Carlo Bugatti’s Chair, from the Snail Room represents an extraordinary contribution to the development of twentieth-century design. The Chair, one of four, formed part of Bugatti’s salon interior, the so-called Snail Room, which he exhibited at the First International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts, Turin, in 1902.
Bugatti exhibited four interiors, all of which represented a remarkable advance in his design aesthetic. Gone was his heavily ornamented, oriental-inspired furniture that typified his work of the 1880s and 1890s. In the space of just a few years, Bugatti had transformed his heavy, rectilinear framed furniture into curvilinear, solid forms, completely covered in vellum. Inlaid metal ornament was replaced with painted geometric designs; rounded arches that had always been a feature of his work became complete circles and the ovoid form, in particular, came to dominate his aesthetic.
The room that undoubtedly represented his new design aesthetic in its purest form was the Snail Room and it is his chairs from this room that are the most remarkable. In one completely resolved form, Bugatti had done away with chair legs and incorporated the seat and back rest into one sinuous line. It was to be another sixteen years before Marcel Breuer produced the cantilevered chair, which also dispensed with chair legs. The moulded form of the chair, composed of carved wooden elements covered entirely in vellum to disguise their joints, also anticipated injection moulded plastic chairs of the 1950s. Vellum had always been a feature of Bugatti’s furniture but in his last phase of furniture design it completely enveloped his forms. Ornamentation was painted on in a limited palette of red, green and gold.
The Chair is elegantly decorated in geometric designs of dragonflies and flowers. The flowers are represented by single stylised flower heads with long stems and serrated leaves that gradually diminish in size up the stem. They are placed around the lower walls of the chair and, as a poetic detail, Bugatti has placed a small winged insect in profile on each flower head.
The remainder of the Chair is decorated with the dragonfly motif. During the later phase of his furniture design, from around 1895 onwards, Bugatti’s ornament became increasingly geometric and the dragonfly developed into a signature motif of his design aesthetic. He even produced a silver tea and coffee service, c.1907, ornamented with moulded and applied dragonflies. The dragonfly motif covers virtually all other surfaces of his Snail Room Chair, including a ring around the seat top and graduating lines of the delicate beasts up the spine of the backrest.
The Chair is signed by Bugatti at the base of the circular backrest, and is believed to be the last remaining chair from this interior to come onto the market. Although conceived as a functional object, in essence it is a sculpture, a showpiece to be enjoyed purely for its inherent beauty of form, delicacy and delight.
Amanda Dunsmore, Curator, Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)