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A love letter to Italian design, in 26 household objects

Leave it to the Italians to render simple items like soap, toothpaste, and notebooks impossibly beautiful.

When you buy household necessities like shampoo, soap, and toothbrushes in the United States, you’re likely getting them from a giant corporation. Procter & Gamble alone has more than 70 brands. But in Italy, many everyday supplies are the domain of small, family-run companies that have been crafting their wares the same way for a century.

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A collection of these products is coming to the United States, courtesy of the MoMA Design Store, which is hosting a pop-up in New York of Italian goods curated by the e-commerce company Fattobene. You’ll be able to get your hands on hangers by Giuseppe Toscanini (whom Valentino commissioned to make personalized hangers), ceramic tiles designed in 1960 by the architect Gio Ponti, and Cella Milano almond shaving cream, which has been made in Italy since 1899.

[Photo: courtesy MoMA/Fattobene]

Founded in 2015 by journalist Anna Lagorio and photographer Alex Carnevali, Fattobene originally started as an editorial project to document the traditional products that artisans still make in Italy. But so many readers both in Italy and abroad asked where they could buy the products that Lagorio and Carnevali decided to set up a small online shop. They knew they were onto something when their first product—a box of goods including glue, scented paper, soap, and a notebook—sold out within a few days. “Here, even the most humble object can become a source of wonder,” Lagorio writes on the collection’s product page. “The reader is invited to appreciate Italian material culture through direct experience, first by reading the stories and then by touching the objects.”

Small, family-run businesses and shops have been a mainstay of the Italian economy for centuries, and the fact that many are still manufacturing goods the way they have for decades is a testament to the quality of their work. But they haven’t exactly kept up with the times. “Some of these companies really had no online presence, and this really astonished me when I started researching because you couldn’t find them even through Google,” Lagorio says.

Fattobene’s mission is to support these companies by helping them find new markets outside of traditional brick-and-mortar shops and, in doing so, help them continue to exist. After all, many of the products are an integral part of Italian culture and history.

[Photo: courtesy MoMA/Fattobene]

The soap pictured above, for instance, has been made by a company called Valobra in Genoa, Italy, since the end of the 19th century using a technique called the open-air boiler method. The method involves soap makers stirring soap in large pots in the open air before leaving it to dry and age. The process takes six months. While the soap is high quality, that’s not the only reason Lagorio chose to include it in Fattobene: the retro packaging, adorned with quaint drawings of flowers and bold typefaces, has stayed the same since the company opened in 1903. “You buy this soap that is expensive when you have the possibility to have many different kinds of soap because you want to be part of something—and you have the possibility to put out this beautiful packaging in your house,” she says.

[Photo: courtesy MoMA/Fattobene]
Another product that Fattobene sells is Pigna notebooks, which are the standard notebooks used by schoolchildren all over Italy. When Lagorio visited the company’s factory in Bergamo, Italy, earlier this year, she found a rich archive of more than 1,000 notebooks that had gone out of print. A colorful striped design that caught her eye in the archive will be on display in the MoMA pop-up.

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Fattobene sources all of the goods, buys them from the Italian companies, and then packages and ships orders out of a converted barn in Tuscany, mostly to customers in Italy and the rest of Europe. It’s a charming brand of e-commerce at a time when many of us are hooked on Amazon’s two-day delivery. “[It is] like a counter-trend. Some of our products need a lot of time to be [finished],” Lagorio says. “Sometimes when we’re sold out, we have to say to people that they have to wait for some days. People understand that it’s something different. This is not about consumerism.”

Fattobene goods will be available online and in MoMA Design Store’s SoHo location in Manhattan from August 7 until September 29. Prices range from $3.50 to $200.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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