Architect Guglielmo Ulrich’s career began at a time of profound social and economic change in Milan, a period that saw the city transformed from a medieval town to a modern metropolis. Against a backdrop of rapid industrial development and resurgent neoclassicism, championed and charted from 1928 by Gio Ponti in the pages of Domus, Ulrich emerged as one of the key designers of the period, and a crucial element in the evolution of modern Italian design.
A student of both the prestigious Scuola Speciale di Architettura at the Brera Academy and the Milan Polytechnic, the aristocratic Ulrich was the favored designer of 1930s Milanese high society, receiving commissions for the villas, homes and interiors of the city’s great families, as well as retail stores for prestigious companies including Galtrucco throughout Italy. He collaborated with Gio Ponti on the design of a hotel for the Venice Lido in 1937 and would serve as co-editor of Domus in 1942 with Melchiorre Bega.
His career in furniture design began in earnest with the foundation of Ar.Ca (Arredamento Casa), the home furniture company he established in 1930 with Renato Wild and Attilio Scaglia. Working closely with celebrated artisans Jannace & Kovacs, Ar.Ca’s meticulously executed designs became synonymous with luxury and modernity during the period. A focus on rare and extraordinary materials characterized the company’s early production, works that were luxurious in both material and form, designed to feed what Ulrich described as his wealthy clients’ desire for strange material…exclusiveness, novelty, the unique piece.
Ultimately this approach fell out of style, material excess soon deemed inappropriate for the changing economic climate, and by the late 1930s a renewed simplicity emerges in Ulrich’s work. Tapered, anthropomorphic forms, meticulously executed in excellent woods became the designer’s hallmark, embellished occasionally in vellum or with Xantal (gilded aluminum) hardware. This shift would mark a key progression away from the prevailing Rationalist and Novecento styles, and be cemented by the publication of Ulrich’s Arredamenti, mobile e oggetti d’arte decorativa in 1942.
In addition to exhibiting work in Fede Cheti’s seminal Lo stile nell’arredamento moderno exhibitions in 1947/48, Ulrich produced a book documenting the event that offered a vital overview of the contemporary design landscape. He would go on the design interiors for the first class cabins of the Liner Cristoforo Colombo and in 1961 received first prize at the Trieste fair for a chair, manufactured by Saffa, incorporating an ingenious pincer-like plywood joint in its construction. Archives of his designs can be found in the University of Parma and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Summing-up his influence, Ico Parisi wrote the following: “Ulrich was certainly a figure at the forefront among the architects and designers working in Milan at the time: a group of personalities of great value who, like it or not, are those to refer to for the history of the architecture of the Forties and Fifties. We owe to their creative imagination the release from certain limits of orthodox rationalism, from the 20th century contortions of certain proposals from producers in Cantu, or from the freezing Nordic rigor of the Swedish decor that was invading the market; thus giving life to the style of modern Italian furniture which is still considered young and valid.”