Milanese brand Segno Italiano, founded by Domenico Rocca and Alberto Nespoli, educates their customers about the forgotten Italian crafts and legends of the region’s design. As we have been friends with the founders for a couple of years, a tour of their beautiful studio in Milan was inevitable.
Since 2011, they have been recovering almost forgotten crafts with the help of elaborate marketing, riveting stories and international activities. Rocca and Nespoli have launched collaborations with multiple artisans and companies that have maintained Italy’s craft heritage. Their collection features for example legendary chairs Chiavari, porcelain by Girolamo Franzini or copper cutlery from Trento.
Segno Italiano: collection of craft
We became friends with Domenico and Alberto back in 2012 when we were working on our Liguria issue of OKOLO magazine. We met Domenico in the seaside sleepy town of Chiavari, which is famous for the production of classic Chiavari chairs, lightweight seating of extraordinary elegance and engineering excellence.
Since then we have excitedly watched the growth of this unique brand, which discovers semi-forgotten crafts and returns them back to the forefront with the help of sophisticated marketing, great stories, and its global contacts.
Domenico and Alberto have started cooperation with the several handicraft masters and companies that still keep the Italian craft heritage alive.
From the chair they went through the glass to the Tuscan knives and much more. A collection has grown into unique series of traditional craftsmanship dedicated to dining. The scenario of the set table or “La Tavola imbandita”, as Domenico with Alberto named the concept of the collection, is now complete.
Today, their products are sold worldwide, including the renowned shops such as the online store of Wallpaper magazine. Let’s take a closer look at what Segno Italiano offers in its great collection of immortal craft classics.
Elegant and practical Tripolina folding chair is almost as old as the discipline of design itself. In 1881, it was designed by an American inventor Joseph B. Fenby who had it patented in the USA.
Afterwards, The Tripolina chair was made prior to World War II by the Viganò firm in Libya’s capital Tripoli for the expatriate Italian market. It was promoted as a camping chair of great stability in the sand and made from local wood and camel or cow hide.
„Coming from an English design, it became iconic when the production began in Italy. Foldable, with a wooden structure, metal joints and seat in canvas or leather, like other furnishings coming from a military background, its unique feature is its minimalist and functional design, making it a timeless classic. Its use during the Libyan war as well as its Italian origins gave it the name Tripolina,“ says Domenico Rocca.
Tripolina chair has also become a model for the famous Butterfly armchair, designed by architects of Gruppo Austral in 1938 in Argentina. Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy were pioneers of modern architecture in South America and their Butterfly chair or simply BKF also earned them international acclaim.
The legendary Chiavari chair represents the craft heritage of the eponymous town in Italian Liguria. Chairs of the same type began to appear in Chiavari already at the beginning of the 19th century.
It was created in 1807 by a cabinetmaker from Chiavari, Giuseppe Gaetano Descalzi, who at the invitation of the president of the Economic Society of Chiavari, Marquis Stefano Rivarola, reworked some chairs in the French Empire style, simplifying the decorative elements and lightening the structural elements.
Phenomenal lightweight and subtle design of the chair became the forerunner of the modern furniture of the 20th century, even long before Michael Thonet began manufacturing his heat-bent beech chairs in the Austrian monarchy.
Even though the production was quite challenging and Chiavari chairs are all made by hand, their traditions have survived until today.
In Chiavari, just a few craftsmen are producing the chairs now. Segno Italiano started to collaborate with some of them and revived some classic models, including the famous modernist interpretation Tigullina, which was designed in 1956 by Colombo Sanguineti. Sanguineti received honorable mention at the Compasso d’Oro award in 1956.
That is no secret that the model became inspiration for the architect Gio Ponti who designed his famous Supperleggera in 1955 for Cassina after the Chiavari chair.
White pottery from the area of Atestino in the Italian Veneto region became famous in the first half of the 18th century thanks to the work of Girolamo Franchini. After building his own kiln and other manufacturing machinery in collaboration with a few workers, he began to produce highly original ceramic designs inspired by mannerism.
He created an internationally renowned company from scratch, which, to this very day, still operates in the same location. It was founded in the ancient surroundings of the Castello di Este at the feet of the Euganei hills.
Domenico Rocca and Alberto Nespoli of Segno Italiano were charmed by his designs of home ware and ceramic objects. Segno Italiano began to distribute several objects of Girolamo Franchini, dating back to the 18th century.
Their artistic invention seemed to anticipate the exaggeration and imagination of modern 20th century art. Realistic imitations of vegetables, fruits or huge bowls brimming with crops as a triumphant pyramid of wealth. They are literally frozen moments in time, reminding us of strange surrealist objects of the avant-garde.
Segno Italiano also produces a collection of teapots, which Franchini conceived as zoomorphic objects, for example shaped as a monkey or fish.
The town of Scarperia in Tuscany was founded in 1306 on an important route connecting Bologna and Florence to become a hugely important place of business, craft and culture. Since the beginning, the city was an important mining centre with the production of cutlery and knives. For more than two centuries, blades from Scarperia were renowned as being of unrivaled quality.
However, the ancient road suffered a rapid decline in popularity and traffic in the 18th century when the nobles of the House of Lorraine commissioned the construction of a new, more northerly road called Via della Futa to get easier access to Bologna (and also to the Padanian plain and the rest of Europe). For Scarperia, a period of deep crisis ensued.
It was only in the second half of the 19th century that Scarperia’s knives and cutlery started to experience an increasing demand. With the unification of Italy came numerous orders from all over the country.
Segno Italiano now produces several models of dining, kitchen and folding knives, produced in Scarperia.
„Knife making is really a cultural process that has been taking place for over a million and a half years, because the first object we equipped ourselves with when we climbed down from the trees and started to walk upright was a chipped flint,“ adds Domenico.
On their travels through Italy, Domenico and Alberto also visited Sardinia where they discovered the art of traditional wicker baskets. In the collection, they included several of these baskets weaved with variously colored wicker to create richly decorated containers.
„In its simplicity, the basket is one of the greatest expressions of the human mind and capacity for manufacturing and design. Within the twists of a basket one can discover the story of a territory, its resources, the people who have lived there and the crafts they practiced.
Segno Italiano cooperates with the best artisans in the south of Sardinia to present a collection of baskets in river cane, myrtle and olive with willow handles. An entire world of baskets, explains Domenico.
Segno Italiano also used the Sardinian wicker technique in their special installation for the European Artistic Crafts Days 2015 edition. Architects created a custom-made wicker totems that were exhibited at the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi in Milan. The project was commissioned by Cologne Foundation for the Métiers d’Art.
Green glass from Empoli
„In Tuscany, there is a centuries old glass making tradition. It was born as a response to certain necessities. From one side, the requirement of a universal unit of measurement, and from the other, as a container for local wine production, Chianti,“ says Domenico.
Segno Italiano is interested primarily in the green glass of Empoli, which experienced its heyday especially at the beginning of the last century. The intense green color in conjunction with the simple shapes and delicate details let rise modern and elegant forms. „The typical green color, a natural shade, was due to the high iron oxide content of the sand taken from local river and sea beds,“ explains Domenico.
The industry was then based mainly on production of industrial glass: fiasco bottles in various shapes and sizes, demijohns and utensils to be used for bottling of wine and oil (known as “bufferia- clowning”). This was also the main source of revenue for the local rural economy.
In addition to the typical green glass, Segno Italiano also offers red and clear versions.
Ramaioli Tridentine metalware
The production of the Ramaiolo Tridentine kitchenware in Trento combines two essential Italian traditions: cooking and handicrafts.
„Craftsmen working with the hammer can majestically transform a sheet of copper into a precious cooking instrument,“ says Domenico. „The history of Ramaioli Tridentine workshop began in the middle of the 20th century. The founder was just 16 years old when he went into a foundry in Vela. Here he learnt the secrets of fusion and the skills needed to work metal ingots.“
Later, he opened a small workshop in the village of Ravina dedicated to working with copper. Thanks to his excellent knowledge of this metal, he created a rich catalogue of products that can be personalized by customer.
Every object, from the most functional to the most refined, is the result of dedicated research, combined with centuries of history and craftsman creativity. The pans, cooking trays and casseroles are made of solid copper sheet, beaten by hand and lined with pure tin.
At the Italian island of Montisola, the craft of net weaving traces its roots back to the ancient times when the few inhabitants, mainly fishermen and farmers, were manufacturing their own fishing tools and nets.
Today, the same passion and tradition are combined with modern machinery to produce hammocks, distinctive for their unique nodes and marine knots.
Interview & text: Adam Štěch
Text edit: Helena Kardová
Photo: Tomáš Souček & Jan Kloss
Video: Jan Rybák