How a Polyurethane Cactus Captured the Heart of Collectors Everywhere

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the famed Gufram succulent, we reach out to its original creators.

gufram cactus
Courtesy Gufram

Italy is probably not the first country that springs to mind when it comes to succulent populations but, believe it or not, Italians are directly responsible for one of the most recognizable cacti on the planet: a 67-inch-tall flexible polyurethane specimen, originally designed as a hall rack, that debuted in 1972 and is in the permanent collection of museums across the globe—not to mention its cameo on our most recent cover.

Designed by Guido Drocco and Franco Mello and produced by Gufram, a company whose whimsical, spongy furniture collection became synonymous with the Italian radical design movement, the soft and thornless Cactus—whose dimpled arms extend skyward in a way that suggests “Yay! Still here, baby!”—will celebrate its 50th birthday this year.

gufram cactus
A 1973 promotional image for Gufram’s Cactus.
Courtesy Gufram

In honor of the semicentennial of this beloved piece, the usually elusive designers recounted the Cactus’s origin story: “Franco Mello was a guest in my home in Via Sacchi, Turin, on a gray winter day. It was very cold, so we were compensating by thinking about what we would have wanted to have in our home to remind us about the sun and the heat. We were looking for nonconventional shapes tied to tradition,” Drocco, now 79, recalls in a translated response to our questions.

“We created a prototype with a shaped polyurethane base. We finished it by applying a layer with dimples that I had found as sound-absorbing material among some construction tools. The green varnish ‘leather’ reminded me of a prickly thornless cactus,” the designer continues. “It was immediately welcomed as an element between nature and artifice that paired well with the other materials Gufram produced.”

gufram cactus
A super-rare American export model of the cactus made for collector Charles Stendig.
Courtesy R & Company

Not only has the piece, which Mello, the stylish saguaro’s co-creator, now 77, describes as “a design object but also a sculpture,” aged incredibly well, it has also been through a variety of color iterations over the decades. The first, according to R & Company’s Evan Snyderman, was an American version made for Charles Stendig, whose legendary New York City showroom was the first to specialize in modern European design, that has since become a “holy grail” among design collectors.

“It is that 1970s beige and a slightly different form. It is hard with a flocked surface,” Snyderman explains. “They didn’t do well with time. They tended to crack, break, and disintegrate into dust. Only two of them survived.” (One is currently featured in “Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection” exhibition on view at Yale University).

gufram cactus
Maurizio Cattelan’s winking take on Cactus, this one called God.
Courtesy Gufram

But the variations didn’t end there. Red and black versions debuted in 2010; a “Metacactus” with orangey caps topping its zaftig tentacles followed in 2012. The artist Maurizio Cattelan, with his creative co-conspirator Pierpaolo Ferrari, flanked the Cactus’s base with two white eggs in their God version, introduced in 2013. Three years later, a Le Bleu limited edition homage to France sold out in just three days, and three years after that, Paul Smith reimagined the stylish succulent in a trio of “psychedelic” colors. And today, in time for its big five-0, Gufram will unveil the next iteration of this pianti grasse, a collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation.

gufram cactus
Cactus is celebrating turning 50 years young by teaming up with the Andy Warhol Foundation.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc .

It’s hard to recall any design object that has had quite so many lives, that is still in production using an original mold, and finished completely by hand in a process that takes four to five weeks. “I think it’s a charming piece of furniture. You laugh every time,” notes Stendig, now 97, when reached by phone at his New York City apartment, where he lives sans cactus due to space issues. “Who doesn’t love a cactus? They’re the coolest things. Nobody doesn’t like it,” enthused Snyderman, who acquired the seven-inch original rubber model from Drocco; it now occupies a place of honor on his desk.

Mello, for his part, tells us he has the Radiant version (a limited edition in collaboration with Ordovas Gallery, introduced in 2017) in his studio; Guido Drocco has “personally collected all artists’ proofs in various colors, which I move throughout the different rooms in my home.” While Drocco has no designs on a redesign, Franco admitted he would be open to putting his creative stamp on just one more version—“a metal casting….in bronze”—creating perhaps the ultimate design trophy.

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