was once their father's wood shop. By controlling every step of fabrication and distribution, and incorporating a unified graphic identity long before such a concept was de rigueur (its curvilinear "T" logo became ubiquitous in magazine advertisements), the brothers came to dominate in 1970s-era office design. Osvaldo enlisted prominent architects, including Norman Foster and Gae Aulenti , to design furniture collections and component systems, which were displayed in more than 40 showrooms, from Paris and Chicago to Tokyo and Buenos Aires — the first such scale operation out of Italy. Osvaldo's daughter Valeria and her husband, Marco Fantoni (parents of Tommaso and Giacomo), eventually joined the company, as did Fulgenzio's son, Paolo.
The clan was always working, so the boundaries between the factory — six stories of poured and precast concrete — and the 8,000-square-foot palazzo next door were porous. The contrast of the structures, and the ease with which the family traversed the eras, was a living illustration of how artisanal craftsmanship could coexist with mass production. "They would all be in the factory in the morning, and then stroll back here, with clients and collaborators, for lunch," says Tommaso, standing in the dining room of the house beside a vintage green Brazilian onyx table surrounded by upholstered chairs of Borsani's design. "It was really seamless for so many years."
AFTER OSVALDO'S DEATH, Valeria and Marco took over design duties at Tecno, but once Fulgenzio, who oversaw the financial side, died in 1991, the two branches of the family amicably divided the assets. The Fantonis retained the rights to the archival furniture designs; Fulgenzio's heirs kept the interest in Tecno (his grandson, Federico Borsani, remains an executive). Its Varedo factory was converted into apartments in the early aughts. But the family was united in maintaining Villa Borsani as its creator had intended. Still occasionally occupied by relatives, it also contains Osvaldo's vast archive, including thousands of the architect's watercolor renderings of interiors and products.
The palazzo itself is a combination of classical and Modernist elements — a fusion of Art Deco and Baroque flourishes, with sophisticated hand-hewn details, a historical pastiche that tracks both Borsani's own aesthetic evolution as well as 20th-century Italian design. Made from a series of connected boxes, the exterior manages to seem graceful even in its severity, the pale beige and pink stucco having gently weathered with the decades. The entrance is shaded by pergolas covered in ivy and wisteria; the courtyards are defined by squared-off stone pillars. Inside, the rooms are high-ceilinged but not large — a vertical proportion that evokes the early 19th century more than the sweeping, low-beamed expanses favored by 1940s European Modernists. Osvaldo engineered slight changes of elevation — a subtle step up or down — to create a feeling of intimacy. In its rich materials and right-angled restraint, the villa evokes the moody work of the early 20th-century Austrian architect Adolf Loos : brainy and bold, but also sensual.
But unlike Loos's work, which tended toward dark shades, as in the well-preserved apartment at 10 Bendova Street in Pilsen in the Czech Republic and Prague's Villa Müller , Osvaldo's property is awash in subtle pastels and sun. The first thing you see when you enter, across an Op Art-inspired wavy maroon-and-pink marble floor based on one of the team insignia from the biannual bareback horse race Palio di Siena , is a two-story double "L" open staircase. Osvaldo made the steps from the same dusty pink Candoglia marble used for the Duomo di Milano, with a polished walnut handrail that snakes like a cobra. The struts are clear Murano glass, bolted to the stairs with bronze studs that presage the hardware on the P110 Canada lounge chair, which Osvaldo would create two decades later, leading the way for the explicitly industrial flourishes of the high-tech movement. Overall, the effect is transparent and ethereal, with the back garden visible through a wall of windows behind the stairs.
Despite his reserved nature, Osvaldo was famed for his enthusiastic collaborations. His own style varied greatly through the decades, and so he was open to a range of aesthetics. Evidence of that is everywhere in the house; his friendship with Fontana — the two men met in Milan in the 1930s — is writ especially large. The Argentine-Italian artist, who became celebrated in the 1950s for his monochromatic slashed canvases, was also a sculptor, and his ceramic works fill several rooms, including the main sitting area, with an 11.5-foot-tall fireplace of his design depicting warriors in battle.
Other important Italian artists are represented throughout the rooms; most were frequent visitors, perhaps snacking on artichokes at the green onyx dining table or debating new movements like Spatialism, founded by Fontana, which repudiated traditional painting in favor of three-dimensional works and experiences. A carved walnut sliding door by the artist Antonio Voltan and the landscape painter Adriano Spilimbergo separates the elevated dining room from the living area, where, in the corner, there is a marble games table with inlaid images of playing cards and chess pieces, conceptualized by the 1950s and '60s experimental filmmaker Marcello Piccardo . On the landing of the main staircase stands a spiderlike bronze by the Tuscan-born sculptor Agenore Fabbri , whose monumental 1954 piece "Caccia al Cinghiale" adorns the garden of Palazzo Sormani, the 18th-century building that houses Milan's central public library.
As in all the dozens of houses that Osvaldo designed, the villa has clever touches that foretell his eventual obsession with technology: A panel behind the basement bar, decorated with harlequin figures by Spilimbergo, slides to conceal the bartender; the tiled bathroom floors are heated through a series of sunken pipes; there is a button beneath the dining table to summon servants.
And while the villa has remained structurally as Osvaldo conceived it more than 70 years ago, the furnishings have not. Osvaldo never intended them to remain static; he and his relatives occasionally moved pieces around, bringing in new ones that emerged from the studio, including the cognac leather sofa that Valeria created with the designer Alfredo Bonetti in the 1960s. Even now, the family switches things out from time to time, rifling through the archives at an adjoining building, taking joy in the reappearance of, say, a padded P110 Canada chair, newly in situ. They refuse to imprison the villa in amber, determined instead to maintain the frisson that Tommaso and Giacomo had experienced as children on their bikes beneath the wisteria: a house fluid and eternal, full of startling new ideas amid the embellishments of history — just like Osvaldo himself.
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