Design heroes The genius of Afra and Tobia Scarpa’s architecture-inspired pieces
The Italian husband-and-wife duo known for their amazing architecture-inspired designs
Italy’s answer to Charles and Ray Eames, Afra and Tobia Scarpa were born two years apart – Tobia in Venice in 1935 and Afra in nearby Montebelluna in 1937 – and both studied architecture at the Università Iuav in Venice, graduating in 1957. They set up their own studio in 1960 and continued to collaborate until Afra’s death in 2011.
From the start, the Scarpas’ work was heavily influenced by Tobia’s father, the famed Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa. He was known for his concrete buildings, which had a Brutalist aesthetic but were also inspired by the geometric lines of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the simplicity of Japanese style. One of Tobia and Afra’s earliest designs, the ‘Pigreco’ chair for Gavina (1959), was strongly reminiscent of Mackintosh furniture.
In the early 1960s, the Scarpas worked with entrepreneur Dino Gavina and architect brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni to establish the Flos lighting brand. Here, they not only created some of the first lighting to use halogen technology, but also several memorable designs that are still in production today – among them are the ‘Biagio’ table lamp (1968), carved from a single block of Carrara marble, the ‘Foglio’ steel wall light (1966), whose soft curves are said to resemble a shirt cuff, and the ‘Fantasma’ floor lamp (1961), made from a metal structure sprayed with a unique resin that produces diffused light. All demonstrate the Scarpas’ lifelong ambition to explore the limits of technology and materials. ‘The most amusing thing was being able to amaze others by making objects that were considered impossible,’ Tobia has said of his time designing for Flos.
The Scarpas also created some of the most important seating of the 1960s, including the ‘Coronado’ for B&B Italia (1966) – made using cold-moulded polyurethane foam that was groundbreaking at the time, it combines tradition and modernity. More dramatic still was the ‘Soriana’ for Cassina (1968), made from swathes of leather or fabric gathered and ‘pinched’ together with decorative chrome clamps – sadly, it’s no longer in production and vintage examples are highly prized.
Continuing his father’s legacy, since 2002 Tobia has been teaching at his old university in Venice, where Carlo Scarpa also taught.
THE SCARPAS HAD AN AMBITION TO EXPLORE THE LIMITS OF MATERIALS
Clockwise from above The ‘Coronado’ sofa, B&B Italia. ‘Soriana’ seating for Cassina. ‘Biagio’ table lamp and ‘Fantasma’ floor lamp, both for Flos