To Collect Radical Italian Design, Resilience Required

Design collector and Surface consulting creative director Dennis Freedman spent more than two decades amassing a trove of radical design objects. Ahead of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, he recalls how he acquired five key pieces.

Dennis Freedman's warehouse space in 2011. © Nikolas Koenig/OTTO.

Dennis Freedman never saw the Museum of Modern Art’s 1972 exhibition, “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape”—a seminal showcase of then-contemporary Italian design that featured 180 objects and 11 commissioned environments by the likes of Gaetano Pesce, Joe Colombo, Ettore Sottsass, and others—but its catalogue became his bible. It awoke a lifelong love for Italian Radical design, a provocative style developed in the 1960s by young Italian architects and designers that openly challenged the constraints of Modernism. Since then, Freedman has sought out pieces from the movement while becoming one of New York’s most respected creative directors (today, among other things, he serves as a consulting creative director for this publication). Like the Radical Italians, Freedman was intrigued by the possibility that design and architecture could leave a resounding influence on how people feel, think, and act. That each designer, in their own way, incorporated music, art, fashion, film, and performance into their creative processes fascinated him, and has galvanized his interest in the movement for more than two decades. 

On Friday, February 14, some 70 objects from his collection will be displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), in the exhibition “Radical: Italian Design.” About half of the furniture, lighting fixtures, architectural models, and other pieces on view are gifts from Freedman’s collection; the other half are acquisitions from it. Together, they form a foundational collection of the rare, now-iconic objects for the Texas institution. Next fall, the show will travel to Yale University’s School of Architecture. 

Since Freedman began collecting in the 1990s, when there was no Internet, he had to conduct research the old-fashioned way. He scoured bookstores and galleries whenever he traveled, amassing a family of dealers, booksellers, and other experts to consult. The madcap effort developed Freedman’s knowledge of—and eye for—Italian Radical design, which remained obscure to other people (unless, like him, they were chasing it). 

During the installation of “Radical: Italian Design,” Surface chatted with Freedman about the backstory of five key pieces from his collection. Below, he describes each one. The twists, turns, surprises, and utter failures he recalls evoke an experience of collecting that’s every bit as exciting as an Indiana Jones movie.

The Dennis Freedman Collection, gift of Dennis Freedman.

Studio65, 1971

When I was in London visiting my then-boyfriend, I went inside Christie’s South Kensington and opened a catalogue. It was for a sale of Italian design put together by Simon Andrews, who later became a mentor. For the first time, I saw incredible examples of Italian Radical design. I knew they were rare, but at that time, they were way under the radar for collectors and museums. 

I didn’t have much money—I was an assistant art director—but if I could get one piece, it would be the Capitello. Over time, it developed a beautiful golden patina because it had been used and not locked up in a safe. I bought the piece, though I didn’t know if it would make it into my apartment (I lived on the tenth floor of a building with no elevator.) Ultimately, it made it in by a matter of inches. It took up half of my bedroom. Living with that piece sparked something inside me: This was something I would pursue.

The Dennis Freedman Collection, museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund.

Armchair from “Diapositive” Series
Urano Palma, 1970–1974

Simon, the Christie’s dealer, told me about a dealer in Milan that I should meet who has a very small gallery called Erastudio. I finally saw her a year or two ago, and when I walked in, there was this table unlike anything I’d seen before. It was by Urano Palma, who was not part of the Radical Italian design movement—more related to Arte Provera. He made the wooden table, then drilled around 8,000 holes in it. Inside each hole, he put a woodworm—a live woodworm!—and each one ate the holes. It was a conceptually brilliant performance, a living sculpture. Urano recorded the sound, though the tape is missing. I’d been collecting for maybe 16 years, and this showed me there was still more to be discovered. 

Later, at an auction, I got this Urano armchair that also has drilled holes. There’s a photograph of him sitting in it. I haven’t seen proof that the chair had live woodworms, but it’s still an extraordinary piece.

The Dennis Freedman Collection, gift of Dennis Freedman.

“Banal Architectura” Architectural Model
Andrea Branzi, Arduino Cantafora, Bruno Gregori, Giorgio Gregori, and Alessandro Mendini for Studio Alchimia, 1980

In another gallery in Milan, I noticed this architectural model along with two others. The gallery owner knew nothing about it, but I knew it was important: It had, in German, “Studio Alchimia” [an Italian collective of designers who shared an interest in the “anti-design” movement], and the names of five architects—Andrea Branzi, Arduino Cantafora, Bruno Gregori, Giorgio Gregori, and Alessandro Mendini—on the label. I bought all three models and looked everywhere to figure out what it was.

One day, I opened this book of Italian design and, sure enough, saw this model on a huge double-page spread. It was the centerpiece of an exhibition called “The Now Design” in Austria. What’s extraordinary is that each facade was designed by a different architect.

The Dennis Freedman Collection, museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund.

Cielo, Mare, Terra Buffet
Fabio De Sanctis and Ugo Sterpini for Officina Undici, 1964

I was fascinated by a piece of furniture owned by my friend, who told me it was by someone called Fabio De Sanctis. She said he was still alive, so I contacted him and asked if we could meet. I learned that he lived in Rome and was not well-known—he operated outside the Radical Italian design movement, but he and his partner had a studio that made extraordinary handmade Surrealist pieces.  

At his apartment, he told me his work was sitting in storage outside the city. We drove out to the countryside to see the storage unit, which was basically a farm shed. When he opened the door, I was floored: Almost everything he ever made was in there. 

I flew back to New York and put together a list of pieces I wanted to acquire. The day before I was going to wire the money, I got a call from Fabio’s partner, who said the agreement was off. I almost fell off my chair. It seemed that he had some sort of illness, and his children intervened. I was devastated.

Years later, I was looking through a catalogue at Dorotheum, an auction house in Vienna. I opened it to a page with this buffet, which wasn’t in the shed because a collector purchased it in the 1970s. There was an essay the artist André Breton wrote about it, saying why the buffet was so extraordinary: It was made for Venice, where the sound of car doors opening and closing is nonexistent. I bought it. It truly is a Surrealist piece, what Breton called one of the “wonders of the world,” and is one of the greatest pieces I’ve ever owned.

Collection Dennis Freedman.

Archizoom Associati, 1969

In Milan, I looked into the window of a small gallery that specialized in Italian glass. I saw a glass panel similar to this one leaning against a wall that had a reverse painting on it. The gallerist didn’t know its attribution, but it was similar to the small model beds designed by Archizoom in the late 1960s. I knew someone who worked with the founder, Andrea Branzi, and she identified the work as a panel installed in a showroom for Poltronova, one of the most experimental design manufacturing companies of the 1960s and 1970s. 

I bought it. When it arrived, it was shattered into 70 pieces. I was devastated—they had destroyed an important piece of design history. I kept all the glass and called the dealer, who said it was actually one of a pair, and she offered the remaining one to me. 

When we were preparing for this exhibition, Cindi Strauss, the Sara and Bill Morgan Curator of Decorative Arts, Craft, and Design at MFAH, said they spoke with the current owner of Poltronova, who couldn’t confirm the panels were made for its showroom. I had a book of objects the Italian design dealer Rossella Colombari has held over the years, so I told Cindi to call her. Turns out Rossella had been with Sergio Cammilli, the founder of Poltronova, and bought the panels at his warehouse!

Having the book led to conclusive evidence. For me, it’s always been one part collector, one part anthropologist, and one part curator. All three are required to build a collection.

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