Anyone who has been in Milan during Salone del Mobile will most likely have spent time at Bar Basso. For a few decades, it has been the place to convene and swap stories. A large percentage of the design community gathers here, inside and out, all determined on maintaining momentum into the early hours and beyond.

Bar Basso’s popularity with the global design crowd dates back to a period in the 1980s when the bar’s owner Maurizio Stocchetto became friends with a group of up-and-coming English (and UK-based) designers. The group included the late James Irvine, who lived in Milan and worked for Ettore Sottsass, and his friends: Marc Newson, Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton and Ross Lovegrove.

‘It became the meeting place for all of James’ friends,’ Morrison recalls. ‘One Salone we decided to have a cocktail party there and issued drink tickets to various friends. It was a big success and we repeated it the following year, but word got round and there were hundreds of people there. That was how the Bar Basso Salone scene started.’ Arad agrees: ‘I was always very happy to go there, and Maurizio is a real gentleman: you didn’t feel like you went to a bar, you felt like you went to Maurizio’s,’ he says. ‘Bar Basso for me is a symbol of Salone.’

From top, Bar Basso’s 1972 sign, the original 1950s neon sign, a light box added in the early 1970s, and advertising from the 1970s, all still in situ​

But Bar Basso is anything but a design bar. Originally opened in the 1950s, Stocchetto’s father Mirko acquired it in 1967 and didn’t change the original décor, which has been kept intact by his son. Mirko Stocchetto had cut his teeth in the hotels of Venice and Cortina, and learned the art of cocktail making from the barmen of the Cipriani hotel. In the 1960s, he decided to move to Milan, and acquired the bar, previously owned by a Mr Basso.

‘It was a unique moment in time,’ notes Stocchetto, whose father imported cocktail culture and created a line of cocktail glasses for the bar, which are still in use today. He also devised new concoctions, such as the Rossini aperitif or the now-legendary Negroni Sbagliato (meaning ‘wrong’) – a version of the drink that uses sparkling wine instead of gin.

Decades later, the bar still operates in much the same way as when Stocchetto senior was in charge (he passed away last year). There has been some innovation though. The bar now offers food, developed with a local chef; meanwhile, Milanese design curator and graphic designer Valentina Ciuffi has been working to enhance the bar’s online presence. Stocchetto purchased the domain, barbasso.com, in the 1990s, with the idea of collecting press clippings, but the website was put on hold as he has never been the digital type.

Bar Basso’s typography through the ages

Ciuffi, a long-time Bar Basso customer, and part of Socchetto’s loyal circle of friends, redesigned the webpage and added a few extra features: every few months, she and Stocchetto develop a small ‘online exhibition’ celebrating an aspect of Bar Basso. These have included a photographic exhibition of the bar’s signature cocktails chosen by Milanese cultural personalities, a collection of ‘drinks tokens’ (inspired by Irvine’s originals) created by designers who frequent the bar when in Milan, and a look at the typography that has accompanied Bar Basso throughout its 50-year history. Through her studio, Vedèt, Ciuffi worked with graphic designer Georgia Cranstoun to create an interactive page that explores key typographic characters and the stories behind them.

‘These bizarre graphics have overlapped since the 1950s without any specific criteria; they are eclectic, messy, unexpected and rather delightful,’ explains Ciuffi. These include the large 1950s neon sign towering outside the bar, which Stocchetto inherited from the previous owner, and light boxes that were added to the windows sometime in the early 1970s with statements such as ‘eat and drink’, as well as the bar’s name. Inside, the cacophony of fonts continues, with the cursive of the neon sign repeated on the menu and on paraphernalia such as pens and matches. The napkins also contribute to this typographic riot, and are still printed with the same design used since the 1970s.

Titled ‘The Other Lives of BB letters’, the project looks at the letter B throughout the bar’s typographic history, and a section of the site invites customers to contribute their own design to the project (which can be done online, or with special postcards designed by Ciuffi and Cranstoun and available from the bar).

But despite its special relationship with the creative community, Stocchetto maintains the bar is open to everyone: ‘From plumbers to students, from policemen to thieves,’ and this, he adds, keeps him grounded. But he is also aware of his role as a sort of mascot of the design world. ‘I like that my bar is for everyone, that it’s unpretentious,’ he says, ‘but the design scene has been very important to me. What happens at Bar Basso is like a little miracle.’

As originally featured in the May 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*218)

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