words Christopher Turner
In 1940, Franco Albini (1905-1977) designed the Veliero bookcase for his home in Via De Togni, Milan. With two brass-tipped masts of tapering wood that rest on one point, and with shelves that float under hangers of thin steel rods, it seemed to defy gravity. In July 1941, the Veliero appeared on the front cover of Domus, celebrated as a feat of experimental engineering, and it went on to influence the Skylon and Millennium Dome. But it was never put into production and the prototype was seen only by visitors to Albini’s house.
It used to act as a room divider between the dining and living spaces in the family apartment, Albini’s son Marco explains when we meet in Milan, but after 15 years it collapsed. Its remains were consigned to the basement and Marco Albini describes it as a “ghost piece” because, though it was mentioned in all books on Italian design, it had effectively ceased to exist. He’s pleased that Cassina, with whom his father collaborated from the 1940s, are “republishing it and bringing it back to life”.
“I was the cause of collapsing it,” Marco Albini admits. “I was listening to loud music – din, din, din – and the rhythmic sound started vibrating the glass. Like the San Francisco bridge it was moving more and more and then suddenly it went BAM! Without me touching it, it exploded into a million pieces.”
In 2007, the architect Renzo Piano, who was Albini’s apprentice in the early 1960s, rebuilt the Veliero (which translates as Sailboat) for his retrospective of Albini’s work, Zero Gravity, at Milan’s Triennale museum. That recreation was also unstable. When loaded with 200kg of books, the wooden base bent up at the edges, pulled by the taut guy ropes, and the glass shelves bent and broke, crashing through the ones below. Cassina commissioned civil and nautical engineers to help solve the bookcase’s structural problems. To give it rigidity they’ve added an 80kg metal plinth, hidden beneath the ash wood base, and the shelves are now made of the safety glass used in windscreens. The bookshelf – included in the Franco Albini I Maestri Collection alongside six other pieces by the designer (including another bookcase from the 1950s with adjustable uprights that can be firmly fixed between the floor and ceiling) – can now take up to 600kg.
Nevertheless, Marco Albini explains, his father intended the double-sided bookcase to act as a porous room divider and advises that it should not be overloaded. He compares the bookcase to his father’s famous glass radio, which had a transparent case that showed off its technical workings, and his glass-topped desk through which you could see the steel supports. “The philosophy of transparency, of lightness, was an important element,” he says. “It should not block like a wall. It should not be full of books which would close it.
credit Albini Archives
credit Albini Archives