Tom Thomas

20th Century European Decorative Arts


March 22 - April 15, 2005
Italian Light 1945 - 1980
"Let there be light"

As the phrase from Genesis suggests light is elemental to the existence of the universe. All life proceeds from light and the nature of man's existence has been transformed by the invention of the electric light. Not only does the phrase light suggest lightness, a release from physical weight and a free-ness of being, it connotes a release from darkness and ignorance. Such is the nature of light: it is a power to transform, to be enlightened. Since the invention of the electric light humanity has had more control of its destiny being able to regulate the cycle of light and darkness at will and humanity has continued to expand this quest qualitatively.
While the exploration of the nature of light can belong to no country or group, exciting progress was spearheaded by Italian creativity after the end of World War II. Italy had inherited a long tradition as a design powerhouse since its architectural achievements during the Roman Empire. It was the Italian Renaissance that ignited the resurgence of Western Civilization over 600 years ago and since that time architects, artists and travelers of the Grand Tour have looked to Italy for their inspiration.

Whether it was the 'psychic residue' of these past design achievements that pervaded Italian creative consciousness later captured by the phrase 'Made in Italy' or a response to a world recovering from being turned on its head by two World Wars, there existed an openness for new approaches for which the Italians were able to respond with inventive, modern answers.

Italy transformed itself from a semi-industrial culture reliant on its classical past to a cultural giant producing ideas and designs that would influence the whole world. Whether it was sharp, modern, abstract forms or sleek organic forms Italy created designs that were colorful, imaginative and glamorous. Inventive, chic and bold became the hallmark of Italian design. Design and Industry led by small passionate entrepreneurial families in partnership with extremely talented designers create pieces unheralded anywhere that excited the imaginations of the world and fulfilled bent up cravings in the public. Intellect and passion welded together as an intellectual discourse on the meaning of these exotic objects progressed. Excitement, invention and passion filled the environment.

What is Italian design / lighting?

One could say that Italian lighting is lighting designed by an Italian or made in Italy but understanding and analyzing lighting design is filled with complexities. The difficulties arise from examining what functions lighting has, how we exist with it and are influenced by it. There are competing concerns. On a personal, concrete level we all know the light as a practical element designed to light our spaces; yet architects may desire it to be a seem-less architectural element that is part of a cohesive architectural plan. On the other hand lighting may be a sculptural object with aesthetic functions that exceed any plan. Not only does it have line, form, volume, color but it is has a luminescence which contains its own properties. Moreover, it may function as a socio-cultural artifact that implies statements about the society we live in. In the late sixties lighting became a part of a larger societal critique and rebellion on the part of designers. Finally there are symbolic elements with concerns ranging from the political to the spiritual.

In sum, questions abound as to how do we analyze lighting: is it examining its technological and engineering concerns as to how well it lights a space, fits within a whole architectural plan, acts as a statement of beauty fulfilling sculptural and aesthetic concerns, analyzing what function lighting means in our society or what psycho-spiritual effects various lighting has on us? Italian design has activated all these points of concern. We can only note these paradoxes here; yet marvelously, Italians embraced these concerns in the creation of their objects and led in the intellectual dialog that surrounded them.

How did Italian design achieve prominence? Movements do not occur in isolation from social events. Neither do they occur without protagonists bringing them to fruition. Italy, a nation of families, the post war design environment the fire was lit by small family run companies created by passionate visionary / leaders who were key to the design process themselves. In particular Gio Ponti's Fontana Arte, Gino Sarfatti's Arteluce, Luigi Caccia Dominioni's Azucena, and Angelo Lelli's Arredoluce are the among the important voices of creativity that launch the Italian revolution. Working for Arredoluce in the early years are luminaries to be Achille Castiglioni and Ettore Sottsass. Castiglioni working for Flos will become the leading voice of an elegant rationalism in design and Sottsass will go on to create design experiment after design experiment (Studio Alchemia and Memphis) which will continually raise the intellectual debate around design and society. Also important are Ostuni's O-luce and the company Stilnovo.

1945 Return to Normalcy

Italy's cultural and economic existence has been rooted in the maintenance of strong traditions of craftsmanship. Weaving, leatherwork, silk, ceramics, faux painting, woodwork, masonry, marble/stone work and glass production have been among the chief industries. Traditions function to establish balance in times of chaos and change. It is only normal that after the end of crisis period that one would return to these traditions of the past to re-establish personal, economic and cultural balance. Hand-blown glass lighting from the glass blowing factories of Murano such as Barovier, Venini and Seguso functioned to restore the normalcy and continuity of the post World War II environment. The comfort of brightly lit chandeliered spaces provided gaiety, new hopes and optimism. It stabilized the situation until new ideas could resurface in Italy that would transition it from the post-fascist period to new democratic hopes that were fostered by rationalist architecture. Barovier e Toso, 1945-50, detail of 7ft. hand-blown standing lamp

1950 Growth and Optimism
It is during the post-war forties that many of the pieces that would be produced later in the fifties are designed. Gio Ponti remained the consistent figure in Italian design before and after WWII. His great ability was to synthesize the classical history of Italian design and recast it in any exciting modern context. However, it is Gino Sarfatti (Arteluce) working sometimes with Victoria Vigano who is able to lift Italian lighting design to the poetic level in the post war period. Sarfatti created visionary modernism that is both lyrical and humanistic.

Sleek, linear abstracted forms take prominence and much of the work has a hand-crafted feel as the pieces are often constructed with rods of metal. There is often an exciting dynamism and fluidity of slinky lines and angles that have great capacity for flex and articulation. The mold-ability of these pieces reflected a new modern sensibility that the world was always in flux and change yet infinitely modifiable and change-able. A renewed faith in science and technology is reflected in the superb engineering of these pieces. Furthermore, color provides even more excitement in early Italian design as exotic products ranged from the deeply saturated to an infinite variety of pastels.

1960 Economic Boom and Utopian Fantasy

Tobia & Afra Scarpa, 'Fantasma' 1961

Technological progress and economic prosperity released Italy from the grip of its past. Italian design led the way with gaily designed products that celebrated the Italian lifestyle and built a new mythology around it. Italians were seen as the chic, sensuous trendsetters and a new idea of 'Made in Italy' arose. Fashion, cars and furniture became the domain of the Italians and a rational architecture stressed a unity of functionality and form that provided an inspiration for a better life. Not only did utopia seem realizable but as exploration in space grew the fantasy of unlimited future progressed.

Angelo Lelli for Arredoluce 'Cobra' c 1964

Freedom and a new inventiveness continued and produced the image of the technological society that has been long awaited. Increased production and new markets all funded the image of made in Italy as a signature for the glamorous Italian Lifestyle. The pioneering of new materials became a striking symbol of Italian inventiveness as molded plastics, fiberglass, perspex, plexi-glass, chrome and even halogen all premiered in Italian design. As the decade progresses the style of pieces changes from rational inspired design to design influenced by space travel and ergonomics.

A new generation of designers like Joe Columbo, Vico Magistretti, Gae Aulenti, Elio Martinelli fostered a new modernism utilizing these new materials to explore radically new formal concerns. Rational design became enamored with futurism as the image of a future on the moon and in the stars becomes ever present in consciousness.

Vico Magistretti, 'Guinone' 1969

1968 rAdiCAl DeSigN: IMplosiOn and New Environments

In the middle of the sixties the economic fruits of the technological society were harvested but designers began to realize that they had not effected life around them in any material way. There was still war, poverty and a continued degradation of the natural environment despite unlimited technological progress. The technological and design revolution that was supposed to bring happiness to all instead brought the realization that life was imploding from the inside. Designers became more alienated and sought either new means to express themselves found in anti-art, anti-design or the creation of new sustainable model environments. Some designers stopped designing completely and resorted to polemical and conceptual/political statements to effect change.

Lighting design stood at the forefront of this anti-design revolution. Many designers deviated from modernist ideology and its pure, clean lines and rational forms and formed experimental groups. Florence and Milan became centers for experimentation. New design groups arose with names like Archizoom, Superstudio and UFO. While some designers rebelled against modernism, others evoked natural forms as an affirmation of neglected nature, still more created ideal environments in plexi-glass while others experimented with new forms of light including the first experiments with residential halogen and low voltage.

The mood was somber. Yet designers in Italy were not followers, they led a cultural revolution. Gone was the idea that technology would solve all problems as designers realized they were as much part of the problem as politicians. If all is as Carl Jung said: 'shadow and light'; the shadows began to predominate as designers created ironical, even cynical pieces reflective of the mood. Others sought to create pieces that had multi-uses that would not overtax the environment. Eventually designers embraced the dark side or limitations of their profession.

Mario Bellini c1974

Centro Recerche Arte Industria Lissone "Cubo di Teo"c 1970

Archizoom "San Remo" c 1968

1973-80 Wit and Play

Design groups emerged with a new maturity, humor and refreshing sense of cynicism that was able to reflect on the history of design and put into a witty perspective. As post-modernism was born in architecture, new design groups emerged in Italy such as Studio Alchemia and later Memphis led by luminaries such as Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini and Mario Bellini. Architects and designers found they could make fun of themselves in their creations. Mutated classical and modern forms were collaged together as were bright, contrasting colors. The practicality of designs became subverted to the insanity and entertainment that new designs could achieve; all done as a parody on the seriousness the design profession had accorded itself.

Maturity implies realizing the limits of one's power and influence and it was if things had come full circle. Design had led a great revolution where designers achieved fame and power never so much since the Renaissance. Italian design had announced to the world that all was possible and up for grabs, bold designs had been created and image of Italy as design power became cemented in international consciousness. Yet, it too realized it had limited power to effect society as a whole. That is until, the next set of revolutionaries come on the scene ..

Mario Bellini 'Area 50' c 1974

Masayo Ave 'Genesi Stella" Late 20th Century

Ettore Sottsas for Memphis 'Bay' c 1983

Visit the Lighting Section to see our current Italian Collection.