The Brothers Levaggi
Paolo and Gabriele Levaggi, the two brothers that inherited the company from the previous generation of Levaggi brothers.
There’s a place in north-west Italy, where the mountains meet the sea – a little city called Chiavari. Located in the Liguria region, it is home to one of the pinnacles of Italian design, the Chiavarina chair. Born at the beginning of the 1800s, and kept alive by the skilled hands of passionate artisans, it is today the protagonist of a small family based business by the name of Fratelli Levaggi that was founded some 60 years ago. I had the opportunity to visit recently and want to tell you about them. ‘Them’ because Fratelli Levaggi literally means the Levaggi brothers.
A real life legend
For quite some time now I have really wanted to see one of their chairs up close. The beautiful photos and videos you can find online teased my curiosity about the elegant proportions and the famous overall lightness. As you know, some things have to be seen in real life to fully contemplate their real character.
As I parked my car just outside the showroom and put my eyes on the displayed Chiavarina my mind was blown away. Let me be very clear, this is not some kind of business advertisement – this is my impression of the exceptional creations of some fellow artisans.
Chairs by Fratelli Levaggi
Delicate proportions, sinuous lines and graceful appearance, all put together into a chair. The almost perfect relationship between the shape and size of every single component is striking. The way the chair occupies a space and integrates within it so naturally is incredible. It’s that point of design where there’s nothing to add and nothing to subtract, and from a structural point of view it’s obvious how function dictated form, and in an outstanding manner as well.
At that point I really had to get out of my car and meet Paolo and Gabriele Levaggi, the two young brothers that inherited the company from the previous generation of Levaggi brothers. While talking to Paolo about the business and how his uncle managed to make it function more than 60 years ago, I had a closer look at the different chair models displayed in the showroom. And yes, probably ‘inherit’ is not the best word to use, as the two young craftsmen earned it with hard work and dedication since they were little kids.
Left to right: Two generations of brothers, Italo and Ettore Levaggi with Paolo and Gabriele Levaggi. Ettore is Paolo and Gabriele’s father. Photo: Regina Recht
Many chairs, stools and armchairs are handcrafted in their workshop, but all share the same amount of attention to detail and elegance. Some are the same, or almost, as they were two centuries ago; others incorporate new ideas. There have been a few collaborations with designers, but also natural interpretations by knowledgeable artisans.
The Chiavarina chair is really hard to improve I’m told. Its appearance comes from a complex relationship between aesthetic choices and structural necessities, sustainable thinking and uncompromising craftsmanship. The structure is slender, yet strong and flexible, and every part is refined to the extreme. Even the seat plays into its physical integrity and is woven directly on the main structure of the chair. The result is incredible and as you pick it up for the first time...speechless. It weighs just a bit over a kilogram and that’s not because they use some kind of lightweight timber. But let’s get to the real deal and visit the workshop.
The Chiavari chair design dates back to the 1807 creation of Chiavarian cabinetmaker Giuseppe Gaetano Descalzi. It has long been considered an Italian design icon with a reputation for being the world’s lightest chair. It has inspired generations of designers and notably Gio Ponti with his Superleggera chair. Photo: Matteo Carassale
Do you believe in magic? Well, as I stepped foot into the production area I fell in love. It’s not a huge place with perhaps a 200 square metre rectangular footprint, but it’s permeated with a beautiful soft eastern light coming through some large windows. A big bandsaw claims an important central place where timber is cut to rough shape. A jointer and a planer are the other two large machines.
If you can manage to take your eyes away from the spectacular display of six decades’ worth of templates hung on one of the walls, you’ll also find a tablesaw, a few sanders and other bits here and there. That’s until you go deeper into the shop and get to the lathe area. A big vintage pattern lathe sits at the end, sharing the space with a bunch of traditional woodturning lathes and a few racks of semi processed chair parts. Everywhere there’s a myriad of templates, chisels and other hand tools, all neatly organised.
Fratelli Levaggi use select air dried timbers from local species sourced from the Ligurian hinterland and sawn to their specifications. ‘Sustainability is not a trend or a marketing claim for us, but has always been our usual way of working’, says the company information sheet.
Local species and select trees
Did I mention the smell? Oh, I’m not sure if it was because I love the sweet ash smell, but the whole space was pervaded by it. Apparently that was strange because ash is not used as much as the other two main woods that the Levaggi chairs are usually made of, beech and wild cherry.
Speaking of wood, at the entrance of the workshop, there’s a discrete storage of rough timber waiting to be processed, and even here there’s a lot to be said. Paolo told me they use only locally sourced timber, carefully selected and patiently air dried.
The search for the best material is so important that sometimes, when possible, they actually go in the Ligurian hinterlands and choose the best tree trunks. Beech and wild cherry are the main choices, but also ash, walnut and maple.
Throughout the workshop can be seen a myriad of templates, components and hand tools, all neatly organised.
Photos: Vasko Sotirov
The criteria for selection goes deep – even exactly where a tree grew matters. If it grew at the bottom of a valley it may not be the best choice because it tends to have softer, less resistant fibres. On the other hand, a hillside tree might also not be a wise choice because it may have been stressed by strong winds and have grain that’s difficult to work with, and a tendency to twist, cup and move. Another shockingly cool detail that I learned is that in the past, when it was still economically possible, trees were cut following lunar phases. That has to do with the amount of sap in the tree making the wood drier and less susceptible to decay and infestation. Crazy, right?
But let’s get back to the shop tour because just as I thought it was over, Paolo brought me to the remaining spaces. One is dedicated to assembly and the other to finishing processes – everything still very organised and neat. A couple of workbenches, a dedicated glue-up station, and again many details for me to get distracted by.
‘Perhaps one of the ways they manage to be time efficient and still maintain excellent quality is by matching the natural predisposition of each artisan to certain jobs.’ Photo: Vasko Sotirov
At the core of the Levaggi craftsmanship is the need and desire to create something that will last. Every joint is fine-tuned to be as perfect as possible, every component is cut so the grain aids maximum strength. Testimonial to that are many old chairs that are still being used today.
Young and old
The Levaggi company surprised me in many ways but especially in how young all the artisans are. In fact the whole business philosophy is very young too. I’m talking about the online presence and their open- minded attitude. Artisans once jealously kept everything secret, and here I was given an opportunity to see the behind the scenes.
But why keep working the traditional way? Why not use fast and efficient CNC machines? Well that’s because a step in that direction would take away what is special to their product, the craftsman’s hands and sensibility. That is the special attention that every single piece of wood is treated with. And once again, to obtain such light and strong constructions, a deep understanding of the raw material is needed. Sometimes things just have to be experienced to be understood, and the Levaggi chairs have something really special that goes beyond the technical data.
Each chair is at some point handmade by everyone who works there. Photo: Vasko Sotirov
But let me tell you more about the process. First the wood is carefully selected according to the components being made. Rough shapes are traced from templates and then bandsawn. The trick here is following the natural flow of the grain, so if the template has a curve in it, they will try to find a part of the board where the grain takes a similar path. This is very important not only for the aesthetics of the finished piece, but especially for the strength of that component.
As Paolo pointed out, they create the minimum amount of waste possible, but not for the sake of economy. In fact the cost of the time invested into this perfect template arrangement is often greater than the cost of the material. The Levaggi optimise the
raw material because this is one of the ethical values passed down from the previous generation. Badly selected grain can cause future problems as one component of a completed chair can move and dramatically change the geometry of the piece. In fact Fratelli Levaggi also offer a repair service for old chairs and showed me an example where the back legs had changed shape, resulting in a different curvature.
After bandsawing, components are processed further on the jointer and planer and then, depending on the design, take different paths. Shapes are refined with sanding machines or may go to the lathe. Batch production is efficient and reduces drastically the time needed to set up every single job.
Every component is cut so the grain aids maximum strength. Photo: Vasko Sotirov
The company makes no more than a few hundred chairs a year but every single one is hand made. What’s striking is the standard of precision they stick to, even for my critical eye. No compromises are made.
Perhaps one of the ways they manage to be time efficient and still maintain excellent quality is by matching the natural predisposition of each artisan to certain jobs. Each chair is made by all of their hands at some point of the production process. Oh and don’t tell him, but Paolo actually confessed to me that Gabriele is better than him at the lathe.
When all the parts for a single piece are ready, it’s time to cut the joinery and glue everything up. A combination of horizontal mortiser and hand tools such as chisels, files and rasps make for a precise job. A piece of furniture you sit on everyday for many years is subjected to a lot of stress.
Perfect joinery is a must and the guys here know that very well. I saw them compress the fibres of tenons prior to glue-up. That leads to an extremely secure joint once those fibres swell back again inside the mortise. Hide glue is used here mainly because as they explained, it’s strong and it’s also very convenient to be able to clean any squeeze-out with hot water.
At this point the Chiavarina needs a seat, and typically Viennese cane is woven onto the frame by local women artisans in what is apparently a very time consuming process. Finishes are applied only at the end to ensure a perfect result.
It was fascinating to see inside the Levaggi shop, to talk to amazing artisans and be inspired by a successful family business that keeps alive traditions and the true value of the handmade product.
Learn more about Fratelli Levaggi at www.levaggisedie.it and Instagram @fratelli_levaggi_chairs
Vasko Sotirov is a craftsman based in northern Italy who creates boxes and artworks using mostly manual tools. He is convinced that the hands are able to translate emotions into objects which have a purpose beyond functionality. Learn more at vaskosotirov.com and Instagram @vaskosotirov