The Italian Designers Who Revolutionized the Industry

Italian design, sleek and sensual, hit the world stage in the 1960s and 1970s and has never quit the spotlight.

THE 1960S AND ’70S BROUGHT an air of freedom to the masters of the Italian design world. Thanks to the postwar economic boom and a concentration of artisanal know-how, Italy’s furniture and decoration industry showed dazzling growth after World War II. Marked by sensuality and the spirit of la dolce vita, most of their creations have passed on to posterity, thanks in part to the sometimes sulfurous films of the time.

Gae Aulenti, Ettore Sottsass, Gaetano Pesce, the Castiglioni brothers and Gio Ponti were all featured in MoMA’s major 1972 exhibition, “Italy: the New Domestic Landscape,” which brought to light the revolutionary nature of Italian design and the golden age of the 1960s: a breeding ground for timeless objects that are now part of the collective imagination.

Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s “Arco” lamp, produced by Flos.
Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s “Arco” lamp, produced by Flos.

Achille (1918-2002) and
Pier Giacomo Castiglioni (1913-1968)

Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni left their mark on history through their incredibly diverse creations. Believers in “form follows function” and pioneers of the “less is more” school of thought, their collaboration began in 1944 when Achille joined Pier Giacomo’s design and architecture studio.

The postwar maestro Achille was the first to say that a designer should not feel obliged to create forms ex nihilo but could also look at existing pieces and adapt them for contemporary uses. This “redesign” method became his trademark. In 1957, he designed two iconic stools: “Sella,” made of a bicycle saddle attached to a steel rod, and “Mezzadro,” consisting of a tractor seat fixed on a bent steel base. In the tra- dition of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Castiglioni repurposed objects and changed their function. In 1962, the clever “Toio” lamp was made from a car headlight, a fishing rod and a counterweight. Said the designer: “The user and the object have a relationship of reciprocal curiosity, a relationship of complicity born of everyday use, and even a certain affection.”

The same year, the duo invented what would become their greatest success: the “Arco” lamp. With its unusual dimensions (95 inches high × 78.75 inches wide) and Carrara marble base, this attention-getter left the traditional ceiling lamp in the dustbin and became a design icon thanks to its appearances in such films as Diamonds Are Forever, in which it sheds light on Sean Connery himself.

The Gio Ponti Archives, housed in the designer’s former office in Milan.
The Gio Ponti Archives, housed in the designer’s former office in Milan.

Gio Ponti (1891-1979)

Gio Ponti was an architect, designer, painter, writer, teacher and editorial director of the famous international magazine Domus, founded in 1928, which promoted a whole generation of designers. French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, a great admirer and collector of Ponti’s work, notes that “in addition to being a builder, he was a well-rounded human being, an artistic artisan, an interior designer and a creator of porcelain, ceramics and furniture.”

In the context of the rediscovery of such traditional materials as glass, ceramics and wrought iron, associated with his interest in mass production, Gio Ponti created in 1957 the most famous chair in the history of design: the “Superleggera” (Superlight), which he made with fishermen’s materials – wood (ash) and rattan. His famous “Distex” chair has a sloping back and armrests that are a powerful invitation to take a nap. He was an early advocate of the “Italian line,” a carefree yet luxurious approach to the art of living captured by Federico Fellini’s virtuoso camerawork in La Dolce Vita in 1960.

Between 1960 and ’65, Ponti showed off his lifestyle brand with designs for the Villa Nemazee in Tehran and one of Italy’s most famous hotels, the Parco dei Principi in Sorrento. Both are total works of art. The famous “Ponti Blue,” an immersive chromatic solution in blue and white, was developed by Ponti for the Sorrento project. It consisted of 30 ceramic tiles that, when assembled in different ways, created a hundred different floor patterns, making each room unique.

The postmodern generation, led by Ettore Sottsass, revered Ponti and nicknamed him “Papà Ponti” in recognition of the major role he played in freeing the imagination of Italian designers.

Ettore Sottsass's Casa Lana
Ettore Sottsass's Casa Lana

Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007)

Ettore Sottsass, the son of an architect, was born in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1917 and obtained a degree in architecture in Turin in 1939. Two trips were foundational for his work. In 1961, he went to India, where the colors, the way of life and the relationship with death changed his vision of the world. In 1962, while living in California, he discovered Pop Art, which questioned consumer society, and met the rebel poets of the Beat Generation, who were searching for a new spirituality. His style was considered radical because it redefined the parameters of “good taste.”

Sottsass and an engineer from Olivetti designed a series of flagship products inspired by Sottsass’s love of Pop Art and Beat culture. “When I was young, everyone was talking about functionalism,” he said. “That’s not enough. Design can also be sensual and exciting.”

On February 14, 1969, he released the “Valentine,” a carmine-red typewriter that would become famous the same year when used by the sultry typist played by Brigitte Bardot in the film Les femmes (The Women). His “matrix trip” to India inspired the series “The Ceramics of Darkness” (1963) and “The Ceramics of Light” (1964). Eastern culture also inspired him to design decorative objects that could be used as tools for meditation. In 1966, Sottsass made the “Large Aphrodisiac Vase,” a human-sized, glazed-ceramic sculpture.

In 1970, he put reflections to work in what has now become a cult piece: the “Ultrafragola” mirror, truly an object for contemplation. Shaped to suggest long wavy hair, the fiberglass structure glows with pink neon lights that change the look of a room when they are turned on.

A selection of Gaetano Pesce’s work, on display at The Future Perfect gallery, Los Angeles.
A selection of Gaetano Pesce’s work, on display at The Future Perfect gallery, Los Angeles.

Gaetano Pesce (born 1939)

Born in La Spezia, Italy, in 1939, Gaetano Pesce studied architecture at the University of Venice. The designer is obsessed with finding materials and forms that allow standardized production of unique pieces. In 1969, he designed “Up,” an armchair with a shape reminiscent of a prehistoric fertility goddess that, although mass-produced, is still unique. It is delivered as a compressed disc, which, when unwrapped, expands like a sponge into its bulbous forms, with an attached footstool shaped like a ball and chain. The “Up” series immediately became a design icon.

In spite of its cheery appearance, the chair comes with a serious message: “Despite themselves, women have always been prisoners of the prejudice and fears of men. Along these lines, I liked the idea of giving this armchair a feminine shape with a ball and chain, the traditional image of the prisoner,” he said. Pesce’s political convictions have always been progressive, as have his manufacturing techniques. In the early 1970s, thanks to materials such as expanded polyurethane, Pesce was able to create unique pieces like “Up” that could be mass-produced from the same mold.

The candleholders from the “Candelabro” series were made of another flexible material, resin, which takes on a unique shape when it hardens, once again creating one-of-a-kind pieces from mass production. In 1972, each “Golgotha” chair, another major design by Pesce, was made of resin-soaked fiberglass cloth, which also allowed chance and imperfection to become an integral part of the final design of a mass-produced product.

Gae Aulenti's designs in Olivetti's showroom in Paris, 1966
Gae Aulenti's designs in Olivetti's showroom in Paris, 1966

Gae Aulenti (1927-2012)

Italian design underwent a revolution just over half a century ago, but women remained few and far between in the field. One name managed to stand out among this fraternity: Gae Aulenti. Known for her free spirit, “Gae,” as her peers called her, studied architecture in Milan. She became the champion of the Neo-Liberty movement, which rejected the dogma of modernism. A fervent defender of architecture that is mindful of history, she was careful to build for the future while respecting the past. “More than anything, we were trying to recognize our own identity,” Aulenti once said.

Her first design success was a rocking chair: the “Sgarsul” (1962), meaning “street urchin” in the Neapolitan dialect. With its sleek shape and chic materials, this piece offered a first peek at Aulenti’s future design direction. Her famous “Pipistrello” lamp (1965) was a true masterpiece.

During the decade of plastic and bright color, Aulenti scored a hit with this trib- ute to the Art Nouveau style popular in early-20th-century Europe. Despite its borrowings from the past, the “Pipistrello” breaks all the conventions: its materials – aluminum and opalescent methacrylate – are clearly modern.

Like the work of many of the great designers of the 1960s and ’70s, her creations were fashionable in homes, in films and, by extension, in the popular imagination. That was the case with her “Locus Solus” collection, the first major series of outdoor furniture. In yellow or orange, all tubes and curves, it was practically a character in Jacques Deray’s 1968 film La Piscine (The Swimming Pool), starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider.

In the catalog of her solo exhibition at the Pavilion of Contemporary Art in Milan in 1979, the architect Emilio Battisti wrote: “She is the first architect who has demonstrated, in all evidence, that ‘archi- tecture’ is a feminine noun.”

This feature was originally published in issue 13 of Mastermind.

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