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Design and Entrepreneurship: Palermo in the Liberty age

Abstract: We are in Palermo, 1899, two relevant characters, such as Ernesto Basile and Vittorio Ducrot, at first glance belonging to distant working fields, meet and clash each other, creating the first partnership between a designer and an entrepreneur in Italy. Instead of the past stylish models, we have now the inspiration from Nature: the vegetable organic strength becomes the model for the development of the ornamental line.

Over the years, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the city of Palermo lives an extraordinary period of cultural and economic development. Some families, such as the Florio and the Withaker are involved in entrepreneurial activities, but the city gives hospitality to other people belonging to the new cultural and economic tendency, like artists and scholars. Many artisans, decorators, craftsmen, mosaic workers, and master glaziers are hired to include their works inside the buildings following a new taste which soon will be adopted by architecture: the Liberty style (Art Noveau). Both the interior decoration elements and the furniture were demanded not only by the local aristocracy and the bourgeoisie of that time, but also by hotels and public buildings. With all that, we can even assert that the economic liveliness of Palermo at that time, is not only due to the presence of entrepreneurial personalities, but it is the result of an artistic incentive that supports the highest quality production of art objects.

Considering the increase and the differentiation of the client’s demand, together with the desire and the pleasure for the objects belonging to this new artistic Liberty tendency, we can confirm, between the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, the proliferation of new artist/artisans workshops, that tend to a different production. Instead of being linked to the aristocratic and high-bourgeoisie elite demand, they are now ready to open out to the serial manufacturing production, which they were opposed to. For this reason the little laboratories need to create new bigger workshops to increase their productivity but, above all, to let some of the most important artistic and intellectual personalities of the time to work together. Over the years, this peculiar collaboration turns the artist into designer and the artisan, workshop foreman, into an entrepreneur.

The firm C. Golia & C. Studio – Ducrot in Palermo, is one of the first artist/artisan workshops to become a real business. It shares the new modern language for the furniture production, taking advantage of the collaboration of the famous architect Ernesto Basile but also of other well known artists of that period. The collaboration relationship we are about to discuss now is the one between Ernesto Basile, architect, and Vittorio Ducrot, heir of the above quoted C. Golia & C. Studio. This relationship is definitely established when Vittorio Ducrot becomes the only owner of the C. Golia & C. Studio. Through different steps of growth, Ducrot turns a little artisan workshop into a modern furnishing factory. The result of this relationship is also due to the strong personality of the two main characters and their experiences. In 1899, the firm C. Golia & C. Studio furnished the ‘Grand Hotel Villa Igea’ in Palermo, with Ernesto Basile, establishing a long-term collaboration with him. As said in a letter written by Basile himself in 1898, they had previously worked together on the fortuitous occasion of furnishing the house of the countess Francavilla.

This collaboration represents a new experience, according to whom both the design of furnishing and furniture and the production of decorative objects are strictly connected with the technological and stylish innovation, as well as the trade expansion.

Therefore the furnishing of the ‘Grand Hotel Villa Igiea’ can be considered as a ‘test bench’ for the couple Basile-Ducrot. You can notice a stylish innovation in the main areas of the hotel, designed by E. Basile, such as the hall or the dining room, where the furnishing stands out above a uniform view of the space; with regard to this, the frescoes by E. De Maria Bergler contribute to the unity of the space.

Villa Igiea is the most representative example of what could be defined ‘Grand Hotel’ at that time; many meetings and high-society parties, involving an oligarchic entourage of regular clients, took place there.

The quest for a stylistic integrity, in order to create the ‘total work of art’, making the domestic areas and the elements which compose the rooms as a whole, distinguishes the interior design of ‘Villino Florio’ by E. Basile. In regard to this, Basile has the opportunity to test the executive resources of the firm Ducrot: the factory, following the modern trends in the furnishing field, reveals a renewed way of producing in every field of practical arts. (Sessa,1981, p. 13)

Commissioned by Ignazio and Franca Florio in 1899, built and completed with internal and external decorative elements between 1900 and 1902, the building has a structure separated in different perspective levels. The inside is composed of individual rooms which seem to be connected each other. This particular arrangement reveals Basile’s intention to reach ‘unity’.

The furniture is similar to the models that Basile and Ducrot presented at the Turin Decorative Modern Art Exhibition in 1902 and the Venice International Art Exhibition in 1903.

According to Basile’s quest of a ‘new architecture system’, the organization of the spaces in ‘Villino Florio’, with its inclination for the variety giving a guarantee for the homogeneity, represents the first step towards a modern maturity. The building, in spite of the various arrangements of its four floors, doesn’t dissemble the logic of its geometrical structure, organized with a clear dimensional ratio, denying Raffaele Savarese’s opinion about the affinity of Basile’s art with an undefined late-Romantic trend, as he writes in his long essay ‘Arte Nuova Italiana’ about Villino Florio and Basile’s  programmatic objectives. (Sessa, 2002, p. 181)

As well as the Mirror Hall in Villa Igiea, Villino Florio represents a unique for its internal and external aesthetic shape which can’t be repeated or re-edited; for this reason it will be the starting point for all Basile’s future works.

With the presence in the Turin Exhibition in 1902, together with Vittorio Ducrot, also thanks to the industrial progress of the factory, you can notice a particular maturity in the furnishing culture.

In the following years, although there is a close relationship between Basile and Ducrot, the latter takes the liberty to make different choices from Basile’s ideas. Actually the fortune of the couple is due to Ducrot’s determination in regard to the selection of the best materials and the following well-advanced construction technique that allow the innovation and the expansion of the firm in the trade of Palermo.

As previously mentioned, Basile also looked after the graphic style of the firm and the arrangement of the exhibition/sale areas.

In 1903, at the Fifth International Art Exposition in Venice, he sets up the section ‘Napoli and Sicilia’ where exhibits the furniture designed and realized by himself with the collaboration of Ducrot. You can notice the transformation of the decorative elements, since there isn’t any similarity with the famous 1902 oaken working room; but the presence of naturalistic elements and the decorative exuberance derived from the nature, create a dynamic ‘organic unity’ which promotes the birth of the New Italian Art. (Sessa, 2002, p. 247)

Vittorio Ducrot, who is not a qualified technician, unable to design and realize what he actually produces, takes advantage of the participation and also the collaboration at the 1902 and 1903 Exhibitions. Thanks to these two events he gets hundreds of orders from all over Italy especially referring to the pieces exposed in Turin and Venice, which bring to quadruplicate the profit of the company.

Between 1905 and 1907 Basile formulates a new aesthetic combination, which is carried out with the design of the main façade of the International Exhibition building in Venice and the enlargement of the Cassa di Risparmio offices in Palermo. In the first building Basile displays the furniture designed by him, while in the second one, he deals with the architecture but also the interior furnishing, together with Ducrot. The work carried out in the Ducrot workshops, was integrated with parts produced by other Italian companies, such as Opificio San Leucio for fabrics, majolicas by the firm ‘Figulina Artistica Meridionale’ in Neaples, wrought-iron by Angiolo Grasso workshop in Neaples, in order to provide an appropriate framework for the paintings and the sculptures by G. Enea and E. De Maria Bergler.

The construction of ‘Casa Basile’ also known as ‘Villa Ida’, inspired by the name of the artist’s wife, is contemporary too. It was entirely designed by him and furnished by Ducrot’s firm.

Situated at the corner of via Siracusa and via Villafranca in Palermo, Villino Basile still reveals the principles of an homogeneity of style as well as of design also regards to the furniture which follows a concept of modern comfort, without replacing the main peculiarity of the Mediterranean way of life and the typical Sicilian use of the colors.

Inside Casa Basile you can notice a sense of sacredness in the disposition of the rooms as well as the furniture; this can be deduced by the position of the dining room in the most reserved part of the house. The furniture by Ducrot in this room is from the same series of the one exposed in Milan in 1906, with carvings of octopuses and crustaceans. The house also hosted the ‘working core’ of Basile, that is to say, his laboratories and the professional archives. All these room were furnished with drawing tables and high bookcases; the furniture belonged to the ‘Tipo Torino’ series.

Therefore the house suits to its own logic of functional division, with the basement reserved for the restrooms, in correspondence to the heart of the professional laboratory and the archives, and even the reception rooms overlooking the façade in via Siracusa; on the contrary the inner core with its courtyard hosts the dining room with relative vestibules and stairs leading to the second floor with its bedrooms.

In 1906-1907, there is another change concerning the furniture design and production for the Ducrot Company since Basile is called to realize the new Assembly Hall of the Parliament and to enlarge ‘Palazzo Montecitorio’ in Rome. The firm is selected as furniture manufacturer for Palazzo Montecitorio by the Italian Parliament Artistic Commission; they use a prestigious style appropriate to such an ‘important responsibility’.

In the same years, the Ducrot firm is awarded by the Agriculture Industry Commerce Ministry for the furniture of ‘Caffè Faraglia’ in Rome; this particular kind of furniture represents another new style created by the company, which is, for this reason, called Faraglia.

Using such a modern style, reconsidered in a ‘prestigious way’, in range of ‘institutional demands’ is for sure a significant success of the Basile-Ducrot couple.

As for the architecture and the furniture, Palazzo Montecitorio is the most representative example of the collaboration between Basile and Ducrot; it has a magnificent covering on the external front, with architraved windows; the interior with wood covering which underlines the geometrical tendency, and even the insertion of classical elements, such as the columns of the Assembly Hall, which, for their chromatic similarity, resemble the ones of the secondary galleries and the other meeting rooms of the building.

On 9 March 1907, the Ducrot company is officially registered in the Stock Exchange of Milano with the name of ‘Ducrot Mobili e Arti Decorative, Società Anonima per Azioni’. Among the first shareholders there were some old partners, like Antonio Ugo and Ettore de Maria Bergler.

Two years later, the couple Ducrot- Basile takes part to the 7th  Biennale di Venezia with the furniture of the hall ‘Bellezze Siciliane’. The classical style of Montecitorio can be observed in the refined carvings, the plating, the brass application, the lacquering and the painting ‘Vernis Marin’. Basile designs massive furniture where are inserted in a modern way: ornaments, volutes, mouldings, friezes and other details.

The aspect of this furniture could lead one to think about a return to the previous stylish concepts, but this misunderstanding comes out because of the Ducrot company designers, who receive in their own way the suggestions of Basile about the design intended as a severe superimposition of levels and volumes. That represents the decline of the Ducrot company and the end of the collaboration with Basile.

The couple breaks up since in the following years, the Ducrot workshops are about to become a large productive apparatus, which needs different plans of action and strategies, in relation to the new decadence of the city and the islander’s migratory flow, when the World War I was about to explode.

Between 1915 and 1918, Ducrot makes a renovation of his workshops, enhancing the wood warehouses, adding some structures, but confirming the productive organization so converting the factory located in via P. Gili into a seat of war airplanes production.

This ‘industrial adaptation’ phenomenon, accomplished by Ducrot, was possible thanks to its high technological possibilities and the advanced flexibility of organization.

When in the 1920s the demand for seaplanes run out, there was lust for the old furnishing production, but a lot of difficulties came out because of the leaving of the old partners and the change of the clients.

We can consider the end of the collaboration and its success as a result of the continuous movement of renovation regards to the habits and taste of the Western culture.

The couple Basile-Ducrot, in the years 1899-1909, establishes a new modern quality standard for furnishing and the all the works of art, together with the birth of specific applications in the early cycles of industrial production.

Sessa, E. (1981). Mobili e arredi di Ernesto Basile nella produzione Ducrot. Palermo, IT: Novecento.
Sessa, E. (1989). Ducrot: mobili e arti decorative. Palermo, IT: Novecento.
Sessa,E. (2002). Ernesto Basile: dall’eclettismo classicista al modernismo. Palermo, IT: Novecento.

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