Joe Colombo: a shooting star of post-war Italian design

Lhe Italian designer Joe Colombo is an emblematic figure of post-war Italian and international design. Paradoxically, his name does not necessarily mean much to the general public, yet he is considered one of the most brilliant representatives of modern design. He is little known because his career was short: born in 1930 in Milan, he died of a heart attack at the age of 41. This makes him a myth who lived his life at 100 km/h.

The man was atypical: he was an avid painter, a jazz musician and a skiing competitor in his spare time. At the same time painter (at the beginning), draughtsman, furniture designer, architect, interior designer and designer of futuristic houses, Joe Colombo in only 20 years aligned a phenomenal production with an extraordinary creative energy. A workaholic who left a considerable influence in the golden age of Italian design, a passing comet in the world of design..

Starting his career in the early 1950s by joining the Nuclear Painting Movement founded by Enrico Baj and Sergio d’Angelo in 1951, Colombo produced a series of drawings for a nuclear city (Città nucleare) that prefigured his interest in design. His design career really took off in 1962, when he launched his own design studio in Milan. He contributed to the development of the Italian furniture industry, where manufacturers and designers worked closely together. But his vision went beyond the simple creation of a design object. In tune with his time, marked by the values of freedom and social emancipation, Colombo willingly projected himself into the future, forgetting the past, and renewed the functions of the home and of individual life. He designed flexible, modular and transportable furniture, before proposing real mobile living units in the last years of his life.

Dn such a rich, if short, career, it is difficult to focus on just a few pieces that celebrate the genius of Joe Colombo. After his first pictorial experiments and work on iconoclastic projects, such as the commission he received while still a student for the design of an open-air television presentation system (10th Milan Triennial, 1954), the designer gained recognition in 1962 with the creation of the Acrilica lamp (with his brother Gianni Colombo), published by O-Luce. For this very elegant lamp, which has become a design classic, Colombo was awarded a gold medal at the XIII Triennale in Milan. The Acrilica lamp consists of a C-shaped Plexiglas convector – a curved line that the designer is particularly fond of – and a lacquered metal base containing a neon tube.

Lampe Acrilica

Acrilica Lamp

A fertile designer in the world of lighting, Joe Colombo distinguished himself with several models. His spider lamp from 1965, still produced by O-Luce, proves the designer’s genius for creating functional and dynamic objects. More than a lamp, Spider is a truly innovative system that allows an enamelled reflector to be oriented laterally, vertically or horizontally and adapted to various supports to create lamps, floor lamps, hanging lamps and clip-on lamps. In 1967, Joe Colombo won a Compasso d’Oro and an International Design Award for the spider system.


Spider lamp

Joe Colombo arrives at a pivotal moment in the history of design. A contemporary of Marco Zanusso, Vico Magistretti, Ettore Sottsass, the Castiglioni brothers and Bruno Munari, he was to witness the birth and development of the Italian furniture industry, which was to make Italian design a world reference. Colombo worked “all’italiana”, meaning that he himself invented the technical solutions to adapt new technologies to the function of the object, and not the other way around. This is how he designed the Universale chair in 1965, initially made of aluminium, but later manufactured in ABS plastic and then in polypropylene (1). It was one of the first chairs produced entirely in plastic by the publisher Kartell!


Universal Chair

Inventive, curious to experiment with new materials, Colombo designed a very recognisable chair two years before the famous Universale: the Elda chair. You may love or hate the imposing shape of the seat, but it was the first chair to use large surfaces of plastic-reinforced fibreglass. Colombo borrowed its technology from the naval sector to make it. The self-supporting structure of the seat is placed on a swivel base with an overlay of upholstered cushions covered in leather. With its enveloping upper part, the person sitting in an Elda armchair feels protected, sheltered in his or her “cocoon”.


Elda chair

Colombo was also a visionary, and his own fast-paced life led him to design functional and combinable home furnishings as early as the mid-1960s. In 1964, Joe Colombo developed what he called a ” personal container». The aim was to offer a multifunctional piece of furniture contained in a container that was hinged so that when closed, it was a trunk that was easy to transport. The designer proposes a series of wooden containers, including the Man-Woman-Container, which includes a compartment for personal items, removable mirrors, flexible lamps, electrical outlets for shavers and other utensils, a barometer and thermometer, a calendar and a clock. With a focus on functionality, Colombo incorporates a dressing table in the women’s version of the container that is positioned lower down in a seat, while in the men’s version it is positioned high up in the lid.


Source: / Joe Colombo, Personal Container, 1964. An example of a container with here a wardrobe unit equipped with a record player and radio, a complete bar, an ashtray, a small book shelf, a rack for newspapers and records

The Personal Container already prefigures the future living cells that Colombo would create at the end of his career. Joe Colombo likes things in motion, and his design therefore demands mobility and modularity. The Additional System armchair (1967-1968) masterfully combines these two requirements. It is based on a modular system consisting of 6 vertical elements of different sizes, fixed on aluminium slats. Arranged and expanded in various ways, the system can be used as an armchair, ottoman or sofa. The project was presented at the XIV Milan Triennial in 1968.


Source: / Joe Colombo, Additional Living, 1967. ©

A good example of Joe Colombo’s research into modular furniture can be found in the Bobby trolley, created in 1969. Bobby, with its swivelling tops, is a perfect complement to a design table in an architect’s office. Thanks to its large volume and possible extension, it can also be used in the office or at home. The modular trolley is made of injection-moulded ABS plastic. The careful combination of compartments and its discreet appearance have made it a timeless classic, with Colombo even providing a compartment for storing rolled or tubular plans. Initially manufactured by Bieffeplast, an Italian company specialising in plastics, it is still produced today by B Line. The MoMA in New York has included it in its permanent collection and the Centre Pompidou also has a copy.

Finally, it is difficult to mention Joe Colombo without his inimitable Tube Chair “, designed in 1969, which is perhaps his best-known seat. Four cylinders of different diameters can be assembled in various combinations thanks to steel joints, ranging from a high or short armchair to a deckchair. Sold in a jute bag, the Tube was one of the first examples of furniture that could practically be sold on the shelf!


Boby pedestals and Turbo lounger

Dn addition to being a designer renowned for his creations, Joe Colombo was also a prolific architect… We don’t necessarily know it, but apart from object design, the Italian maestro’s career in the field of interior design and the fitting out of exceptional shops and stands includes more than fifty projects between the end of the 1950s and the early 1970s! Although Colombo initially designed mobile and modular objects for the domestic environment, he thought that the interior environment could follow the same revolution. He therefore set about concentrating all domestic services in particular units, a sort of “monoblock” whose volume could contain everything that was useful to the user. Joe Colombo thus developed a personalised system of organisation of existence: the purely domestic use of furniture was outdated.

Source : / En 1969, Joe Colombo conçoit le Cabriolet Bed, qui doit, selon lui, intégrer toutes les fonctions de la chambre à coucher traditionnelle en une « cellule de nuit » unique et multifonctionnelle.

Source : / In 1969, Joe Colombo designed the Cabriolet Bed, which, according to him, should integrate all the functions of the traditional bedroom into a single, multifunctional “night cell”

This very modern vision of living culminated in 1971 with the presentation of the Total Furnishing Unit, a highly flexible and dynamic living unit that Colombo presented in the legendary exhibition ” Italy: the New Domestic Landscape“at MoMA in New York. Together with a handful of Italian colleagues(Ettore Sottsass, Gae Aulenti, Mario Bellini, Alberto Rosselli, Gaetano Pesce), Colombo was given carte blanche to present his vision of the modern home. With his Total Furnishing Unit, he has taken his idea of a self-contained living unit with maximum flexibility to its logical conclusion. The unit is a compact block of individual, combined cells, which Colombo called: Kitchen, Cupboard, Bed and Privacy and Bathroom. Each cell could be separated from the block and installed in the room, but could also be used in conjunction with other elements of the block, creating a number of combinations.


Source: / Joe Colombo, Total Furnishing Unit Project, sketch

The unit surprises with its pop-yellow colour schemes combined with the most sophisticated technology of the time. For example, the water supply to the kitchen and bathroom is provided by pipes hidden in the ceiling. Coloured lights and other technical devices completed this futuristic living unit. Unfortunately, Joe Colombo never saw the final presentation of his project at MoMA in 1972. He died suddenly on his 41st birthday on 30 July 1971. He was still working on the plan and colours and it was his assistant, Ignazia Favata, who completed the project.


Source: / Joe Colombo, Total Furnishing Unit, 1971-1972. View of the room with 2 beds out


Source: / Joe Colombo, Total Furnishing Unit, 1971, kitchen cell, ©

En barely twenty years of career, Joe Colombo leaves behind a protean work. His modern and futuristic creations bear witness to an era of profound industrial and societal change. As such, reference to his work can be used as a guideline to address the major trends that marked post-war and 1960s design. Joe Colombo, better than anyone else, embodied the dynamic spirit of the sixties. With hindsight, one wonders what direction(s) this free and creative spirit would have taken in contemporary design..

(1 )The Universalechair was successively made of ABS (1965), polyamide (Nylon, 1971) and, finally, polypropylene from 1974.

Written by François Boutard