The year was 1962 and D.'s mom spotted a great-looking, modern-style, green-, blue- and gold-trimmed vase at Ott Hardware in Santa Barbara. She displayed it for 55 years on her mantelpiece.
When D.'s mom passed, D.'s daughter claimed the vase and tucked it into her kitchen cupboard. In an antique shop in Morro Bay, D. saw a similar piece, priced high, and sent me photos of the vase, asking if her daughter should display it again. What follows are reasons D.'s daughter might love it for its colorful history as well as its gorgeous blues and green.
Aldo Londi, artistic director at the ceramic factory Bitossi, created D.'s mom's treasured vase. Today, we call the look "retro," or mid-century modern. The history of this vase is a reflection of American taste, opening to the new modern world of design in Europe in the late 1940s, as well as to American consumerism and inspired marketing in the 1950s, celebrated in shows such as "Mad Men."
Aldo Londi was born in Montelupo, Italy, in 1911 and served as a full-time ceramicist at the age of 11. War called the young man — fighting during World War II, he was taken prisoner in South Africa and languished there until 1946 when he retired to Italy. He joined Bitossi, a firm operating in the old-style manner of Italian ceramics since 1500s in Montelupo. The Bitossi family had purchased the concern in 1871 when Guido Bitossi introduced the concept of the craft tradition, a new look, earthy and folksy. New hire Londi had met the talented designer Ettore Sottsass in the late 1940s. Together, they designed a look based on high-fired, brightly colored, faience-style glazes. Thousands of objects, including whimsical animal figures, candlesticks, lamp bases, ashtrays and cigarette boxes, clocks and canisters were produced, not to mention tableware. Often the objects have designs in abstract repeating geometric shapes pressed into the clay and overglazed.
The look has been lovingly curated back in Italy today at the Bitossi family's museum, the Bitossi Artistic Industrial Museum, managed by Vittoriano Bitossi. The museum is a member of Museimpresa, the Italian association of commercially inspired museum collections. The museum holds 7,000 objects created by Bitossi. Its most famous artist, Londi, was celebrated in 2014 with a biographical show, "Aldo Londi: A Twentieth-Century Ceramicist."
Mark Hill's book, "Alla Moda: Italian Ceramics of the 1950-1970s," credits the popularity of Londi's designs to the brilliant American tastemaker and marketing genius Irving Richards, who, early on, had an eye for Italian and Scandinavian modern. His company, Raymor, was responsible for bringing that look to the American home in the 1950s. Many have seen it in the homes of our parents or grandparents, and the millennial generation has rediscovered the look today.
Richards also had a relationship with one of my favorite American designers, Russel Wright (1904-76): He marketed Wright's most famous design, the tableware called "American Modern." I owe my start as an object whisperer to "American Modern" dinnerware. At the age of 13, I bought Northwestern University's old cafeteria china — lime green "American Modern." I had truckloads of the stuff and sold them for little profit because, at that time, the modernist look was just the look of the last generation. Today, people pay thousands for a service of 12.
So influential was Irving Richards, who brought Italian modern to the U.S. with the import of Bitossi, that the Italian government was rumored to have bestowed the Order of Knighthood upon him.
Londi's collaboration with Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) must have been formative for Londi: Sottsass was responsible for the design of the first Italian Modern mainframe computer in 1959, The Elea 9003, as he was head designer for the great Italian office machinery firm Olivetti. The tradition of great design in hardware was Sottsass' legacy. An example is his portable, colorful, plastic typewriter for Olivetti, the 1969 Valentine. His later architectural designs, worldwide, as well as his collaborations with men like Londi were celebrated in 2017 at The MET Breuer museum in New York City in the retrospective "Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical."
So D.'s mom had great taste to grab this vase back in 1962 at Ott Hardware. The site 1stdibs.com sells Britossi for thousands, especially Londi's table lamps. If D.'s daughter wants to sell this treasure, she can get more than $300, as there is a hot market for Italian modernism today. Now D.'s daughter knows to bring it out of the closet.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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