Carlo Bugatti

Ivory and ebony

Deirdre Pirro
January 28, 2010

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 residence.


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.



more articles