Pirelli: Corporate culture

Rouleur investigates the intersection between technological innovation and artistic experimentation with a visit to the Fondazione Pirelli in Milan

This article was produced in association with Pirelli

It’s a beautiful day, and bright sunshine illuminates every detail of the pink two storey building that is home to the Fondazione Pirelli. A strip of asphalt that winds through a green lawn takes me to the bar, where I have an appointment with Laura Riboldi, the Pirelli Foundation’s deputy director, and Eleonora Salvatti, who is responsible for digital initiatives and research.

I’m struck by the coffee counter, with its glass top displaying a selection of haute patisserie desserts, and I reflect on the fact that perhaps it won’t be the only surprise at the Pirelli headquarters.

These buildings house the group’s management and research and development laboratories, and are located in Bicocca, a neighbour hood that was reshaped thanks to one of the most significant urban renewal projects carried out in Milan between the 1980s and 2000s.

The Foundation was created in 2008 and preserves the historical heritage that Pirelli has accumulated during its 152 years of existence, from 1872 to today. The building I am about to enter is visited by thousands of people every year, and I cannot hide the fact I’m very curious about what’s ahead. At the entrance to the building, I’m greeted by a sequence of sliding images, projected on the wall.

“This timeline was created for the 150th anniversary, and highlights a theme that has always been characteristic of Pirelli: research and experimentation,” says Riboldi. “Everything that has been tested in racing has contributed, and still contributes, to the development of tyres.

“1890 is a key date because it’s when our first tyre was patented. It was called the Tipo Milano, and it was for bicycles. Our history is interwoven with photographs, documents and advertising sketches. Archives are measured in linear metres, and ours is four kilometres long. In 2014, we began to digitise it.”

Of the four kilometres’ worth of documentation, a curated selection is available online, allowing searches by type of document or by thematic category, as I had the opportunity to experience. “We have a team of 12 people dedicated to the care of the archive and the organisation of wide-ranging cultural initiatives. We’re part of a network of corporate museums, and we’re happy to have this historical heritage, because someone before us had the intuition to create it,” continues Riboldi, as she explains that Pirelli initially did not produce tyres, but various rubber items.

Its range of products has included straps, covered cables, raincoats, toys, erasers, sponges, headphones, hot water bottles and many other items, including the foam used to cover the seats at Milan’s famous La Scala opera house. Right by the archive’s door, there’s a tyre on display. It belonged to the Itala, the car that won the Peking to Paris motor race, the first international rally in the history of motoring, in 1907. The memory of this pioneering undertaking is a prelude to another historical moment from 1905, immortalised in a huge photograph, more than two metres across, by Luca Comerio, one of the founding fathers of Italian cinema. It shows the 3,000 workers who toiled at the time in the first Pirelli factory, in Via Ponte Seveso, Milan. It is a one-of-a-kind work, printed on a single sheet of photographic paper.

Another few steps and I notice a 1922 drawing which has a tree as its subject. Its branches indicate the company’s numerous foreign offices and rubber plantations. “Pirelli is very Milanese, but has also been very international since its early years. The tree design, created on the occasion of the company’s 50th anniversary, symbolises this. The company already had a notable reach. It was present in Europe, Brazil and Argentina. Now we are in 12 countries, with 18 factories,” adds Riboldi, as we pass in front of the photos of the founder, Giovanni Battista Pirelli and his heirs.

Large cabinets occupy a good part of the surrounding space, where the technical library has been set up to house more than 16,000 volumes dedicated to rubber and cable technology. “We have some technical magazines from abroad, of which we have the only copies present in Italy, but there is also everything relating to the world of cycling.

“We’re frequently contacted by students and teachers, too. The archive is open to the public, and we are always happy to welcome guests. This is a very important asset, designed for corporate researchers and engineers. Our Collezione tyres were born from research done here.

“In recent years, we’ve noticed ever increasing interest from our colleagues who work in different areas. We all know the importance of memory as a foundation for growth and innovative design. We are part of a very innovative and technological group, and we try to use innovative and contemporary language to tell our story. Here, everything is catalogued in the online public access catalogue, and is therefore available online,” adds Riboldi, pointing out how this place deviates from the stereotypes that often portray archives as dusty, unappealing places.

We move to another room, where the focus is on visual communication and the various artists who have worked for Pirelli over the years. The decor is white, characterised by minimalist lines, with a selection of drawers similar to those used to store eyeglass frames in an opticians. Here, however, they are used for the conservation of sketches, old advertising posters and archive material.

“This is an interesting part of our history that’s worth highlighting,” says Salvatti. “From the 1930s to the 1950s, bicycle manufacturers were always closely associated with one tyre brand. Bianchi, Legnano, Cicli Dei and Cicli Wolsit were always equipped with Pirelli tyres.

“These original sketches have been restored and digitised. We’re lucky to have recovered so many pieces, and we’re continually adding to the collection. One recent acquisition shows Costante Girardengo, who represented Wolsit, in a poster by the artist Manlio Parrini, aka Manlio,” adds Salvatti, before opening a drawer dedicated to the Pirelli logo.

The idea of the capital P extending horizontally, covering the other letters, is meant to highlight the elasticity of Pirelli’s rubber, and was born in New York in 1908. At the time, artists enjoyed great expressive freedom, as evidenced by the presence of the five-pointed star in one of the first logos. It’s a symbol that has been reproduced several times, and once it even appeared in the design of a tyre tread. Other drawers contain posters that reflect an approach that today we would call ‘sustainable’, such as the Marca Stella, a screw-in rubber heel advertised in 1919 to extend the life of shoes, and the Hevea overshoe from 1927, designed to protect women’s footwear from the elements.

Looking at reproductions of some iconic advertising campaigns, I focus on the elegant image of a woman on a bicycle with her hair wrapped in a purple scarf. It was created in 1959 by Lora Lamm, creative director of La Rinascente, the high-end Italian department store chain. And there’s a wonderful work by Bob Noorda, a pioneer in the field of graphic design, who in 1953 advertised the Velo tyre by painting coloured wheels and black tread on a bright yellow background.

As we discuss the evolution of visual communication through the works of illustrators and designers such as Bruno Munari, Riccardo Manzi and Alessandro Mendini, I’m led to a corner of the room where I discover another fragment of the company’s history: the hyper-realistic technical drawings. “The technical drawings were made by hand, with airbrush and India ink, and guaranteed precision and legibility down to the tread,” explains Riboldi.

“It’s a crucial element of our tyres, together with the compound. They date back to the 1950s, a time when photography could not offer this kind of precision in detail. They were used for price lists and catalogues, and were the result of a great deal of work to communicate the product in the most comprehensive way possible.”

The foundation also maintains a library, with around 2,000 books on the company’s history, and a photographic collection of more than 700,000 images divided into negatives, prints and slides. In the room that contains the most significant corporate documents from Pirelli’s history, everything is catalogued in chronological order.

“In 1972, these documents were declared of national interest by the Archival Superintendent of Lombardy, officially becoming a cultural asset protected by the government,” continues Riboldi. “Among the thousands of finds, there is a screenplay written by Alberto Moravia and Roberto Rossellini in 1947, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the company. The film was never made, but shows the complexity and importance of this archive, which we think of as a piece of Italian history. You can find everything here in these folders, from the first contracts up to the detailed catalogues, in which the tread design is presented together with the technical data. There are also all the honours and prizes received, as well as the number of victories of the cyclists who raced with those tyres.”

“I think the beauty of the covers is particularly striking, often with the factory in the foreground,” says Salvatti, who underlines how the catalogues made explicit reference to champion cyclists to encourage purchases. Just like today, racing was an important commercial showcase, and sporting successes brought greater visibility and prestige to the company.

The history of Pirelli’s business communication is interwoven with creativity and the continuous search for new languages, as evidenced in 1948, the publication year of Pirelli: Informational and Technical Magazine . Over the years, prominent journalists, scientists, musicians, poets and writers have contributed to the magazine, which was bi-monthly and available nationwide, including Nobel Prize winners Eugenio Montale and Salvatore Quasimodo.

“The magazine was published until 1972 and, among many things, documented the development of the world of cycling since Italy’s post-war economic boom,” explains Riboldi. “Cycling champions were praised by writers and immortalised by photographers, and this contributed to enriching the sport’s narrative. It was a period in which lots of famous authors and journalists collaborated with large companies. Pirelli wanted to tell its own story to the wider world in an exciting, engaging way.”

I’m shown the technical information necessary to produce Collezione tyres, intended for vintage cars. These tyres are faithfully recreated following original measurements, thanks to the information present in these documents. “We’ve always been at the forefront of innovation. Pirelli was born with bicycle tyres and, over time, thanks to the experiences gained in the motor racing sector, we’ve been able to bring plenty of technological innovation back to the cycling sector,” Riboldi points out as we leave the archive.

Going up the stairs, we arrive at the consultation room, where one wall is dominated by a large mosaic, created in 1961 by the Academy of Fine Arts of Ravenna, based on a sketch prepared by Renato Guttuso. The work, with which the famous painter offers his vision of the “long path travelled by humanity in the discovery of nature and its laws”, hangs over a large white table that sits in the centre of the room. On it, a selection of documents have been arranged, which Salvatti handles with extreme delicacy, wearing white cotton gloves.

She shows me correspondence written on the occasion of Pirelli’s first participation in the Tour de France, in 1907, and a postcard created by Aleardo Terzi for the first edition of the Giro d’Italia in 1909. There are also promotional postcards that retrace the earliest days of cycling history. A letter from 1932, from the Società Anonima Edoardo Bianchi, expressing gratitude for the tyres used by Alfredo Bovet to win the 25th edition of Milan-Sanremo. And a copy of Pirelli Magazine with a 1949 article dedicated to the Pirelli Grand Prix for amateurs, organised by Alfredo Binda.

The last artefact shown to me is the 1904 catalogue Tyres for Velocipedes, Motorcycles, and Automobiles, with the cover by the Milanese painter Osvaldo Ballerio. ‘Pneumatics’ made it possible to replace the solid rubber rings that had been used on bicycles.

It’s a history that never ceases to amaze, and I dwell on it as I walk back along the driveway of the Pirelli Headquarters towards the exit. There is corporate culture at Pirelli, for sure, but there is also plenty of creative culture.

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