In March 1965, an Italian shelter magazine called Rivista dell’Arredamento featured on its cover the living room of a house in Meda, a small town just outside Milan’s northern city limits. It’s not the three upholstered leather armchairs conversing lazily around a low-slung coffee table that leap out of this Dolce Vita cocktail-era interior, but what frames them that’s audacious: a huge copper fireplace hood and the beehive-paneled walnut ceiling it hangs from. Conceived inside and out by a relatively obscure Italian architect named Gigi Radice, the Meda house is a paean to old-school Italian design artisanship—values close to the heart of the Minotti family that commissioned it and still owns it.
Alberto Minotti founded the furniture company that bears his surname in Meda, his hometown, in 1948. Meda lies in the Brianza district, an area that in Italy’s boom economico postwar years was casting off its rural past to become what Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, calls “a kind of exurban soup.” Its strategic position midway between Milan and Lake Como proved an ideal home for a cluster of artisans who specialized in making elegant furniture for the rich industrialists who shuttled between their Milan apartments and Como lakeside villas.
Between the end of the war and the mid-1960s, a handful of Brianza entrepreneurs began to turn this tradition of carpentry and upholstery into a full-scale industry. Minotti was the quiet workhorse of the bunch, ramping up slowly from its craft-workshop origins in Meda. In 1964, when rival Cassina was already launching its I Maestri collection, with designs by icons Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand, Minotti was still dipping a cautious toe into the world of “signed” pieces by building a relationship with Radice—one of the few designers working in Brianza at the time who actually came from the area.
Radice never achieved the fame he deserved, though as an architect he left his mark on his home territory in a smattering of churches, sports halls, and banks. The furniture that he worked on for Minotti in the ’50s and ’60s—including sets that today command high prices on auction sites—reveal him to be a technically accomplished and creative soul who had an outside-the-box sensibility similar to that of Gio Ponti, the great maestro of 20th-century Italian design. In the early 1960s, Alberto Minotti called on Radice to make him a factory and a house in what was then the rural outskirts of town. Home and workplace face each other across the road. Minotti wanted to keep his family close when he was at work, and vice versa.
True to its founder’s slow-build strategy, Minotti, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, has a way of being everywhere while staying under the radar. This is very much in the spirit of its furniture: Minotti sofas tend to blend in rather than stand out, distilling an elegant Milanese lifestyle rather than shouting out the name of a star designer. You may not be able to visualize a single Minotti piece, but you’ve almost certainly waited for an appointment or sipped an aperitivo in one. Christian Grey’s apartment in Fifty Shades Darker is pretty much a brand showroom (the company’s 2015 Seymour collection features prominently), while a Hamilton sofa and Leger coffee table appear in David Fincher’s U.S. remake of Swedish noir The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Doing things quietly is a quality the brand deliberately cultivates, says the 57-year-old Roberto Minotti, who has run the firm with his elder brother, Renato, since the death of their father, Alberto, in 1991. For Roberto, the “alchemy” of the brand lies in its ability to “take a craftsman’s approach to industry.”
As a result, until well into the 1990s, Minotti’s rapport with cutting-edge design had been, to say the least, tentative. But Renato and Roberto soon realized that discretion and invisibility were uncomfortably close. In 1996, they established an in-house creative office, Minotti Studio, that handles everything from product development to marketing and graphic design. The following year, the brand opened the first of what are now 33 stores. In 1998, Minotti made its boldest move and appointed Milan-based designer Rodolfo Dordoni as its art director. Dordoni already had a serious pedigree in the field, but the architect’s collaboration with Minotti would develop a talent that sets him apart. Dordoni doesn’t just design products—he curates everything Minotti does. This holistic process has propelled the company to steady growth, challenging arguably better-known brands such as Kartell and Artemide.
Dordoni credits Minotti’s success with the brand’s early intuition that the era of the single striking product was over. “Extremely ‘designed’ objects are still icons,” he explains, “but they’re not as autonomous as they once were. In the past, you could put a fashionable design object in a house where it didn’t strike up a conversation with anything else. Now that’s happening less.” Dordoni’s works are immune to changing fads.
The unsung pioneer of Minotti’s engagement with contemporary design, Radice was a precursor to Dordoni in several ways, from his timeless furniture designs to the way he created, in the Meda house, a seamless melding of frame and contents, centering on that beautifully engineered copper fireplace hood. The 62-year-old Renato remembers that at Christmas, “the whole day revolved around the fireplace—there would be a corner of the room where people were playing cards, another for watching TV, one for conversation, one where we kids would have set up our new model racing car track. It was like a film.”
Family members have moved in and out over the years, but neither brother would dream of selling the Meda place. “I’m living there right now,” Roberto says, “but if I were to move out, I can see it going to one of my nephews or nieces, or one of my own children.” It would be as convenient for them as it is for him: Renato’s sons, Alessio and Alessandro, and Roberto’s daughter, Susanna, all work for the company in various managerial roles.
“The whole thing is all one pasta,” says Roberto as he gazes across the living room of the house his father commissioned more than 50 years ago. “The company, the house, the family, the evolution, the rapport we have with an architect—first Radice, now Dordoni.” He pauses, searching for words, before coming up with a phrase that could stand as the motto of this productive, creative corner of northern Italy: “Home, work, family, and hearth, it’s all one idea.”