Paying tribute not only to the company’s design achievements, but also to Italy’s industrial history as a whole, Molteni & C’s birthday celebration was one of our Salone del Mobile highlights earlier this year. The exhibition presented 44 designs dating as far back as the 1950s, on display inside the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, an 18th-century palace restored in the 1950s by Ignazio Gardella.

On the occasion of this year's London Design Festival, the octogenarian furniture company brought some of their archive pieces to the city, continuing the year-long celebration of their manufacturing heritage.

Founded in 1934, the company rapidly moved to the forefront of manufacturing and modern design, but its full story has rarely been told – ‘as it often happens when a company is much more focused on its future and its products’, explains Francesca Molteni, granddaughter of founders Angelo and Giuseppina Molteni.

With the brand’s anniversary coming up, the Moltenis decided to take a proper look back, enlisting two archivists to collect information and testimonies from the past eight decades, as well as prototypes from the family’s homes and other private collections. Francesca herself also interviewed an extended family of former employees, craftsmen and designers to piece together the brand’s timeline. In fact, this isn’t the first time Molteni & C has explored the past (its 2011 collection of Gio Ponti reissues acted as a stimulus for this project), but it is the first time it has been done in such an encyclopaedic manner.

The show’s narrative followed the company’s evolution from simple mobilificio (furniture factory) to manufacturer of modern design pieces, such as its collaborations with the likes of Aldo Rossi, Richard Sapper and Angelo Mangiarotti, among others. The sister companies that now fall under the Molteni & C umbrella – Dada, Unifor and Citterio – will also have a presence. A digital element (both at the show and as a website that will stay online for a year) will provide further details, images and information on the company’s past. Perhaps the most intriguing works to be displayed are prototypes that were designed for the Selettiva del Mobile di Cantù, an initiative debuted in 1955 that speaks of a golden era of Italian manufacturing.

For the annual contest, young international designers were invited to the industrial region of Brianza (Molteni & C’s home turf, just north of Milan) to work with local manufacturers on prototypes that were presented to a jury including, over the years, design heavyweights such as Alvar Aalto, Finn Juhl and Carlo De Carli. Molteni & C’s involvement in the contest demonstrates its commitment to working with emerging designers of the time, who brought modernity and aesthetic innovation to the region’s industry.

Two prototypes from the competition that were shown in Milan were a 1955 chest of drawers by Swiss architect Werner Blaser and an impressive curved wooden bookshelf by Yasuhiko Itoh, a Japanese designer, submitted in 1959. The latter is Francesca’s favourite, a family heirloom of sorts that featured in her father’s childhood bedroom and later in her own private house. The piece’s reissue is now in development. ‘It’s the kind of project that Molteni & C was not ready to produce in the 1950s, but that we are able to manufacture now, and it is still a very modern piece,’ says Francesca.

The exhibition itself was designed by Jasper Morrison, a ‘neutral voice’ who dissected and edited the Molteni & C history. ‘We chose an international designer, who would be able to look at our history with less nostalgia,’ says Francesca. ‘And given the location, we also needed someone with a design sensibility, who could conceive a set-up that synthesises the products and their role today.’ Morrison selected a detail of Gio Ponti’s ‘D.357.1’ bookshelf to act as a common thread linking the display stands. ‘It seemed to work as a quiet but visually pleasing background,’ he explains. His design made the most of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna’s narrow halls, and ensured the pieces could stand out while engaging with the ornate, neoclassical environment.

The retrospective show and its current London iteration demonstrate how quality and modernity have long been in conversation at Molteni & C. Looking back – at innovations such as the developments in technology and materials brought in by Francesca’s grandparents, and important encounters with the brand’s many designers – is helping her and her family to understand Molteni & C’s direction for the years ahead. From this rich past, the Moltenis have identified the formula for a successful future: ‘Exercise precision and don’t forget where we come from.’ Here’s to the next 80 years.