Carlo Bugatti’s extraordinary furniture designs stand alone in the history of decorative arts. Indeed, the name for his Milanese furniture business testifies to the fantastic nature of his work: C. Bugatti & C., Fabbrica Mobili Artistici Fantasia (C. Bugatti & Co., Artistic Fantasies Furniture Factory).
Bugatti’s ideas were much inspired by Moorish, Islamic and Japanese design and he was no doubt influenced by the general European interest in Orientalism during the late nineteenth century. It is, nevertheless, Bugatti’s idiosyncratic combination of these cultural styles that make his furniture so unusual. His approach to furniture design was to treat it as an opportunity for artistic creativity.
Carlo Bugatti was the son of a sculptor and stone carver and studied at the Accademia di Brera, Milan, and the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, where he developed an early interest in architecture. Around 1880 he had turned his interests towards cabinet-making and by 1888 had established a commercial furniture workshop in Milan, producing handcrafted furniture to his own designs. However, details of Bugatti’s life remain sketchy and the first visual documentation of his work does not emerge until 1888 when he exhibited at the Italian Exhibition in Earls Court, London, from which nine pieces of his furniture were illustrated in the Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper. Bugatti made a strong impression on the British, being awarded a diploma of honour and subsequently receiving one of his most notable interior design commissions, the bedroom for the English society figure Cyril Flower, Lord Battersea. The furniture for this commission reflects Bugatti’s characteristic style of the 1890s, which incorporated a variety of oriental design elements and the use of unusual materials. The NGV’s Throne chair bears strong similarity to the furniture designed for Lord Battersea’s bedroom and hence is dated to c.1900, coming at the end of a remarkably fertile design period in Bugatti’s life.
Throne chair encapsulates Bugatti’s mature style of this period. Signature features include his use of ebonised wood inlaid with metal, which has been described as Moorish but, equally, may owe as much to Japanese inspiration as to Islamic. The inlay was achieved by carving the designs into the wood and then filling them with molten metal. On the front stretcher these inlays appear to reference a foreign script but in other areas they represent plants and birds in a pseudo-Japanese fashion. Bugatti also incorporated a variety of unusual materials into his furniture, such as fringing and tasselling, which added an exotic flavour and softened the hard-edged geometric style. His use of vellum is also particularly characteristic and Bugatti often decorated it with plant motifs in a soft brown wash. He often framed these panels with strips of copper beaten with geometric patterns, seen to great effect on the circular back and around the arms and seat of the Throne chair. Bugatti’s employment of asymmetry contributed significantly to the individual nature of his work. Its use is striking yet his furniture never appears unbalanced or out of proportion. It is completely grounded and rich with exotic ornament and imagination.
Amanda Dunsmore, Curator, Decoratve Arts and Antiquities, NGV (in 2007)