Carlo Enrico Rava played a pivotal role in the history of Italian Architecture and Design. Referred to by Alberto Sartoris as the ‘driving force’ behind the Gruppo 7, he and six fellow rationalist graduates of the Milan Polytechnic founded the movement in 1926, with the intention of establishing a new architecture based on logic and rationality. Their manifesto appeared in the Rassegna Italiana that same year, and the group would ultimately serve as the launch pad for the development of rationalist architecture in Italy. They organized a series of exhibitions in the years following and achieved international acclaim in 1927 at the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart. The group’s celebrated Casa Elettrica, though sadly no longer extant, is considered a benchmark in early 20th century Italian architecture. In 1928 Rava would serve as one the founding members of the CIAM, among others including Karl Moser, Pierre Chareau, Hannes Meyer, Pierre Jeanneret, Alberto Sartoris and Gerrit Rietveld. That same year he exhibited an early series of rationalist furniture designs along with Luigi Figini and Enrico Griffini. Despite his leading role however, Rava left the Gruppo 7 in 1929, stating: “Today is no longer a question of being ‘rationalists’, it is only a question of being modern Italian architects…each searching within themselves for the most profound, sincere and independent expression.”
Rava wrote extensively on a number of subjects, including architecture, furniture and interior design and film, as well as the history and contemporary practice of colonial architecture. In addition to his presentation of the Colonial Pavilion in Milan with Sebastian Larco in 1928, he received commissions in Leptis Magna and Mogadishu, including the Croce del Sud and, again with Larco, the Agli Scarvi hotels. He also designed, with Luigi Piccinato and Giovanni Pellegrini, a collection of demountable furniture intended for the tropics. Beginning in the 1930s he designed the interior sets for a number of movies produced at Cinecittà, and in his regular column Il gusto negli interni di film, in the Ponti edited magazine Stile, lambasted the questionable standards of contemporary Italian production design in film.
Throughout his career Rava was an active designer of furniture and interiors, receiving censure in the early 1930s in the pages of Domus, along with Guglielmo Ulrich, for their continued dedication to luxury, considered inappropriate for the economic times. A distinguishing characteristic of Rava’s designs was his refusal to adhere to the tenets of the prevailing fashion or style, preferring always to carve his own path. Individual and eclectic in nature, his early experiments in the organic, sinewed form and construction of his furniture would have a significant effect on the work of his successors, and helped define what would become the emblematic Italian style of the post-war recovery. Key events in that process were the 1947 and ‘48 furniture exhibitions organized by Fede Cheti, where Rava’s work, along with that of his contemporaries Carlo Mollino and Ico Parisi, represented the apogee of modern Italian design. Writing in the preface to the monograph Arredamenti di Rava in 1950, Mollino described Rava’s work as follows: “His world is articulated as we said in a seemingly traditional language that relies on the very ‘classical’ forms, which we have learned over the course of centuries to consider as metaphors for architecture. Yet, through suggestive modulations and shifts away from the canon and away from the thinking at the origin of these forms we are transported into a serene realm of contemplation of whatever kind of everyday ‘civilized’ beauty the world has given us in the past, simultaneously denouncing what it is incapable of giving us today. It is nothing less than a way to escape the constraints of time by pursuing simple beauty.”