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All Things Italian 

The Branch Museum explores 60 years of mid-20th century Italian design.

click to enlarge Astoria chair by Matteo Thun, 1983

Kim Frost

Astoria chair by Matteo Thun, 1983

Maurice Beane bought his first piece of midcentury Italian glass in 1983 at a flea market at St. Joseph's Villa. It cost him $10, a lot for a college student.

Beane was able to recognize the bowl as designed by Dino Martens because he'd been reading up on Italian glass in magazines such as Art and Antiques, intrigued by the techniques and color distinctive to the art form. He sees that early research as helping him get ahead of local collectors in spotting what was valuable.

"That's the piece that started it all," he explains. "The style of the bowl was called tutti frutti because of the many colors in the design and it used the latticino technique encased in red glass." Latticino is an Italian decorative glassblowing technique using colored glass canes.

From these humble beginnings, Beane, now a furniture designer, architectural metalworker, dealer and collector, went on to amass a sizable assemblage of Italian-designed objects including furniture, ceramics, glassware and furnishings. Parts of that collection — 110 pieces to be exact — is on display at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design for "Sixty Years of Italian Design 1940-2000."

They'll be shown along with Italian pieces from the collection of Sydney and Frances Lewis, who were among the earliest and most discerning collectors of Memphis Milano and Studio Alchimia, two neo-modern Italian design groups. Beane sees the dozen pieces from the Lewis' private and seldom-seen collection as exhibition highlights.

The Branch Museum agrees. "We want to present exhibitions that show the transformative power of architecture and design, and this period of Italian design is a brilliant illustration of how design can transform our world," says its executive director, Penny Fletcher. "When you explore six decades of Italian design through the pieces that Maurice has curated, you experience one of the most vibrant and transformative periods of design."

Included in the exhibition are two chairs designed by Piero Sartoga for Saporiti in 1984 for Toscana Restaurant in New York. Asymmetrical, the chairs feature curved maple burl veneer backs, black leather seats and back cushions and slender, tapered legs. Back in the mid-'90s, Beane was driving down Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase, Maryland, when he spotted the two exemplary Italian modern chairs in a store window.

"I thought, 'Holy cow, those are Saporiti!'" he says, recalling that he purchased them for $500 each. A set of four currently lists for about $3,500 online.

Seeing iconic Italian pieces displayed in chronological order throughout two large galleries is exactly the point of the Branch exhibition.

"For Richmond, this show is different," he says. "My taste is avant-garde, so I look at everything from a design, workmanship and craftsmanship standpoint, but a lot of people aren't familiar with Italian pieces." Beane is expecting a fair amount of curiosity about what the Lewises collected for their home, indicating that their show pieces represent major works of Italian design.

Because design surrounds us all day every day, the power of a design exhibition is in helping the visitor understand the ways in which we experience it. "These exhibitions make you stop and think about design in a provocative and engaging way, giving visitors insights into how design impacts their own world," Fletcher says.

Over the years, Beane has collected more than 10,000 books on 20th century art and design, including many European publications, some of which will be on display. "There's a strong educational component to this show, especially for younger people," he says. "One of my biggest goals is for people to be inspired to read about this period of design and start collecting."

As further incentive to experience all things Italian, an extensive series of events will take place concurrently with the exhibition. A ticketed Italian wine tasting took place July 18. Italian cars enter the picture July 27 with five Ferraris parked on the grounds and then five Lamborghinis on Aug. 17. Come Sept. 5, the Branch will hold a fashion show in partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue. A film series, a Vespa rally along Monument Avenue and several bus trips to design destinations are also in the works.

Throughout the exhibition's run, the Branch gift shop space will be devoted to Italian objects — ceramics, furnishings, lamps, Murano glass, jewelry, accessories, belts, gloves and clothing - available for sale, a way for budding collectors to get their feet wet. It's all part of a concerted effort to inspire others to collect.

For Beane, this exhibit and the city's central East Coast location are major steps toward becoming a design destination. "I'm hoping this is the start of putting Richmond on the national design map."

"Sixty Years of Italian Design 1940-2000" runs July 12 – Sept. 15 at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, 2501 Monument Ave., branchmuseum.org.

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