Elio Martinelli: the Italian master of lighting

In 2018, the renowned Martinelli Luce company, a benchmark of Italian design in the world of lighting, celebrated Elio Martinelli (1921-2004), its brilliant creator, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Cobra lamp. Elio Martinelli was the man who, from the 1960s onwards, established the brand as one of the references of post-war Italian design. Martinelli Luce owes much to its founder, who created lamps that have become icons of vintage design. Here is a look at some of the Italian designer’s most emblematic models and the style he infused into his pieces.

View of the “Elio Martinelli a la Martinelli Luce” exhibition at the 2018 Milan Triennale, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Cobra lamp
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Elio Martinelli was born in 1921 in Lucca, a beautiful walled city in Tuscany, located on the Serchio River, between Florence and Pisa. After graduating as a set designer from the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Elio Martinelli began his career in his father’s lighting company (Plinio) and already asserted a certain independence, working independently on interior projects for restaurants, hotels and shops. His stage design studies help him to design lighting for different types of interiors. Although he has not studied design or architecture, he knows how to create stories and moods around objects.

©️ Atelier Germain
Elio Martinelli

Elio Martinelli has set up shop in a basement studio in Piazza Bernardini in Lucca. A precocious talent, Elio Martinelli decided to strike out on his own and founded his company, Martinelli Luce, in 1950. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the lighting designer made a name for himself in the booming Italian furniture industry. Just think that at that time Martinelli’s Italian contemporaries were Ettore Sottsass, Marco Zanuso, Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Franco Albini, Joe Colombo, Enzo Mari!

Elio Martinelli will considerably mark the Italian design of the 60s by conceiving a series of luminaries which have in common a great creativity and the use of new techniques. In 1960, he designed the Bolla ( Italian for ” bubble” ) ceiling light, which evokes a drop forming on the ceiling. The designer designed the body of the luminaire in methacrylate, which gave it a delicate, satin finish. Then, in 1962, he designed the Globo ceiling lamp, which resembles a perfectly spherical half-ball, evoking a globe emerging from the ceiling.

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Globo ceiling lamp, designed by Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1962

After his first successes marked by a sensual and elegant design, Martinelli will definitively enter the legend of Italian and international design by designing 2 desk lamps that have become cult, and by agreeing to publish a model with improbable shapes that will become a worldwide best-seller. The year was 1965. Gae Aulenti (1927-2012), a 38 year-old established designer, entrusted the plans for her creation, a lamp with shapes reminiscent of a bat, to the Italian master. Who else could create and publish such a unique piece? Seduced, Elio Martinelli said yes and the career of the famous Pipistrello lamp (” bat ” in Italian) was launched…

Pipistrello adjustable lamp, design Gae Aulenti for Martinelli Luce, 1965. Telescope in enamelled stainless steel, diffuser in white opaline methacrylate. A unique look, an iconic piece of vintage design!

Pipistrello lamp top view, design Gae Aulenti for Martinelli Luce, 1965

In the same year, Elio Martinelli designed a lamp with a very refined look that evokes a snake, hence its name: Serpiente. For this lamp, the maestro refined his model by observing the movement of animals. three years later, he did it again with the emblematic Cobra lamp, which once again evokes the sinuous curve of a snake, with a design that is as pure as ever, combined with great ingenuity: the steel base of the lamp is connected to the upper part by a central joint that allows 360° rotation.

Serpiente lamp, design Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1965

Other models were gradually added to the Martinelli Luce catalogue. Elio Martinelli’s creative genius is expressed wonderfully in lamps, wall lights, ceiling lights and suspensions, with an eye for detail and the desire to produce soft, adjustable light. Examples include the Tornado suspension lamp, the Gomito wall or table lamp, the Foglia, Elmetto, Ruspa and Flex lamps. Elio Martinelli sometimes gives his creations a poetic twist, as with the Le Rondini wall lamp (1984) or the Nuvole Vagabonde S suspension lamp (1998).

Tornado suspension lamp, designed by Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1960s. Interlocking steel strips join a central rod. A sculpture with a geometric configuration that emits a soft,diffused light
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Gomito table lamp, design by Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1967. Simplicity and aesthetics
Gomito wall lamp, designed by Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1967.
Elmetto table lamp in situation, design Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1976
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Metal LED wall lamp Le Rondini, design Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1984
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Nuvole Vagabonde S suspension lamp, design Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1998. Diffuser in opalising methacrylate. Composed of 20 petals, the suspension evokes an inverted flower, deliciously poetic…
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Nuvole Vagabonde S suspension lamp in situation, design Elio Martinelli for Martinelli Luce, 1998

How to define Elio Martinelli’s style? He is a designer with a passion for geometric shapes and spherical curves. And above all he loves sobriety. His design is also marked by the observation of nature and animals. Elio Martinelli’s style can be said to represent the golden age of Italian design, characterised by an organic geometry that is both rationalist and expressive. Moreover, he did not hesitate to experiment with new materials, such as methacrylate, which he developed in the 1960s.

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Mico table lamp, design: Elio Martinelli & Marc Sadler, 2003. Chrome-plated metal base and diffuser in transparent white satin methacrylate
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Mico table lamps, design: Elio Martinelli & Marc Sadler, 2003
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Elica table lamps, design by Brian Sironi for Martinelli Luce

Despite the death of its founder in 2004, Martinelli Luce continues to embody the elegance of Italian design through its many collaborations with contemporary designers who respect the company’s DNA. Among those who have and continue to participate in the success of the brand: Angelo Micheli, Marc Sadler, Brian Sironi, Studio 4P1B, Karim Rashid, Neil Poulton, …

©️ Martinelli Luce
Toogle wall lamp in situation, design Neil Poulton for Martinelli Luce, 2020

Emiliana Martinelli (1949), Elio’s daughter, has taken over the family business. For many years, she has been the president of the group, wearing two hats: manager and designer, as well as artistic director of the company. As a designer, her talent is well known, with multiple awards obtained for the models she has created for Martinelli Luce. The history of Martinelli Luce continues to be written…

©️ Martinelli Luce
Circular pol light rings (in suspension or ceiling), design Emiliana Martinelli for Martinelli Luce

François Boutard

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