Gloria Sormani restores her father's place in the design pantheon


Remember the Titans

It’s Thursday morning before the opening of Salone del Mobile, and Gloria Sormani and I are on our way to Arosio, a small town in Lombardia, to visit the very first warehouse of her family's pioneering Italian furniture manufacturing company. At first sight, the tall building with a deteriorated reddish door—hidden in a courtyard of apartments—belies the eight months of work that Gloria has put into restoring the wealth of 20th-century Sormani design treasures inside.

Gloria's father, designer Luigi Sormani (1932-2017), founded his eponymous furniture company in Arosio in 1961 with an eye toward harnessing modernized production techniques—renouncing Italy's traditional, artisanal techniques and materials in favor of imported Rio Rosewood, glossy lacquered finishes, and eventually high-tech plastic and aluminum—while embracing the future-facing visual language of the Space Age. Over the next two decades, Sormani earned a permanent place in the design canon, often through collaborations with visionary Italian designers like Joe Colombo, Carlo De Carli , De Pas-D’Urbino-Lomazzi, Gio Ponti, Studio A.R.D.I.T.I., Claudio Salocchi and many others.

Luigi Sormani was one of the first design entrepreneurs to understand the importance of promoting the "Made in Italy" label around the world. Through the 1960s, he took an active role in Federlegno, the official Italian federation of furniture makers, encouraging Italian companies to leave a strong impression at international fairs like Kölnmesse in Germany, the Salon du Meuble in Paris, the European Living Art exhibition in Japan, alongside, of course, the then-newborn Salone del Mobile in Milan. Today you can find Sormani's legacy in museum collections around the world, from MoMA New York to the National Museum of Art in Kyoto, as well as in the pages of historical design books that document the Italian design icons of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

After Luigi Sormani passed away last year, Gloria began to contemplate how she could honor her father's impact on the world of design. She thought about how many of Sormani's contemporaries, such as Cassina, B&B Italia, Kartell, and Artemide, were still well known and respected, while her family's company followed another destiny, remembered today primarily only by true design connoisseurs. Her lightbulb moment came when she realized that she could play a role in revitalizing Sormani's lost history by refurbishing and exhibiting the family's private collection. Gloria has invited me to preview her progress so far.

Thanks to Luigi Sormani's determination and ingenuity, the Joe Colombo design was finally realized. Additional Seating System by Joe Colombo for Sormani, 1968 Photo © Sormani When I first enter the Sormani warehouse, I'm overwhelmed by shelves full of boxes of screws and shades. Gloria slides a door open to reveal the impressive collection of vintage Sormani pieces—a design paradise spread out over three floors, each with its own atmosphere and story to tell. The first floor is laid out more or less like a showroom, with striking designs in every corner. I discover a set of Ponti tableware in one of the cabinets. At the back of the room, a large sideboard overflows with original drawings, photographs, and a mock-up of the very first Sormani catalogue from 1961, which organizes the products according to the designers and showcases the pieces both in isolation and set within delightful interiors. Gloria leads me to more relics from the archive, including images of the company's factory on fire—an act of terrorism that the company suffered in the 1970s, around the time when Italy was experiencing tumultuous economic and political instability. 

The second floor of the warehouse preserves the former Sormani offices and workspaces, including vintage Sormani press clippings alongside letters from Ponti and other designers hang on the wall. One article tells the story of when Luigi Sormani was kidnapped for thirty-three days, allegedly by an unknown gang. Gloria was a teenager at the time, but vividly remembers how the family suffered not knowing the whereabouts of her father. She also recalls how he looked when he finally was returned home. After that, things changed, and the Sormani company was never the same.

We arrive on the third floor, and Gloria shows me a couple of pieces that she is particularly attached to and will never sell. She dotes especially on Colombo's Additional Seating System from 1968, which she explains was so extraordinary that other companies had failed to find a way to produce it without drastically altering the design and comfort. But, thanks to Luigi Sormani's determination and ingenuity, the Colombo design was finally realized with foam cushions over a tubular steel support with metal clips—one of the most iconic designs from the Sormani oeuvre. 

Luigi Sormani with his daughter Gloria in the 1960s Photo © Sormani By restoring these rare Sormani designs, reassembling them in a context that spotlights her father's many achievements, Gloria will do much to enlarge the already rich story of Italian design in the 20th century. Her father believed that everything is possible; that there is a design solution for every problem. Such optimism, inventiveness, and tenacity cannot be forgotten. Thanks to Gloria, her father will return to his rightful place in our pantheon of design heroes.

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