Meda is a small town at the heart of Brianza, the industrial zone that unfolds across the green Lombardy plain like a long grey dust plume stretching from Milan towards the Swiss border. Its medieval centre, marked by the frescoed 16th-century church of San Vittore, is hemmed in by a ring of more recent development that peters out into the generic anonymity of industrial Italy.

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate birthplace for Antonio Citterio. What we think of as Italian design depends on this town, and half a dozen like it. Meda is the engine room of the contemporary furniture world, where a web of workshops and factories forms a creative cluster that is to sofas what Silicon Valley once was to laptops. This is where Citterio grew up, and it’s where Flexform, the firm established in 1959 by the Galimberti family, which gave him one of his first jobs, is based.

Antonio Citterio and Flexform: a creative relationship 50 years on

Antonio Citterio Groundpiece sofa for Flexform photography Gabriele Basilico
Antonio Citterio’s Groundpiece sofa for Flexform, shot in 2001 by Gabriele Basilico in Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower

He makes the start of a relationship with the company that has lasted almost 50 years sound remarkably casual. ‘I was 23, I had just finished in the army. I was still studying architecture at the Politecnico in Milan. One of the Galimberti children had been my friend at school, so I went to Flexform and said, let’s do something together.’

Flexform had already made the transition from the traditional designs it had started out with, and had applied the artisanal skills of its craftsmen to a more contemporary design language. It had commissioned a piece as radical as Joe Colombo’s 1969 ‘Tube’ chair. Now it needed reliable bestsellers. ‘This was a time when a lot of furniture looked like sculpture, but I said, let’s do something really calm, and really normal.’ One of the results was the ‘Aria’ sofa, produced with his studio partner at the time, Paolo Nava. 

It belonged to a period in which the sofa was designed to be part of a conventional three-piece suite, and had yet to dominate the contemporary interior. In the average living room in the 1960s, the armchair was the seat of power, occupied by family patriarchs. The matriarch, if she was lucky, got a slightly smaller version to herself. The sofa was for supplicant sons-in-law. Launched around 1980, ‘Aria’ had a wooden frame, foam cushions, and brushed steel legs, accommodating two people in comfort. 

Citterio produced two other early projects for the company and began to play a part in shaping its identity. ‘I was never really Flexform’s art director, but I would talk to them about things,’ he remembers. ‘So I asked Achille Castiglioni to design the stand at the furniture fair a few times. And I suggested that Natalia Corbetta should do the graphics, and that they should work with Gabriele Basilico.’ Basilico was one of Italy’s most distinguished architectural photographers, scrutinising the relentless urbanisation of the country in the 1960s with an unforgiving eye. His work with Flexform was always in monochrome, always contextualising the furniture in slightly melancholy architectural settings, such as the interior of Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower.

Antonio Citterio’s Groundpiece for Fexform: a sofa for contemporary life

Antonio Citterio Groundpiece sofa for Flexform

‘People didn’t understand at first. It took a while for the approach to work,’ says Citterio. ‘The market has changed a lot since then. The market for contemporary design in the 1970s was just six per cent, now it’s the overwhelming majority.’ The way that we live has changed, too. ‘The sofa was not a normal element in the home. If you had one, it was a sofa bed, something to sleep on. My idea was that a sofa could be somewhere to eat and to work, as well as to relax.’

Donald Judd 100 Untitled Works in mill aluminum
Citterio’s inspiration for the ‘Groundpiece’ sofa design includes Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-1986. Permanent collection, the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo by Douglas Tuck, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation. Donald Judd Art © 2021 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It’s 20 years since Citterio designed ‘Groundpiece’, as the embodiment of that insight. The name is a reference to Donald Judd’s work, not because Citterio believes that his work is art, but because of what he learned from the way that Judd took sculpture off the plinth, to create a more direct relationship with space. Citterio took the sofa off its legs, and, apparently at least, placed it directly on the floor, like the Arab ‘suffah’, which was a raised section of floor softened by carpet or cushion.

As the middle-class living room increased in size, Citterio was able to consider ‘Groundpiece’ as furniture in the round, not backed awkwardly against a wall. ‘We moved the sofa into the middle of the room.’ This liberation allowed him to incorporate a menu of additional elements to the seating. ‘Groundpiece’ has no single fixed form: one or more of the sofa’s arms can incorporate storage shelves; the arm itself has a top wide enough to serve as a coffee table; and the back of the sofa can be used to form a low wall of shelving.

Antonio Citterio Groundpiece sofa for Flexform sketch
The designer’s sketches show the sofa’s arms, which can incorporate storage elements

It was a conceptual rather than a technical turning point, blurring the distinction between furniture and architecture, between foreground object and background service. It was made using existing technology, and designed as much on the workshop floor in Meda as it was in Citterio’s studio. There were no technical drawings; he relied instead on the skills of Flexform’s craftsmen to realise his ideas. ‘I worked only with sketches,’ says Citterio. ‘I worked with the man who cuts the fabric to get the line and the proportions.’

‘Groundpiece’ helped transform the sofa from playing a relatively minor role in the repertoire of contemporary furniture to a dominant one. And its success has reinforced the continuing relevance of the Italian design system and its ability to use its old skills in new ways. §