The great figures of Italian design

If modern design had to have a nationality, it would definitely be Italian… After the Second World War, Italy provided a fertile ground for the development of a flourishing furniture industry. How did it do this? Thanks to an explosive cocktail of craftsmanship and industry. At the same time, the country’s most brilliant architects tried their hand at industrial design, reinventing a dialogue between art and industry. And so it was that small, often family-run, industrial companies exported the Italian “style” around the world. From the beginning of the 1950s to the end of the 1980s, Italy experienced a golden age in which artists and industry worked together. We propose to illustrate this with 6 great figures of Italian design, to which we must add the talent of great publishers.

Gio Ponti (1891-1979) is the key figure of modern Italian design. An architect, designer and painter, he played a considerable role in the development of Italian design. He created iconic pieces of post-war design, such as the Leggera and Superleggera chairs, but it is above all his contribution to the advent of prestigious institutions and events that gave impetus to the intellectual and artistic life of his time that makes him indispensable. He was responsible for the creation of the famous international magazine Domus in 1928, which is considered the bible of design and architecture and still exists today. He was also the founder of the ” Compasso d’Oro ” award in 1954, one of the most influential and longest-running international product design awards. He also actively contributed to the recognition of the Milan Triennale (1923) and trained several generations of the most talented designers…

A few years ago, the publisher Taschen reissued all issues of Domus in 12 reference volumes. Here, a double page of the magazine in the 1930s.
Double page of the Domus magazine in the 1930s. Gio Ponti was the director of Domus for many years, with an interlude, until 1979.
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The famous “Zizi” monkey, a toy created by the artist Bruno Munari, which won thefirst edition of the Compasso d’Oro in 1954.
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The Pirelli Tower in Milan, an emblematic architectural building designed by Gio Ponti and the engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, from 1956 to 1960

The Castiglioni brothers (Achille: 1918-2002, Pier Giacomo: 1913-1968) infused post-war Italian design with a kind of “quiet timelessness”, designing elegant and, above all, functional furniture. Not giving in to various fashions, their style is distinguished by the search for great sobriety. Until Pier Giacomo’s untimely death, they produced a large number of objects in the 1950s and 1960s for industrial publishers such as Flos (lighting specialists) and Zanotta (home furnishings). Achille Castiglioni won no less than 9 Compasso d’Oro awards.

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Arco floor lamp, designed by Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Flos, 1962. One of the most beautiful modern lights with a timeless look… The marble base contrasts with the stainless steel support.
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Snoopy” design table lamp, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni in 1967 for Flos. The “Snoopy” has an unmistakable look, an emblematic piece of the two brothers’ collaboration with Flos.

Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) is perhaps the most renowned Italian designer still in France and in the world today. His popularity is due to his protean talents, which have allowed him to touch on everything: industrial objects, furniture, ceramics, graphic design and, of course, architecture, since he graduated from the Polytechnic School of Turin in 1939. His career was marked by his collaboration with Poltronova, Olivetti, for whom he designed the famous Valentine typewriter, and the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres. Avant-garde, even radical, he exhibited in 1972 at MoMA during the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, prototypes of container furniture on casters illustrating the evolution of lifestyles. In the early 1980s, he founded the Memphis movement and invented a colourful language.

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Glass vases, design Ettore Sottsass, 1982. Memphis edition 1984. Sottsass’s unbridled creativity and taste for totemic creations are evident. Ettore Sottsass had an innate art of ceramics and glass, which saw him blowing glass in Murano in the 1990s for the famous Venini glassworks.
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Valentine red typewriter, design & concept: Ettore Sottsass for Olivetti, 1969. A commercial failure at the time of its release, this light and portable machine has since become a cult item, considered one of the defining designs of the 20th century. Was Sottsass designing too avant-garde a product at the time?

Joe Colombo (1930-1971) was the shooting star of Italian design. He died prematurely of a heart attack at the age of 41, and during his 20 years of activity he revolutionised design and the forms of the individual home. In the 1960s, he developed the concepts of modular furniture and “living cells”. As an avant-garde designer, he kept up with the times and designed transportable furniture. His seats, such as the extraordinary Tube Chair, lamps, shelves and storage furniture, such as the famous Chariot Bobby (1970), are distinguished by their modularity and flexibility. Joe Colombo was a workaholic and a visionary…

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Armchair or chaise-longue model Tube Chair, design Joe Colombo for Flexform, 1969. A seat that is a concept in itself: designed with 4 modular cylinders of different sizes, and thought for a nesting storage. The 4 tubes are connected to each other by metal hooks, and different configurations are possible depending on the desired seating position. The cover is made of bi-elastic fabric. Reissued by Cappellini since 2017, the Tube Chair is a vintage design myth!
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The Tube Chair was designed to be stored in a canvas bag.
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Joe Colombo, drawings for the design of the Personal Container, 1964.
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Joe Colombo, Personal Container, 1964. A transportable wooden container containing a “mobile” living unit with a wardrobe, a record player and radio, a full bar, a small book shelf, and a rack for newspapers and records…
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Joe Colombo, sketchboard for the creation of the Multichair model. Research into flexible and modular seating, in the image of an era in which lifestyles are changing…

Another great figure from the golden age of Italian design: Gae Aulenti (1927-2012). A graduate in architecture from the Milan Polytechnic in 1953, Gae Aulenti, like Gio Ponti, played an important role in the intellectual and architectural life of her country, collaborating for 10 years (1955-1965) with the avant-garde magazine Casabella Continuità. The author of furniture pieces that became bestsellers, such as the Pipistrello lamp, she quickly made her mark in a very male-dominated field, architecture. She is an architect, a designer, an intellectual, but also a teacher, first at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice, then at the Politecnico in Milan. As a scenographer, she is known for rehabilitating old buildings into museums. One of her major projects was the initial interior design of the Musée d’Orsay (1980-1986) when it was transformed from a former railway station into a museum devoted to Western art from 1848 to 1914.

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Pipistrello lamp, design by Gae Aulenti for the publisher Martinelli Luce, 1965. A mythical lamp with an organic design inspired by the wings of a bat (“pipistrello” in Italian) available in several sizes and colours.
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The Orsay station before and after its transformation. Under the direction of Gae Aulenti, a team of scenographers and architects succeeded in creating a unified presentation within a great diversity of volumes… A successful challenge!
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Interior of the Musée d’Orsay. Gae Aulenti played on the homogeneity of the materials used (stone covering on the floor and walls) to respond to the disproportionate volume of the old station.

In addition to these 6 great personalities of Italian design, we should add another player: the publishing houses and and industrialists who have made its development possible. For example, the very old company Poltrona Frau, founded in Turin in 1912 by Renzo Frau, which quickly propelled the brand to the top of the high-end furniture symbol of “made in Italy” know-how. Another key reference reference: Kartell, created in 1949 by Julio Castelli, which has constantly which has constantly innovated in the use of plastic materials. Joe Colombo has for the Milanese publisher the Chaise Universale (1967), considered to be the first chair moulded entirely in plastic! It is impossible not to mention the publisher Cassina, which has one of the richest catalogues of of furniture in the history of design

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Sangirolamo walnut bookcase, designed by Michele De Lucchi & Achille Castiglioni for Poltrona Frau, 2006. In its recent history, Poltrona Frau continues to develop projects with top designers.
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Universale chair, designed by Joe Colombo for Kartell, 1967. An emblematic piece in the history of vintage design.
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Superleggera 699 chair, designed by Gio Ponti for Cassina, 1957. A must-have of modern design with a timeless elegance. A “light” appearance due to the thin triangular section of the legs

François Boutard