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

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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.


Clock­wise from above The ‘Coron­ado’ sofa, B&B Italia. ‘So­ri­ana’ seat­ing for Cassina. ‘Bi­a­gio’ ta­ble lamp and ‘Fan­tasma’ floor lamp, both for Flos

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