The fact that it is normal these days to simply load your skis onto the car roof and happily set off for a trip in the mountains does not mean that it has always been like this. It needed somebody, with the comfort of skiers at heart, to first invent the ski rack and somebody else, working on the original idea, to continually try to invent a better model. This latter figure was Carlo Barassi, a Pirelli tyre designer in his day job who, together with Roberto Menghi, invented a futuristic ski rack in elastic and foam rubber patented by Pirelli-Kartell. Alongside the car itself, the ski rack joined the list of essential skiing accessories, completely satisfying the skier’s need to reach the mountains quickly and safely. It is an emblematic example of the way that design has always been driven by human needs, responding with functional and creative ideas and banking on the fact that the appeal of everyday convenience never dies. This is the direction always taken by Pirelli and Kartell, master producers of two materials that have revolutionised human lives, namely rubber and plastic.
Barassi and Menghi’s ski rack was the first Kartell-made car accessory in collaboration with Pirelli, launched on the market in 1950 to become an international success story: «Very many were sold – says Elisa Storace, curator of the Kartell museum in Milan – because it was the first ski rack consisting of two strips of “Nastrocord” that could be fitted to the car roof with metal hooks. It was the first lightweight ski rack, not made of wood and metal like others, and very easy to remove». Hook up, travel, unhook, store away, says the advertising slogan of the time, pinpointing the revolutionary lightness and practicality that this accessory had never previously possessed. These characteristics came into being through the synergy of two companies that, with the aim of improving people’s everyday lives, joined forces to create a simple and original solution.
This collaboration continued until the end of the 1960s in a series of other products, such as a luggage rack with beechwood slats and Nastrocord elements.
The success of some ideas depends a great deal, if not totally, on the material in which they are made. The Kartell-Pirelli ski rack would not have had this success without Nastrocord, and other great Kartell creations likewise owe their popularity to the pioneering use of plastic in all its forms, when this material was still unknown to many people and had not yet entered the home.
But it is no coincidence that Kartell was the first to exploit the incredible potential of this material: the firm’s founder, Giulio Castelli, graduated in chemistry at the Politecnico di Milano and had the good fortune to study with Professor Giulio Natta who, in 1963, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the propylene catalyst. In 1937, the thirty-four-year-old Natta was a member of a team of scientists commissioned by Pirelli to develop the Italian version of synthetic rubber before the Second World War. His contract with Pirelli took him beyond his role as a university professor and set him up for his subsequent adventure into propylene with Montecatini.
As a student of Natta, Castelli correctly understood the importance of these as-yet unused materials and their potential application in product design, and in 1949 founded Kartell with the precise aim of using plastic materials in the manufacture of widely-used everyday objects. «For Castelli – relates Elisa Storace – it was important from the outset to work on projects in which the most innovative manufacturing technologies could be applied». All the talk at the time was of design and process efficiency, of manufacturing technologies, «and he already had a clear notion in his mind of the importance of industrial mass production», continues the curator. «For him it was fundamental, at the moment in which a product or an object was made, that the company knew clearly to whom it was aimed, how much it should cost and how it should be advertised».
Following the Castelli era the company was acquired in 1988 by Claudio Luti, a fundamental transition that marked the beginning of a second life for Kartell in which, while the idea of large-scale industrial production was maintained, the aesthetics of the products underwent substantial modernisation. This heralded an international perspective and a long series of successful partnerships with a team of great designers. Kartell products now entered Italian homes with a series of novel characteristics: light, unbreakable, colourful, at the right price. «A whole new paradigm – explains Storace – responding to society’s need for something to satisfy unexpressed desires. It’s what a design company has to have, the sensitivity to respond to needs by firstly trying to understand what might be useful and what might be innovative». Inventing objects that represent the innovation of form, function or materials, for Kartell it is history that has been repeating itself for seventy years.