16 February 2019

Achille Castiglioni - designer

Leading figure in post-war Italian style

Achille Castiglioni regarded furniture-making as art
Achille Castiglioni regarded
furniture-making as art
The designer Achille Castiglioni, whose innovative ideas for lighting, furniture and items for the home put him at the forefront of Italy’s post-war design boom, was born on this day in 1918 in Milan.

Many of his designs, including the Arco floor lamp for which he is most famous, are still in production today, even 17 years after his death.

The Arco lamp, which he designed in 1962 in conjunction with his brother, Pier Giacomo, combined a heavy base in Carrara marble, a curved telescopic stainless steel arm and a polished aluminium reflector.

Designed so that the reflector could be suspended above a table or a chair, the Arco was conceived as an overhead lighting solution for apartments that removed the need for holes in the ceiling and wiring, yet as an object of simple chic beauty it came to be seen as a symbol of sophistication and good taste.

The Arco lamp, anchored in a block of marble, is perhaps Castiglioni's most famous creation
The Arco lamp, anchored in a block of marble, is
perhaps Castiglioni's most famous creation
The Arco was commissioned by the Italian lighting company Flos, which still produces numerous other lamps designed by Castiglioni.

Achille’s father was the sculptor Giannino Castiglioni. His brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo, both older, were architects.

He initially studied classics at the Liceo classico Giuseppe Parini in Milan, but switched to study the arts at the Liceo artistico di Brera. In 1937 he enrolled in the faculty of architecture of the Politecnico di Milano.

As was common for young Italians of his generation, the Second World War interrupted Achille’s progress. He joined up, became an officer in the artillery, and was stationed on the Greek front and later in Sicily, returning to Milan just before the Allied invasion of 1943. In March 1944 he was able to graduate.

The Mezzadro chair incorporated a tractor seat mounted on a metal and wood base
The Mezzadro chair incorporated a tractor seat
mounted on a metal and wood base
He joined the studio his brothers ran with Luigi Caccia Dominioni, another young Italian architect and designer. They designed interiors and created products, among them the Fimi-Phonola 547 radio, an extraordinary piece in metal and moulded bakelite that fulfilled the need to be inexpensive but was uniquely stylish.

After the war, Italy entered a kind of mini-Renaissance, inspired with the sense of a new beginning. Designers gave free rein to their imagination, often placing art above functionality in the design process. Castiglioni managed to marry the two.

When Livio left in 1952, Achille and Pier Giacomo continued to work together on innovative, sleekly modern designs for everyday objects and appliances. One creation, a vacuum cleaner in red plastic with a leather strap that the user could carry on his or her back, made for the REM company, can now be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, along with more than a dozen other Castiglioni designs.

Lighting was always Achille Castiglioni's speciality, enabling him to indulge his fascination with symbolism and theatricality. From the 1960s to the ‘80s, seen as Milan’s heyday as the city of design - he applied the same creative strategy to a wide range of projects, as diverse as hi-fi equipment and hospital beds.

Castiglioni's unique bakelite radio, the  Fimi-Phonola 547
Castiglioni's unique bakelite radio, the
Fimi-Phonola 547
He embraced the concept of using ‘found objects’ to create unusual but functional furniture, such as his Sella - saddle - stool, which featured a bicycle seat atop a pole with a rounded base designed as a telephone stool. Another seating solution, the Mezzadro, incorporated a tractor seat.

In his later years, after Pier Giacomo's death, Achille remained active in the studio in Piazza Castello but also went back to college, this time to lecture in design, first at the Polytechnic of Turin and later as a professor at the Polytechnic of Milan.

Castiglioni, who was one of the founding members of Association for Industrial Design (Associazione per il Disegno Industriale), established in 1956, died in 2002 at the age of 84. He was survived by his wife, Irma, and three children.

Castiglioni's studio, now a museum, is close to Milan's magnificent Castello Sforzesco
Castiglioni's studio, now a museum, is close to Milan's
magnificent Castello Sforzesco

Travel tip:

Castiglioni’s studio in the Piazza Castello in Milan has been turned into a museum, looked after by his youngest daughter, Giovanna. It is also the headquarters of the Fondazione Achille Castiglioni, established in 2011 to celebrate his work but also to promote innovative and stylish design. Piazza Castello is the semi-circular space surrounding the Castello Sforzesco, Milan’s impressive 15th century castle, which can be found about a 20-minute walk from the Duomo in a northwesterly direction. The Fondazione, at Piazza Castello 27, is open to the public via guided visits only, which take about an hour and cost €10. For more information, visit http://fondazioneachillecastiglioni.it/en/visits/

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The main building of the Politecnico di Milano in Piazza Leonardo da Vince in the Città Studi
The main building of the Politecnico di Milano in
Piazza Leonardo da Vince in the Città Studi
Travel tip:

The Politecnico di Milano was founded in November 1863 by Francesco Brioschi, secretary of the Ministry of Education and rector of the University of Pavia. It is the oldest university in Milan. Originally, only civil and industrial engineering were taught. Architecture was introduced in 1865 in cooperation with the Brera Academy. There were only 30 students admitted in the first year; today, there are 42,000. Its central offices and headquarters are on Piazza Leonardo da Vinci, located in the historical campus of Città Studi in Milan, about 3.5km (2 miles) northeast of the city centre.

More reading:

How Marco Zanuso's ideas put Italy at the forefront of contemporary design

The Rome designer who became England's Royal jeweller

Flaminio Bertoni: car design as sculpture

Also on this day:

1740: The birth of Giambattista Bodoni - printer and type designer

1970: The birth of footballer Angelo Peruzzi

1979: The birth of multiple world motorcycling champion Valentino Rossi

(Picture credits: Mezzadro chair by Sailko; Watch by austincalhoon; Castello Sforzesco by Gpaolo; Politecnico by Luigi Brambilla; all via Wikimedia Commons)


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