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Rationalist Man

The Italian Rationalists are back, thanks to one passionate collector-turned-dealer with an eye for great modernist design.

Sure, the Scandinavian and American designers of the midcentury knew how to fill a room, but how many Eames chairs and Saarinen tables can a person own? Those with a taste for modernist furniture but not for conformity should turn to the Italians--and to Brian Kish, a sometime Londoner, current New Yorker and longtime Milan watcher. Kish owns a tiny, year-old eponymous gallery in Manhattan's SoHo that specializes in the work of Italian Rationalists, a band of forward-looking architects obsessed with clean lines who shook up Milan and the rest of the decorative-arts world from the Forties through the Sixties.

Before studying to be an art historian, Kish worked in a contemporary-art gallery in London, where the focus was on "all the latest from Milan," he says. He eventually moved to New York and spent almost a decade collecting and later dealing privately in midcentury Italian furniture before opening to the public last summer. All the pieces in the gallery were made by postwar Milanese designers, from the dining chairs, credenzas and coffee tables to the silverware, glass decanters and ceramic vases.

Many items, like the octagonal rosewood top of an exquisite tea cart designed by Ico Parisi in 1959, look a lot like Scandinavian objects of the same vintage, but the Italian pieces are more influenced by classical motifs. The octagon, Kish points out, was a favorite form in the Renaissance that was borrowed and adapted by many 20th-century designers. And although most modernists were trying to dispense with the past altogether, "much of Italian modernism," Kish says, "is about distorting classical forms."

Kish's most extensive holdings are by Gio Ponti, Milan's éminence grise (and the subject of Kish's next show, which opens in early November). In the 1920s and '30s, Ponti crafted bulbous ceramic vases as well as one made of bundled silver tubes that looks like a miniature of The Wizard of Oz's Emerald City. Ponti's ceramic plates from 1966 have the "super-graphic" look that Kish says "captures some of the chaos of the Sixties." Kish also owns stately walnut-framed armchairs that Ponti designed for the American manufacturer Singer in 1950 and a sleek, low-slung coffee table dating from 1960.

Among Kish's other favorites are boldly colored, striped Venini glass bowls from the craft-worshiping architect Carlo Scarpa; ceramic canisters and cylinders designed by a young Ettore Sottsass; and an oak dining table, a sleek rosewood credenza and a metal standing lamp from Franco Albini, whose work is probably the most sought after among all the Rationalists. And with good reason: Albini's designs reveal amazing craftsmanship. The oak dining table, for instance, is made of pie-shaped sections of polished, grainy oak that have been joined together with incredible precision.

Kish is confident that Italian Rationalist will be the next big design trend, but not as big as the current craze for midcentury Scandinavian and American pieces. "It won't be as popular, because there's not the same easy access to the products," he says. "Italian furniture wasn't as well distributed in the United States as Scandinavian was. Plus, in Italy, people are still living with these things, so they're not unloading them." And there aren't many places to buy them. "There are few big auctions or flea markets selling this stuff," Kish says, "so it's very difficult to acquire. I have sources in Italy who go to estate sales and report back to me." Then there's an elaborate, carefully controlled importing process to contend with. All of which limits the supply of Italian Rationalist pieces and, in turn, drives up prices. However, it's a fairly safe bet that prices aren't as high now as they will be soon.

(Brian Kish, 27 Greene St., New York City; 212-925-7850)

Published October 2000
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