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What to Collect Now: Danese Milano

Enzo Mari (b. 1932) with a Putrella object. Photography courtesy of Danese Milano.

The legendary Italian design firm Danese Milano, which last year celebrated its 60th anniversary, quickly achieved critical and commercial acclaim for its minimalist yet expressive objects. Founder Bruno Danese, in close collaboration with artist-designers Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari, created an experimental workshop patterned on the Bauhaus. Intensive formal investigations sparked mass-produced utilitarian objects, limited-edition art multiples, and educational toys—even extending to packaging, graphics, photography, display windows and systems, catalogs, advertising, and exhibitions.

Mari with his aluminum Structures, circa 1961. Photography courtesy of 2018 MOMA, NY.

In attaining gallery status, the Danese atelier-cum-factory proposed that aesthetic needs were as vital as practical ones. Munari’s Portable Sculpture of 1959, produced in an edition of 1,000, set the tone of playful seriousness: The cardboard-cutout folding artwork could be packed in a suitcase for travel. The same thinking underpinned Munari’s 1958 to 1964 folding lamps in plastic, opalescent fiberglass, and aluminum, which shipped flat to cut costs. The perceptual ambiguity at the core of such exploration allowed for multiple intellectual and sensorial responses as well as for user participation. That extended to fabrication, as with Munari’s Continuous Structures (realized in 1967), a kit of L-shaped steel components that could be assembled in myriad ways. For children, Danese set the bar even higher with games, toys, and books intended to unleash autonomous creativity.

Bruno Munari (1907-1998). Photography courtesy of Danese Milano.
The Danese logo from the 1961 catalog. Photography courtesy of Danese Milano.

By the time Danese sold the company in 1992—it is now under the Artemide umbrella—it had become an international fixture, with products in over 40 categories (and 26 materials) by such contributors as Angelo Mangiarotti, Achille Castiglioni, and Franco Meneguzzo, who designed the logo and the initial line of handcrafted ceramics. Recent re-issues help perpetuate a legacy of timelessness in what was a daringly original program merging art publishing and design production. Here, what to acquire—whether you’re a Danese dabbler or diehard.

Visual Games, a children’s learning activity designed by Bruno Munari and Giovanni Belgrano in 1968. Available on 1stdibs.com.
Recent production of Timor, in PVC and ABS plastic. Photography courtesy of Danese Milano.

Beginner

Perhaps the best place to start collecting is at the beginning, with Danese’s first utilitarian object: Munari’s 1957 Cubo ashtray, in melamine with an aluminum insert. Inexpensive materials and simple fabrication methods combined with geometric reductionism to produce one of Danese’s best sellers. Vintage examples in red, gray, or black can be had for under $100. Also at entry-level prices are Mari’s iconic perpetual calendars: Formosa, from 1963, with its bold Helvetica font, and the 1966 Timor, which looks a bit like a toucan. Up the ladder is Mari’s 1969 Pago Pago, a reversible vase of injection-molded ABS—and Danese’s first truly industrial product. No longer manufactured, examples in desirable colors such as purple start at around $500.

Current production of Munari’s Cubo ashtrays. Photography courtesy of Danese Milano.
Mari’s 1969 Pago Pago vase in purple ABS plastic. Available on 1stdibs.com.

Intermediate

Opt for three Enzo Mari designs. Made between 1959 and 1963, his polyester-resin cubes, with spherical or cubic inserts in various materials and colors, were nominally paperweights but today are prized as small op art sculptures. The exacting hand polishing required to achieve the refractive effects made them expensive, hence their scarcity. Prices now range from about $700 to $1,000 each. Expect to pay at least twice that for abstract limited editions with polyester-resin cylinders and spheres embedding a grid or geometric slivers. Originally, the 1957 jigsaw puzzle 16 Animali was a hand-finished continuous cutout from a single piece of wood; this proved too costly, so the game was later molded in expanded resin (although it has now been re-issued in oak). Search for first-run examples in palisander or wenge, especially the larger version in the white wooden box. Look also for Putrella (Italian for “girder”) trays and centerpieces, a brutalist series from 1958 resembling refashioned iron I-beams with exposed rudimentary welds—a marriage of allegorical form and inexpensive production. Pursue the models no longer being made; the current catalog can be found on the Danese website. Also desirable: early iterations of the 1964 Paros vases, architectonic cylinders of hand-polished, machine-cut statuary marble.

Mari’s Relation of Four cubes, in polyester resin. Available on 1stdibs.com.
Current production of Enzo Mari’s 1957 puzzle/game 16 Animali. Photography courtesy of Danese Milano.

Advanced

Consider some of the rarest and most interesting production models, such as Munari’s triangular folding lamp in blue fiberglass from 1961, one of Meneguzzo’s unique hand-crafted ceramic vases from 1957, or a hand-built porcelain Samos vessel designed by Mari in 1963 as a re-engagement with craftsmanship. And, of course, the heart-stopping limited-edition art multiples: Munari’s Air Machine, a 1930 kinetic experiment with wooden balls and steel rods, issued in an edition of 10 in 1971; his 1963 Ora X, a motorized clock produced in an edition of 50; and almost any of Mari’s early-1960s Structures—wall sculptures composed of cubes in natural and black-anodized aluminum.

Bruno Munari’s Ora X with four overlapping semi-circles. Photography courtesy of Paddle 8.
Enzo Mari’s marble Paros vase models AY and L. Photography courtesy of Paddle 8.

The Verdict

There is ample opportunity to collect early Danese creations with open production runs. Pay attention to condition, especially with plastics, which can scratch or discolor, and look for original packaging and discontinued colors when possible. Competition will be stiffer for the limited-edition items and rarities, as Danese enthusiasts are sure to run up prices at auction. Be prepared to act when these pieces crop up on internet platforms, and keep checking European, and especially Italian, sources.

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