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Interview with Gianfranco Cavaglià – Gromolosa table

Client: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Biella, dr. Alberto Maggia (Gestione immobili); MAC (Mestieri d’Arte Contemporanei) – Città Studi di Biella. Progetto coordinato con corso di formazione svolto al MAC – Città Studi di Biella
Team leader: dr.ssa Patrizia Maggia. Progetto del tavolo finalizzato al corso di formazione: arch. Gianfranco Cavaglià con la collaborazione di arch.Anna Rita Bertorello
Professor for the timber structures: Pietro Mosca
Smith for the steel structure: Giovanni Lazzarotto
Students: Andrea Bagna, Denis Borsetti, Guido Ceretti, Giuseppe Chiri, Paolo Cuneo, Mustapha Drizi, Costantino Ferretto, Flavio Milani, Fabrizio Pianezze, Aldo Tosoni.
Pictures: Paola Rosetta, Patrizia Maggia, studio Cavaglià
Opportunities to be able to listen to, discuss and exchange ideas with architects who are passionate about their research, design and construction are always very precious moments and should be shared.

Opportunities to be able to listen to, discuss and exchange ideas with architects who are passionate about their research, design and construction are always very precious moments and should be shared.

In the interview with Prof Gianfranco Cavaglià, designer of the gromolosa table, the questions are just simple hints that the response comes to as autonomously, as a broader reflection on the dynamics of design and construction, and a fascinating story.

  1. [M.C.]The question of recovery, enhancing our concealed, sometimes even forgotten, heritage.

[G. C.] We are faced with the case of enhancing something of great architectural quality, a large house, a palazzo which, over time, has been confused by its use that did not allow sufficient maintenance to conserve its original features. The restoration in building terms was consolidated with a use in line with the building and its organizational and spatial layout. The client, the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Biella, wanted it to be valorised in the broadest sense of the word, including the tangible and intangible knowledge that risked disappearance, and asked whether certain tools could be made, to design, with a training course for carpenters. The first step was to check the availability of the wood: a short search on site, when the restoration work was being finished, revealed a pile of larch wood planks that were left of an old floor that had been removed. Luckily, authorization to take them to the dump had not yet been given by Alberto Maggia, the client’s project manager, who instinctively felt that those remains could be used in some way. The quantity and quality of the wood was verified by the carpenter Pietro Mosca, the potential manager for the suggested training course, and given his experience as a carpenter by tradition and profession, he confirmed that it could be used.

[M.C.] Teachings recovered from a dialogue with the carpenter, in the unity of knowledge of a carpenter and an ironsmith. The question of languages, codes and interpretations.

[G. C.]  The larch planks could be considered as the starting point for the project for the training course and then the table, after confirmation was received. It is hard to say what the precise series of events was. The surprising quality and preservation level of the planks made us feel very optimistic about pursing the idea. The quality of the planks was unhoped for, thanks to the properties of the wood we discovered, its exceptional fineness, presumed age, size (more than 5 meters long), its compactness and weight, well above average for the species: the quality of the planks was the definitive confirmation to begin the training course and table project. Planks with those features had to be discovered as matter, preservation; working solid wood became the theme for the training course. The discovery that wood is preserved over time, that has qualities we no longer find (duration, nature of the perceived surface, fragrance) as they had been hidden by increasingly covering protective layers, and which, after hundreds of years, can still be used. Nor do we know what the wood was used for previously. Pietro Mosca told us his father and grandfather had said they had never worked new larch in small sections, but always larch that had been recovered elsewhere.

In parallel, drafting began for the training course addressed to creating a masterpiece, and pursuing the table project that would consider the construction phases.

By recovering the planks, knowledge of the wood was gained as a substance and the experience in working solid wood were all that was needed. Mosca’s experience was decisive in defining the course plan into working solid wood: to discover the properties of the wood. Not a technical training course, but a course into the knowledge of a substance that had to be processed. Perhaps this is the passage to consider wood as a top on a steel structure and the traditional combination of wood and iron.

Wood for the surfaces, the parts in contact with the user, and iron for the structure. The steel structure was not part of the course and was made by an ironsmith, and was presented to the course participants as a project and samples during the construction: they were aware that the steel structure was to be used for the wood parts they were working on, and that they would be mounted on it without any adjustments. The relations between very precise works, where the working tolerances had to be considered, were a significant part of their experience. The aim of the masterpiece implied that each element had to be made and finished so it could be perfectly fitted and did not need adjustments. The mechanical connections, iron – wood, were later perfected between the carpenters and ironsmith: united in their shared language, drawings, details, millimetric measurements and sequence of assembly phases.

Visible iron and wood that can be perceived, the nature of their substances can be touched without any protection, accepting the decline that comes from use, aware that transformation is not just decline, but with care it even improves the patina. The metalworking could not be included in the carpentry course, but the characteristics of that work were transmitted by attending the meetings when the work was defined with the ironsmith, and there was very lively interaction between them all. The ironsmith’s habit of working in millimetres meant that Mosca’s indications for the work were not just due to perfectionism but just working habit. Steel working always plays a role of coordination and order for the related works: it gives a definitive anticipation of the final measurements that is more limited than the carpenter’s work, which has always had the possibility of direct adjustments being made to it.

  1. [M.C.]  The story of a project: the “gromolosa” table, a mixture of references to the past, knowledge of the materials and working methods, new design conception and definition of a method, of a strategy to conceive and achieve a specific project.

[G. C.]  Your observation of a “new design conception” is linked to the very lucid observations by Enzo Mari[1] who requests motivations for new projects: “let us try to go back to a more local dimension in production and consumption, to invest, as far as possible, in artisan production as well as in the school and culture[2]”. His observations ask us to verify the meaning of what we do with respect to the context where it is. In our case the project has a wise client: they requested a project for a table to work on and, sometimes, to dine on for a palazzo, but at the condition that the project is coordinated with the plan for a carpentry training course. A commission for a table project obviously contained the indications about how to organize the training course. I agree with your expression “design conception and definition of a method”: this type of experience is not possible within production logic, but it is in a training logic. In production operators have to be trained, and in defining the processes we have increasingly banalised rather than requested skills. If knowledge and experience are not required they will gradually disappear: they are no longer necessary. The consequence of this is that wood is no longer wood, iron is no longer iron, we just want it to look how we imagine.

The following phase after verifying the availability of the wood, and essential to organizing a carpentry training course, was the first project action that led to an unhoped for result: in the abandoned remains being able to find a wood of a quality that could not be found on even the most selective markets. This experience leads me to highlighting two observations: firstly in the more widespread logic, the wood risked going to the dump as a burdensome waste (dirty with glue) but it hid an organic treasure, and secondly an observation as to method, to look around ourselves closely to discover opportunities that we often fail to see.

  1. [M.C.]  “Gromolosa” table, steel and wood: two design worlds and different characteristics, especially when reasoning and designing elements where the two materials live together, with their reserved functions and enhancing their different vocations.

[G. C.]  The planks were cleaned manually and we slowly discovered, in the real sense of the word, the wood as it gradually appeared, scrape after scrape, and we could smell the perfume of the resin that was still trapped in the uncovered fibres. The recovery took time and hard work, and it was natural to think the planks should be maintained as they were, with no further joining work, just placed on a support. The planks were not semi-processed elements to use in another product, but were already finished products that had to be used in their natural state so they were visible to others in the variety of their surfaces. The same attention paid to steel, with the request for the few welds to be in specific hidden positions, and that the other processes should remain visible and maintain the production finish with the calamine. Another consideration should be made about the work that Patrizia Maggia has been developing for years in MAC, Città Studi Biella, formerly the Kandinsky Applied Art Centre: the training courses (from weaving, to writing, to felt and tapestry production and pottery) open to all and sometimes for children, provide a direct experience of work beginning from the basics, with a method that is immediately enthralling and gratifying, and the results can be seen straight away. To help us understand, gain direct experience, go to the roots of the matter. Never overlook the gratification of who does the work, of seeing the compatibility and perfect fit when the parts are mounted together, the steel structure and wood elements, in accordance with the project measurements and tolerances.

  1. [M.C.] The project line pursued for the creation, engineering of the table components and their production

[G. C.] The initial request: “table for work, and sometimes to dine on”. Work table, meeting table: consider laptop computers and, if the meeting is long, the battery chargers that have to be plugged into the power sockets. The power sockets are installed under the table top, near the various seats, reached by a distribution of wires to the top intrados, coming from a single central unit like a special fifth leg, with the duct the wires pass through. Apart from containing the wires as they lead up from the single power point, the fifth leg also helps break up the span between the end supports (approx. 270 cm) and limits the thickness of the iron structure.

[M.C.]  Figurative elements in the project: connections, finishes, detachment between components, reading the lines of strength and stiffening in the bearing frame.

[G. C.] So far we have talked about environment, valorisation, recovery, training course programme and the figurative elements, as you say, have not been discussed. I want to be sincere, and I wouldn’t be if I said they weren’t considered when the project was developed: however they have always been below the layer of initial requests and declared aims, as we tried to respond to the requests that emerged as the project developed. This is confirmed by the fifth leg that appeared in the development logic, and it is of a certain figurative interest. It is a project with a tectonic connotation, in that the form is strongly linked to the construction, but without the form being a pure consequence of the construction.

To return to your expression about the “figurative elements”, I would say they were strongly identified through the project phases.

The attention for the presumed size changes in the wood becomes detachments, even formal elements; in the same way as the planks just rest on the steel base with holding elements that are different between the planks, different to each other, and different to the frame. These simple operations have played a noteworthy role in the final product: for the side connections in the choice of the screws and their positions; for the connections between the planks an existing element is used rather than a new production insert, we have used an old currency coin: for the immediate association to our recollection of the lira coins, very attractive and tough, we chose the 50 lira coin with a man beating the iron on the anvil (a depiction from 1958 of Efest, Vulcan, God of Olympus, ugly, crippled, a great craftsman). The old coins as inserts began an active and lively search to find them: I hope that their value does not prevail in the experience, a slightly rhetorical effigy of Vulcan, rather our ability to ascertain how many hidden opportunities are overlooked (we must learn to see).

The table can be completely dismantled if it has to be transported or stored away, formed of the top and the five legs. Our recommendations for its use are not to protect it with varnish but to accept the changes that occur in it through use and time, and just clean it with water and neutral detergent.


[1] “it is worth generalising the idea that ethics is the objective of each project (equivalent to the Hippocrates’ Oath” p. 153 ENZO MARI, 25 modi per piantare un chiodo. Sessant’anni di idee e progetti per difendere un sogno, Arnoldo Mondadori editore, 2011, Milan.

[2] Page 158 ENZO MARI quoted work.

Chiara Centineo
Acciaio Arte Architettura 60