A Rainbow of Big Benches in Piedmont
The Big Bench Community Project
Thanks to Chris Bangle, founder of the Big Bench Community Project, colorful big benches have been sprinkled around the Piedmont region. These unique installations have become a popular attraction for tourists, as well as for locals. The larger than life benches allow visitors to slow down, sit and get back in touch with their inner child whilst marveling at the picturesque landscapes in the region.
So, who is the man behind the Big Benches in Piedmont?
Chris Bangle was born in Ravenna, Ohio. After attending the University of Wisconsin and graduating from the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, California), Bangle began his career at Opel in 1981, and then 4 years later moved on to Fiat in Turin, where he designed the brazen Coupe. In 1992, he was named the first American Chief of Design at BMW. His daring designs have helped BMW become the global leader in premium car sales and brought in legions of new fans, spurring rivals to follow suit in emulating this distinctive style.
After leaving BMW in February 2009, he founded Chris Bangle Associates s.r.l. (CBA) at a centuries old Borgata in the hills above Clavesana – a famed center for wine in the Piedmont region. Today, as the Managing Director of CBA, Chris Bangle leads a team of designers and engineers. The open spaces and beautiful vineyards around the Borgata encourage the imagination. Now let’s discover how Chris’ imagination helped bring a bit of color and childlike escape to the Piedmont region with the big benches, as well as where to find them…
Interview by Denise Otero with Founder Chris Bangle
The Big Bench Community Project (BBCP) started in 2010 with the first red bench installed in your home town, Clavesana. Since then, how many Big Benches have been added in the Piedmont region and did you expect them to become so popular and in demand?
84 of the Big Benches have been built to date across Italy and even into the beautiful scenery of Scotland, a phenomenon that is growing in spread and intensity year by year. 68 of them are now in Piedmont. Of course, there is no concept of “saturation,” so whether the pace slows down locally or is overtaken by more distant enthusiasts who want the experience in their own area it remains to be seen.
Eight or so years ago when we made one of the first Big Bench presentations to interested groups, I included a fictious map of the world with dots representing benches spread from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and Capetown, and on every continent; each one spreading peace and joy! At the rate we are going it looks like “life may imitate art” and the visionary map may become a reality!
The first time I came across a Big Bench in Piedmont, it reminded me of the American Comedian Lily Tomlin’s character Edith Ann – where the adult comedian played a 5-year-old girl sitting in an oversized rocking chair to make Tomlin seem childlike. Is this where your inspiration for the Big Bench came from?
As we say in print, the idea of a giant oversized park bench is nothing new; I have seen many in my time years ago and even had the chance to sit on a few. I liked the idea but found them always done in a rushed “minimalist” manner that took away from the iconic sense of “benchiness” that I believed needed to “suspend your disbelief”––help you really feel like you are an “Edith Ann”- like a child dangling your legs over a real park bench (of course I know the character).
My wife and I had always imagined that the point of land where one of our vineyard’s ends would be a great place for sunset watching––if only we had the right perch. When we finally did move to Clavesana in the winter of 2009 and unpacked the refrigerator, I suddenly had a huge piece of cardboard to work with—big enough to layout the Big Bench as you see it now in full scale. My collaborator was Francesco Ferrero, our wine growing farmer-neighbour who is also handy with a welding kit. Thanks to his insistence I modified the spiral on the side to become the familiar segmented one (I’m sure the many bench builders who came later are happy it didn’t remain the perfectly circular one I first imagined!) and between the two of us we spent many happy afternoons sanding wood and painting together. Somehow the “life” that every bench has in it is the fruit of such collaborations between friends; I see that in the happy faces of the many bench-builders I have met.
After we installed it with the help of more neighbours it soon became apparent that we weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the view––or the sensation of being like a child again. Francesco’s wife Teresa supplied the Piemontese poem that says as much, and soon we had quite an attraction on that far corner of the vineyard!
What personal fulfillment have you experienced from launching the Big Bench Community Project? What is the overall mission of the project?
The mission of the BBCP is to expand positive aspects to that the Big Benches bring to people (both builders and visitors) and communities (mainly tourism but also a great dose of local pride) by facilitating and curating their distribution and construction. We pledge to do this as a non-profit organization and forbid the use of public monies in any way in the construction of the benches themselves. But we also look for ways to generate local revenues with Big Bench related items and are committed to give back as much as possible––here I mean through financial grants––directly to the communities that host Big Benches. From the sale of jewellery we have designed, or gadgets like key chain bottle openers, or logo-adorned caps and sweatshirts, and of course the popular Big Bench Passports, we return all the money that does not go into their production (locally) or to the sellers (also local businesses) into a pot that has allowed us to give about 1000€ each year to a community that hosts a bench for a project they propose that involves art and children.
We share the design of the Big Bench freely, but we take the approval and curation responsibilities very seriously. Besides carefully safeguarding that no public money is involved in the bench building, we oversee the site choices with great focus on the safety and enjoyability of the user experience; the local approvals needed, as well as the visual correctness of the planned location. Here we give much attention to historical or religious intrusion-avoidance; as well as a host of all-around “will the bench be a good and welcome neighbour?” type of factors. Many builders and host-communities can attest to the (often frustrating I am sure) stubbornness that we show to ensure that only the best possible site choices are approved (or maybe none at all)––but in the end the alternatives that they are motivated to find always turn out to be so much better than the “easy” first proposals they had begun with.
What do you hope people feel or take away from the experience of sitting on a Big Bench?
That the world is a wonderful place to share; that peace and joy and inspiration can be had so simply and easily that there must be other ways to find it; that their own “backyard” of local areas are full of surprises and that places they never would have thought to visit they are now happy to have had the Big Bench to bring them too. Of course, we want to share that the idea we adults all have kids inside us, our inner child looking for a chance to be in awe of themselves and the view in the same innocent manner that real little kids feel when they climb up on something bigger than themselves. We want the builders of the Big Benches to be proud when they sit on their handiwork and see how many strangers appreciate that they and their friends––private citizens––made something by themselves for the broader public to use too.
How many new Big Benches are planned to be inaugurated in 2019 and beyond? We will probably reach 90 before the end of 2019, and I am sure we will pass 100 before long.
There are a few Big Benches in the Lombardy region in Italy, will there be more popping up outside of the Piedmont region and/or internationally? Where will they be located? It is totally up to the Big Bench Builders, we in the BBCP only approve and curate the proposals that people bring to us. I can say that requests have come in from the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Wales, and Lebanon, just to name a few “outside Italy” places.
How can someone request a Big Bench for their local community? How is the bench location approved and funded?
Anyone interested in making a bench I would ask to please first go to the BBCP website where it is all explained and there are the right forms to fill out. As I said the building costs must be by private donations or through volunteers and the site approval is not so simple––it is best to come with alternatives already in mind. Communities may offer the land for use but of course not the building costs. We are concerned that the long term upkeep of the benches are secured and so there will be many questions about how you intend to re-paint the bench every two years or so—it is not so much the human damage you need to paint over but the effects of the relentless sun and weather that needs to be addressed.
Please remember also that we ourselves are a non-profit volunteer organization that works as fast as we can to keep people satisfied with their requests––but within the limits of our day-jobs.
Originally from Ohio, you’re a long way from home; how did you choose Piedmont as your new home? What do you enjoy most about your life here and how is it different from living in the USA?
I moved to Europe right out of college in 1981 and came to Italy shortly after we were married in 1985. Our son was born in Torino, and when it came time to think about making a new business all our own, we were drawn back to where we really began as a family. To describe the differences between living in America or Germany would take a book but it was an enjoyable adventure every step of the way. It took us 5 years of searching to find the right place and now that we are here, I can truly say (paraphrasing Nietzsche’s remark about himself and Torino) that “Clavesana is the only place where we are possible”.
Can you share some of your favorite places to visit or things to do in Piedmont?
I’m not such a good guide but if you start with a tour of the Big Benches in Piedmont, I’m sure after even a few visits, each of your readers will be able to write their own guide book of special places! Thank you again for your interest in the Big Bench and in our work at the Big Bench Community Project. I would also like to use the opportunity to thank my collaborators and team for all the hard work they put into this dream we all share.
“Maybe one day we will see a Bench of Peace in a truly troubled area of the world, where the possibility of sitting, looking at things from a fresher perspective, and feeling like a child again, is desperately needed”. – Chris Bangle
Visit the Big Bench Community Project website for more information about the initiative.
Where to Find the Big Benches in Piedmont
Looking for where to find Big Benches in Piedmont? Visit the following link for the Big Bench Map or download the App on their website.
Follow the Big Bench Community Project on Facebook to stay up to date on events and new Big Bench locations.