I was not aware of Carlo Bugatti when I saw (a version of) this desk (top) at the Art+Design Show at the Armory this past Thursday. The name was vaguely familiar–race cars wasn't it?* or motorcycles? But not furniture. Certainly not this slightly disturbing crenellated fantasy in walnut, copper, vellum, and mother of pearl. Why disturbing? because it was almost animalistic. And I couldn't place it– definitely Arts and Crafts-ish, sort of Eastlakean, but as though interpreted by an alien. Japanese? Indian Raj? Moorish? Arab? Yes!
Bugatti was born in Milan in 1856. He studied at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts and began making furniture in the 1880s. The earlier furniture's rectilinear asymmetry and exotic materials--encrusted and embellished--recalled the Orientalism of the time; the later sinuous forms were influenced by Art Nouveau. But the aggressively hybrid vision was truly, singularly his. Gaudi is the only other designer of the time I can think of who was as profoundly bizarre.
Bugatti gained international attention at the Exposition of Decorative Arts in Turin in 1902 with his "Snail Room." The tantalizing but maddeningly indistinct photo directly above is all I could find of the exhibit. His "Cobra chairs" (above the Snail image, right), created for the Turin exhibit, are entirely covered in vellum-- as was much of his later furniture. At some point his furniture also graced the Waldorf Astoria’s Turkish Salon, where, it is said, coffee was served by an actual Turk complete with a boy attendant...
Extravagant, daring, bewildering, excessive and fascinating, Bugatti's work was renowned for meticulous craftsmanship and eccentricity but was never truly popular. Perhaps because, as the Cleveland Museum of Art notes, it was extremely "challenging."
His design star was occluded by the time he died, in relative obscurity, in 1940.
*His son Ettore went on to found the automobile company.
Bugatti's designs are like ceremonial furnishings for some alien royal court. Something about the spikey "tribal" regalia draping many of Bugatti's pieces reminds me of Frank Frazetta.