Dons of Design

Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni

A look at the thinking behind a number of lights created by Achille Castiglioni, in many cases alongside his brother and chief collaborator, Pier Giacomo. All the lights were created in the three decades that immediately followed the Second World War. These designs are still produced today by Italian manufacturer Flos.

When it comes to design and indeed writing about design, context is everything. Looking back at the work of talents from the past, such as Achille Castiglioni and his brother Pier Giacomo, who are both widely acknowledged as greats of 20th Century industrial design, it feels important to glean something from their story that has relevance to the world we live in today. A world which is currently reeling from the effects of an unprecedented global pandemic. It’s a time of great uncertainty, but also of new opportunities. It seems that many designers are starting to ask serious questions about the role design has been playing in modern societies and whether that role could in fact be of more value to human-kind. So what, if anything, is there to learn from the Castiglioni brothers?

As well as the Castiglioni Foundation, the organisation set up to look after the extensive family archive after Achille’s death in 2002, a good resource to research their work is actually the 2006 Phaidon Design Classics books of 999 Objects, which has no less than twenty-three different products by Achille and Pier Giacomo dotted through its pages. Ordered chronologically, the book gives a good sense of both the historical and cultural context in which their products were created. The brothers played a vital role in the development of the post-war Italian industry, which was intent on investing in low-tech objects of aesthetic appeal which would be cost effective to manufacture and easy to export. The Luminator floor lamp (1954) is a direct result of this type of brief. It’s simple, structurally sound, utilises new technology from the time (the latest reflective tungsten bulb) and is resolutely minimalist in style. It was a notable success for industry and was exported in large numbers.

"Delete, delete, delete and at the end find the ‘core aspect of the design'"

Achille Castiglioni
Luminator floor lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, 1954. (Flos)

The Luminator displays a key feature of the Castiglionis’ work – their seemingly relaxed approach to borrowing ideas from other designers, often re-interpreting them for their own purpose. In this case they borrowed the idea from a design of the same name by Pietro Chiesa, who had created a similar standing lamp in 1932. One can only assume that designers of this era were less concerned with copyright (modern Copyright Law only came into being in Britain in June 1957) and were perhaps more willing to share ideas, or to borrow from each other. It has long been argued that aggressive copyright laws (like those currently in place) are actually a barrier to creative innovation, and don’t actually benefit designers as much as they appear. Why make new designs when you can keep making money from the old ones? One wonders whether the generation of designers who were working in the post-war period actually had much greater freedom to pursue the best ideas, without fear of stepping on the toes of other designers or companies. It could be argued that in this moment a more open-source or collaborative approach to designing the material strata around us, would result in a better quality of life for all. Currently, the best designs are often heavily protected by copyright and are therefore prohibitively expensive.

Toio by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni (1962). photocredit: Tommaso Sartori, courtesy of Flos.

The Castiglionis’ industrial design work has largely been categorised into three types of object: “new product”, “ready-made” and “redesigns”. The new products were often focused on utilising emerging technologies. Their infamous Tubino light from 1948 was specifically created to use the new 6-watt fluorescent lighting tube that US company General Electric had just put on the market. This cleverly rationale design expressed one of their core ideas, which is neatly described in the Phaidon Design Classics entry (No.359) as the “belief that design must restructure an object’s form and production process”. It’s easy to understand why the Italian industry, so keen to inject some dynamism and dash in this period, found the work of the Castiglioni brothers so persuasive. The second category is the “ready-made” object, meaning designs that utilised pre-existing components in their manufacture. This idea is beautifully expressed in their Toio lamp from 1962. Part of a series of “ready-made” objects they produced (including the iconic Mezzadro and Sella stools), the light is almost entirely composed of ready-made components; including a 300-watt car reflector bulb and fishing-rod screws. It’s at once beautiful and familiar, which was very much Achille’s intention. The Lampadina from 1972 is another fine example of this approach. It was originally just intended as a gift to guests at a Flos store opening in Turin, but proved so popular (and familiar) that Flos put it into full-scale production soon afterwards. Achille Castiglioni once explained that the reason he liked to utilise items that already existed, was that it gave his work “resonances of previous artefacts so that there is an almost ready-built relationship with the user”.

Bulbo light at the Milan Triennale exhibition in 1957.

The other category of their work was “redesigns”, where an existing design or object would be updated to suit technological developments and the needs of modern life. The importance of the user was never underestimated by the Castiglionis’, which is one of the key reasons why their designs are still in such wide usage; they are so utterly human in conception, function and scale. The Tric chair from 1965 is the classic example of this. The Castiglionis’ took an existing folding chair by Thonet (from 1928), which was out of production, and updated the design with minor amendments to the shape, adding upholstered elements for greater comfort. This wasn’t seen as plagiarism, it was seen as progress. The “ready-made” and the “redesign” approaches were merged in the development of the Bulbo light, which was first designed in 1957 for an exhibition at the XI Triennale in Milan. It was essentially an exercise in celebrating the light bulb itself, and has recently been brought back into production by Flos in an all new LED version. There are many other products not even touched on here; the elegant floor to ceiling adjustable Parentesi light, the much copied and ever enduring Arco lamp, the rippling beauty of the Splugen Brau pendant (designed for the Milan Beer Hall of the same name), and the oversized Taccia, which is another design recently updated by Flos with new, more suitable, modern materials.

"I see around me a professional disease of taking everything too seriously."

Achille Castiglioni

In the work of the Castiglionis’, it’s easy to be impressed by the sheer breadth and beauty of the projects they worked on. Yet perhaps more interesting for us today is that their approach to design was incredibly flexible; steeped in a kind of resourcefulness that will be familiar to those who now argue for a much more responsible use of materials. Add to this their sense of humour and the sheer amount of joy they seemed to imbue in the products they created, and we can start to understand why their designs were both appropriate for the era they lived in, but also why they have ultimately stood the test of time.

Castiglioni Collection