Carlo Bugatti
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Carlo Bugatti

The name Bugatti conjures up images of Gatsby-type roadsters of the 1930s. Indeed, these magnificent cars were designed and built by Ettore Bugatti, one of Carlo Bugatti's two immensely talented sons. But their father was also a design genius. In fact, at the end of the nineteenth and

Thu 28 Jan 2010 1:00 AM

The name Bugatti conjures up
images of Gatsby-type roadsters of the 1930s. Indeed, these magnificent cars
were designed and built by Ettore Bugatti, one of Carlo Bugatti’s two immensely
talented sons. But their father was also a design genius. In fact, at the end
of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Carlo Bugatti was
one of Italy’s
most important and innovative designers. Despite falling out of fashion for a
period, his work has recently undergone a strong revival. This was demonstrated
at a recent auction at Christie’s in New
York where one of his double-sided desks sold for a
staggering $1,553,000.


Bugatti senior’s creations
ranged from ceramics, jewellery, silverware and textiles to an array of
ingenious inventions, such as his chairs made in the form of a ‘G’ or his
rather bizarre 30-string guitar. Above all, however, Carlo Bugatti is famous
for his distinctive art nouveau furniture. His combination of modern form
cleverly mixed with decorative elements from other cultures and epochs set his
designs apart and make them seem ‘funky’ even today.


Inheriting artistic talents from
his father, who was an
architect and sculptor, Carlo Bugatti was born in Milan on February 16, 1856. He studied at the
Brera Academy
in Milan and at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris. Towards the end of
the 1860s, he began working for a cabinet-maker in Milan. One of his earliest surviving works is
a bedroom set he built for his sister, Luigia, when, in 1880, she married his
ex-companion from Brera, painter, Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899). Segantini and
other artists, among them Emilio Longoni (1859-1932) and Eugenio Quarti
(1867-1929), would later work with him decorating some of his furniture.


In 1888, Bugatti displayed his
designs at both the Industrial Arts Exhibition in Milan
and the Italian Exhibition at Earl’s Court in London. Typical of the first phase of his
furniture making, he used heavy, ebonised wood inlaid with copper, brass,
ivory, mother of pearl or camel and deer hide which he then decorated with
fringes or metal discs, exotic geometric marquetry or stencil work of oriental
calligraphy or with flower, animal or insect motifs. Influenced by Moorish,
Japanese and primitive art, his cabinets, chairs, tables, beds and other pieces
were all highly individual, even theatrical. They were an instant success, but
only the aristocracy or very wealthy could afford these singular creations. Now
all the rage, he was commissioned to design the furniture for the bedroom of
the Khedive’s mother in Constantinople and an oriental-style room for Lord
Battersea’s London


After opening his own workshop
in Milan in 1898, Bugatti exhibited at the
Exhibitions in Turin in 1898 and Paris in 1900. At the
First International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts held in Turin in 1902, he created
his famous ‘Snail Room’ and won the Diploma of Honour, its most prestigious
award. However, the 1902 exhibition marked the last phase in Bugatti’s
furniture designs mainly because his experimentation with new materials like
vellum failed to attract clients. On the brink of bankruptcy, he was forced to
close his workshop.


To start afresh, Bugatti with
his wife Teresa and three children emigrated to Paris in 1904. There, he opened another
workshop, this time producing luxury items for clients such as the Bon Marché
department store. On his arrival, he had met art merchant and artistic foundry
owner Adrien A. Hèbrard (1865-1937) who convinced him to begin sculpting and
who, in 1907, held an exhibition of his silverware designs, largely depicting
animals, at the Galerie Hébrard. Bugatti also had regular exhibitions at the
Salon des Artistes Décorateurs before moving, in 1910, due to his wife’s ill
health to Pierrefonds, a small village north
east of Paris.


Sadly, the
latter years of Bugatti’s life were marked by tragedy. He was devastated by the
suicide, in 1916, of his younger son, the brilliant but fragile sculptor,
Rembrandt. This was followed, in 1932, by the death of his daughter, and soon
after that, of his wife. Now alone, he went to live with his son Ettore, near
the Bugatti car factory at Molsheim in the Alsace
region of France.
There, the final blow came in August 1939 when his beloved 30-year-old
grandson, Jean, a gifted engineer and test driver who worked for the family
business, was killed when he crashed his car into a tree as he attempted to
avoid a drunken cyclist. When Carlo Bugatti died eight months later, in April
1940, he was buried at Dorlisheim with full military honours for the courageous
stand he took against the German occupation of Pierrerfonds, where he had been
mayor during World War I.



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