September 1969. The concept of furniture as performance art and provocative social comment is revealed at the Milan Furniture Fair. In front of a gasping crowd, the ‘big bosom and large behind’ of Gaetano Pesce’s extraordinary, morphological lounge chair (said to have been modelled on both the silhouettes of fertility goddesses and the shapely actress Anita Ekberg) self-inflates to reveal an adorably cartoonish bulbosity.
Pesce – an architect, innovator and provocateur fascinated by kinetic op art, concrete poetry and the Bauhaus, and renowned for his participation with the Gruppo N art collective – officially named the chair the ‘Up5’. But within the walls of the studio, its maternal, nurturing aesthetic inspired the nickname ‘La Mama’.
While the chair was fun, colourful, pop and playful, the addition of a spherical ottoman, attached to the chair by an umbilical-ish elastic cord, conveyed a feminist message – the ball and chain representing the woman as sufferer, the mother as protector and prisoner, a slave to male prejudice.
The idea for the ‘Up5’ came to Pesce in the shower. Squeezing his sponge – ‘80 per cent air and 20 per cent matter’ – then observing with delight as it returned to its original volume and form, he wondered if the same principal could be applied to a piece of furniture. He imagined a futuristic chair with no internal structure, made from expanded polyurethane that could be compressed and vacuum-packed for efficient shipping.
The combination of practicality and pop-ism made the ‘Up5’ chair an instant sensation, a bold, classic design consistently manufactured over the decades in different colours, renditions and guises, first by C&B Italia and for the subsequent five decades by B&B Italia. In new editions, the ozone-damaging Freon gas, once used to inflate the chair, is replaced by a new and improved cold-shaped polyurethane construction that keeps its shape thanks to the density of its foam.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pesce’s ‘Up5_6’ armchair with pouf, B&B Italia has introduced a palette of new, solid colours: orange red, navy blue, petrol green, emerald green, cardamom. There is also the ‘50th Anniversary Special Edition’, in striped beige and petrol green, which nods to the original colours of 1969.
Meanwhile, an installation entitled ‘∞’ (Infinity), created by Chinese artist Chen Wei and specially commissioned by B&B Italia, will be revealed in Shanghai in November. Inspired by the ‘Up5’s Kubrickian advertising campaigns shot by Swiss photographer Klaus Zaugg back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the installation crystalises a depiction of the future as imagined by people 50 years ago, highlighting the physicality, social impact and space-travelling spirit of a magical era. §
B&B Italia presents ‘∞’ (infinity) by Chen Wei at West Bund Art Center, 2555 Long Teng Avenue, Xuhui District, Shanghai. Open to the public 8-10 November