Flos: the luminous genius of Italian design

In 2020, the Italian lighting specialist Flos reissued a modernized version of the Chiara table lamp created in 1969 by designer Mario Bellini. A UFO, one might say, at the time. Bellini had submitted his idea of a lamp delivered in a flatpack, the user having to “assemble” himself the object made of a single sheet of polished stainless steel, to Flos boss Sergio Gandini. An elegant luminaire with its reflector in the shape of a hat cut into 2 parts… An example that demonstrates the avant-gardism of the publisher Flos. This article looks back at the history of the company, which is largely marked by its association with the Castiglioni brothers and which led to the creation of now iconic vintage lamps.

Mario Bellini sitting with the1st prototype of the Chiara
Source : Flos
Flos offers the Chiara in different dimensions: a table lamp or a floor lamp
Source : Flos

At the beginning of the 1960s, the entrepreneur and specialist in the industrial production of furniture, Dino Gavina (1922-2007), was already working with great masters of Italian design such as the Castiglioni brothers (Achille: 1918-2002, Pier Giacomo: 1913-1968) or the Scarpa couple (Tobia: 1935, Afra: 1937-2011). He manufactures furniture in his small factory in Merano under the brand Eisenkeil.

Dino Gavina, portrait
Santi Caleca

Gavina, convinced that furniture from great designers can be mass-produced, is confident in the industry’s ability to produce aesthetic and creative designs. Dino Gavina is especially convinced that the time has come to produce a new generation of lamps, which is why he co-founded Flos in 1962 with Cesare Cassina

In 1963, Sergio Gandini took over the management of Flos and relocated the company to the industrial area of Brescia. If Dino Gavina is at the origin of the creation of Flos, Sergio Gandini is the central figure who will impose Flos as the reference of the Italian design lighting. The Castiglioni brothers, Arfa and Tobia Scarpa are the house’s regular designers. Flos definitely makes a name for itself with the creation of a cult lamp designed by the Castiglioni brothers: the ARCO luminaire.

Sergio Gandini (left) with Achille Castiglioni
Source : Flos
Arco lamp, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Flos, 1962. A pure design: a Carrara marble base that contrasts with the round steel shade. The telescopic reach of the model make the ARCO a singular lamp that has become a cult.
Arco floor lamp, design Pier Giacomo & Achille Castiglioni, 1962. Detail of the top of the floor lamp.

In creating the ARCO lamp, the Castiglioni brothers solved 2 equations: how to have an overhead light without having to pierce the ceiling? And how to work with a fixture that is agile enough to light the center of a desk/table while leaving enough space to move around? This challenge fits well with Flos’ DNA: being able to innovate while offering an aesthetic and poetic solution. In short, to create the unexpected! Flos is becoming a laboratory for testing and innovation ahead of its time.

In 1972, Italian design received international recognition with the exhibition: ” Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at MoMA in New York. The Italian designers impose their vision of a design reflecting a new way of life inherited from the social and cultural movements of 1968. Flos is obviously represented at the event and increases its notoriety which now exceeds the borders. It must be said that in the meantime the publisher has produced some of the most iconic lighting fixtures of Italian design…

1962 is a fruitful year for the Italian editor. Apart from the ARCO lamp project, 2 other luminaries always signed by the Castiglioni brothers and which will be published by Flos are designed. The Toio lamp first of all, which under its allure of fishing rod is avant-gardist for the time. It responds to the wishes of its creators to imagine a long, flexible and manageable lamp that would “almost disappear” from the decor of the room. The Taccia lamp is also an example of a flexible and refined design, but still original and classy. Its dimensions, which make it look like a large projector, are unusual for its time; its look and its usefulness make it an emblematic piece of vintage design.

Taccia lamp installed in an interior with a pure design, how elegant !
Source : Flos

In 1971, Achille Castiglioni continues to innovate for Flos. He conceived with the designer Pio Manzù, the Parentesi lighting system. One or more steel tubes, each carrying a directional spotlight, can be attached to a cable stretched across the ceiling and weighted down to the floor. The Parentesi system can thus be transformed into a suspension, floor lamp or accent lighting. A new success for Achille Castiglioni and Flos which earned them the Compasso d’Oro award in 1979

The famous Snoopy lamp, in reference to the character created by Charles Schulz, another emblematic lamp of the fruitful collaboration between the Castiglioni and Flos (1967).

Flos has found a recipe for success that relies on innovative and functional design with a creative and whimsical touch. In any case, the Italian company likes designers who are able to solve technical problems. In the mid-1980s, Sergio Gandini met the young Philippe Starck and agreed to manufacture one of his projects. Piero Gandini, Sergio’s son, who was just starting out in the company, saw Starck’s potential. In 1991, Flos publishes the lamp Miss Sissi imagined by the French designer, it is a new commercial success

In addition to Philippe Starck, Piero Gardini will continue to open the doors of Flos to great international designers such as the Australian Marc Newson, the English Jasper Morrison, or the German Konstantin Grcic, which the famous brand still does today. Since 2005, Flos is writing a new chapter in its history with the creation of Flos Architectural Lighting, its brand dedicated to professional lighting. Piero Gandini took over the management of Flos in 1999, after the death of his father, before leaving the company for good two years ago, thus ending the Gandini family’s collaboration with Flos.

François Boutard