In 1912, Sardinian-born Renzo Frau founded Poltrona Frau, one of the most respected and well-known companies in Italian design and manufacturing. Named for its founder and the Italian word for chair, the Turin-born brand has built a strong reputation throughout the world, especially for its 21-step leather-tanning process. To celebrate the brand’s 110th anniversary, Argentinian-Spanish artist Felipe Pantone—whose work leverages a decidedly digital aesthetic, seemingly in contrast to the company’s artisanal style—collaborated with the company, working on an iteration of the Archibald armchair, originally designed in 2009 by Jean-Marie Massaud. Pantone’s Archibald Anniversary Limited Edition draws from his Chromadynamica series of glitchy digital patterns. The bold, kaleidoscopic chair has been produced in a limited edition of 110 pieces.
A few weeks ago, we were invited to witness the armchair production at the Poltrona Frau workshop which is now headquartered in Tolentino. This location in Italy’s Marche region is defined by green rolling hills and its reputation for remarkable leather craftsmanship.
The company museum, designed in 2012 by architect Michele de Lucchi, traces the company’s history and their decades of evolution. Visitors can view armchairs made for the Italian royal family; sofas designed by Gio Ponti, Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Lella and Massimo Vignelli; as well as special projects for theaters and airport lounges, and experimental pieces designed by Herzog & De Meuron, Snøhetta, Forster + Partners and Renzo Piano. There are also automotive projects for Ferrari, of which Poltrona Frau is the exclusive supplier for leather interiors.
The museum offers a dive into a 100-year past, but the factory itself provides insight into contemporary craft. The work areas are large and bright, providing plenty of space for artisans. Although it’s an industrial plant with laser-cutting machines, optical-reading systems and computers, there’s no doubt about the human touch and immense skill of these craftspeople. It’s no coincidence that the employee T-shirts read “intelligence in our hands.”
Pantone’s material—which incorporates a hypnotic effect of colors and large pixels—makes the armchair instantly recognizable but also complex to build. The cutting and sewing phases are exceptionally delicate, as each line and color must fit perfectly. The backrest pieces are joined through special double-stitching made with a machine dating back to the 1960s, the only one suitable for carrying out this crucial step. The process is slow and meticulous because any mistake would be irreversible and compromise valuable material.
As with most Poltrona Frau products, the proprietary Impact Less leather—a chrome-free, first-grain leather derived from food industry waste that utilizes less water and reduces chemical consumption—is used for the new Archibald.
When the leather upholstery is completed, a craftsperson begins installing it on the structure. The leather is slowly pulled by hand in subsequent steps to ensure respect for the design, which alternates between perfectly smooth sections and others that are intentionally and expertly wrinkled. Such a process must ensure the decoration lines are perfectly straight, requiring the utmost patience and care.
The metal parts are customized with an iridescent chrome-plating process, and the same technique is applied to the nameplate, an element that is attached to the back of the chair to certify the special edition.
The Archibald Anniversary Limited Edition was also produced in a handmade miniature format, perfect for Pantone fans and collectors who couldn’t access one of the 110 full-size pieces made. Both versions will be shown for the first time at the Poltrona Frau flagship store during Milan Design Week, on today through 12 June.
Images by Paolo Ferrarini