When US-born Chris Bangle moved from Germany to the tiny Italian village of Clavesana in 2009, he waved goodbye to a 17-year career as Chief of Design for BMW. It was a huge change for him, but his arrival also had an impact on his new neighbours, writes Dany Mitzman.
Fed up with designing cars for the elite, Chris Bangle wanted to create something for everyone, and something more in tune with nature. One idea he hit upon was a bench – a giant one, far bigger than a normal park bench – and together with his wife, Catherine, he set up The Big Bench Community Project.
The project encourages the installation of colourful benches in publicly accessible spots with breathtaking views. When you sit on one, legs dangling beneath you, you feel like a child again and experience the wonders of the world around you with a fresh perspective – that, anyway, is Bangle’s intention.
The benches are also so big that there’s plenty of space to share them, and to interact with friends or strangers.
There are now 19 privately financed benches, thanks to the Bangles’ efforts, many in the Langhe, the hilly area of Piedmont, in north-west Italy, where Clavesana is located. But you won’t find an app with a map to guide you to each location – part of the Big Bench experience is to discover them, and the views they offer, like treasure in a hunt.
Angelo and Daria came from Venice to see the benches, having read about them in the newspaper.
“They’re quite hidden and not that easy to find,” says Angelo.
“I imagined they’d be closer to the road but this is much nicer because you have to seek them out.
“The idea is lovely because you really feel like you become part of the landscape, which is something that doesn’t normally happen. Sitting up here you ask yourself, ‘Why am I so small and out of proportion?’ You know it should be that way but you often take things for granted and think that you drive everything. Up here in this context you question this, and have to admit that you are actually less significant.”
Rinalda doesn’t have far to go to get to the Big Yellow Bench as it stands in the gardens of her family-run farmhouse hotel and restaurant, but most of the time she is too busy to clamber up on to it – in fact this is only the second time she has done it.
“It’s true what people say: when you get up here you feel like a child again. I dream of having the time to sit here, relax and enjoy the view.”
“Not touching the ground with your feet is a strong sensation because it really does take you back to being a child as it’s not normally a sensation you have as an adult when you sit,” says Paolo, sitting beside Chris.
“It’s a very simple concept,” he says. “Contemporary art is often difficult to understand but in this case the emotions are the same for everyone. It’s not like when you say, ‘Ooh, I can see a lion in this,’ and someone else says, ‘I can see a tiger.’ Here it’s the same for everyone, and I think that’s its greatest success.”
This pale blue bench was built by the Italian League of the Deaf from the town of Alba, famous for its truffles.
Corrado and his friends discovered the big benches while out walking and decided, as a community of 40 deaf people, they’d like to construct one. Their group self-financed with the help of other deaf communities – some donations coming from as far afield as Sweden. Many of them put their hand prints underneath the bench in different coloured paint.
Corrado hopes the silence of the place will encourage hearing people to think about what it would be to be deaf.
“This place can be useful for hearing people to come up and try not talking, try signing and understand what it means. And it’s very connected to nature so you can come here and hear nothing,” he says.
He has told his wife he would like his ashes to be scattered here when he dies.
The Big White Bench was built by the Torion Association, from the village of Vezza d’Alba. After clearing the hill of overgrown pine woods, the group discovered the old tower, which had been hidden by the woods. They chose it as the location for their bench.
Situated at the top of a high hill overlooking their village, they financed the bench, a matching picnic table just behind it, street lighting, and a water fountain for thirsty big-bench pilgrims.
The Big Apricot Bench in the village of Costigliole Saluzzo is the most recently built of the 19 big benches. The industrial equipment business owned by eight-year-old Noemi’s grandfather made the bench’s metal frame.
“I like the bench a lot because it’s really high up,” she says.
The Big Blue Bench, is located in the Gallo family vineyard, which dates back to 1795. Their only comment: “Cheers!”