One of the most important industrial designers of the 20th century, ACHILLE CASTIGLIONI (1918-2002) produced more than 150 products during his career and forged enduring relationships with Italian manufacturers such as Flos in lighting, Zanotta in furniture and Alessi in home products.
When Paola Antonelli, design curator of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was an architecture student at Milan Polytechnic in the 1980s, one of the most popular tutors was Achille Castiglioni. For his lectures on industrial design, he would arrive with what Antonelli described as: “a large Mary Poppins-like black bag from which he would extract and line up on the table that day’s chosen pieces from his stupendous collection of found objects: toys made from beer cans that he had bought in Teheran, odd eyeglasses…. wooden stools from Aspen, Colorado… small suction cups strong enough to lift a table. These were the most effective tools of design instruction.”
Brandishing each object in turn Castiglioni would show his students how they worked. Antonelli recalled how at one lecture he jumped up on a table to demonstrate the ingenuity of a small wooden milking stool by miming the milking of an invisible cow. Thus he would show how an apparently humble object could constitute intelligent, inspiring design if it fulfilled its function with humour and verve by using the resources available to its designer or maker.
Castiglioni applied those criteria to his own work and urged his students to do the same. ”Start from scratch,” he told them. “Stick to common sense. Know your goals and means.” His contention was that to design a new product or to improve an existing one, the designer had a responsibility first to analyse whether it was necessary to do so and then to investigate what sort of "means", or resources such as technologies and materials, were available to develop and produce it.
Having ascertained this, the designer should then idenfity what Castiglioni called the “Principal Design Component” for the work. Sometimes his ‘component’ would be a leap in technology – such as the newly developed slim fluorescent tube that Castiglioni used to make his 1951 Tubino Lamp. Or it might be a change in behaviour. The 1957 Sella stool that he designed with his brother Pier Giacomo from a bicycle seat pivoted on a tubular stem and a cast iron base, for instance, was inspired by Castiglioni’s desire for a more comfortable form of seating from which to make calls from a pay phone when he liked “to move around” and “to sit, but not completely”. The “Principal Design Component”, like the early analytical phase, was intended to ensure that the designer invested his or her energy in refining their approach to design, rather than a style. “What you need is a constant and consistent way of designing,” he opined.
Achille Castiglioni was born in Milan in 1918 and studied architecture there at the Polytechnic from which he graduated in 1944. As there was so little work for young Italian architects immediately after World War II, Castiglioni joined his elder brothers – Livio (1911-1979) and Pier Giacomo (1913-1968) – in the industrial design studio they had established on Piazza Castello in Milan with the architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni. Even before graduating, he had worked with them on commercial projects such as the 1938 Caccia set of cutlery, still used in Italian homes today, and the strikingly light, svelte 1939 five valve radio receiver they developed for Phonola.
Like other recent architecture graduates, such as Ettore Sottsass and Marco Zanuso, the Castiglionis accepted commissions for exhibition and set design and also to develop products for the Italian manufacturers, which were launching or rebuilding their businesses after World War II. Many of these manufacturers were young, energetic and eager to experiment with the new technologies and materials which had been developed by the defense industry during the War and were now available for other purposes. They also had access to the capital they needed to re-equip their factories from the investment made available by the Marshall Plan. This combination of access to new technology with the proud artisanal tradition in Italian industry fostered a new generation of manufacturers which relished the opportunity to collaborate with equally enthusiastic young designers to develop innovative and inspiring products for receptive post-war consumers.
Throughout Castiglioni’s career he formed close and enduring relationships with a small group of carefully selected manufacturers with which he felt empathetic. Younger industrial designers, notably Jasper Morrison, have adopted the same policy with similar success. By working together for so long, they established a level of mutual trust thereby ensuring that both sides felt confident enough to experiment and take risks which often proved fruitful.
Among the most productive of these relationships was Castiglioni’s work with Flos, the Italian lighting manufacturer. He and Pier Giacomo (Livio had left the studio in 1952 to work independently) developed dozens of extraordinarily inventive lights for Flos. The 1962 Arco floorlamp was modelled on a streetlight to project the light source eight feet from its heavy marble base and the Toio floorlamp of the same year was inspired by a car reflector.
Both the Arco and Toio belong to the group of ‘ready-made’ products which the brothers developed by adapting objects already developed for a different purpose as an homage to the work of the artist Marcel Duchamp. The 1957 Sella bicycle seat stool, put into production by Zanotta in 1983, is also in this group: as is the 1957 Mezzadro stool (manufactured by Zanotta from 1971) made from a tractor seat. The ‘ready-mades’ have continued to evolve after their original design. The type of tractor seats attatched to the Mezzadro, for example, change whenever a new model comes on to the market.
Castiglioni also enjoyed the chance to develop gentler forms of reinvention by subtly redefining and improving familiar objects. One example was the 1979 Cumano circular folding table he designed for Zanotta based on café terrace tables. Another was the 1969 Leonardo desk standing on a pair of wooden trestles also manufactured by Zanotta and a third the pretty oval glass 1992 Brera hanging lamp developed for Flos.
He was also a passionate advocate of new technologies as illustrated by the audio-visual products he developed in the 1960s for Brionvega, the Italian consumer electronics company. Typical was the ingenious 1966 ‘126’ record player which consisted of three ‘boxes’, an oblong record deck in the centre flanked by two square speakers, which were hinged to either sit neatly on either side or equally neatly on top in a perfect mirror of the oblong deck.
Rigorous though Castiglioni was in his approach to design, the finished work was often unashamedly humorous such as the 1967 Snoopy light that he and Pier Giacomo designed (the year before the latter’s death) for Flos and named after the cartoon dog with a similar silhouette or the 1970 Spirale ashtray for Alessi with a practical, yet also playful spiral of stainless steel on which a smouldering cigarette (Castiglioni was a lifelong smoker) could rest.
As well as pursuing his own career as a product designer, Castiglioni also enjoyed collaborative projects with fellow designers. He taught for many years – first at Turin Polytechnic then Milan – and played a central role in the design community by supporting many of the networks that would enable his and future generations of Italian designers to benefit from their collective strength.
As early as 1947, only three years after joining his brothers in their Piazza Castello studio, Castiglioni joined the organising committee of the Milan Triennale. He also helped to establish the prestigious Compasso d’Oro design awards (which his products won in 1955, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1967, 1979, 1984 and 1989) as well as the Italian ADI or Association of Industrial Design.
For all his honours and achievements, Castiglioni remained as curious, challenging and inventive as ever until his death in 2002. Superbly resolved as his work was in terms of its formal qualities, he never lost his wit or his delight in paradox. “There has to be irony both in design and in the objects,” he said. “I see around me a professional disease of taking everything too seriously. One of my secrets is to joke all the time.”
1918 Born in Milan.
1944 Graduates with a degree in architecture from Milan Polytechnic and joins his elder brothers – Livio (1911-1979) and Pier Giacomo (1913-1968) in their design studio.
1947 Joins the organising committee of the Milan Triennale in which he will play an active role for many years.
1949 Designs the Tubino table lamp which will be put into production by Flos in 1974 and Habitat in 1999.
1950 Becomes creative consultant to RAI, the Italian public broadcasting network, for which he and Pier Giacomo will work designing pavilions and exhibitions until 1969.
1952 Livio ends his collaboration with his younger brothers to pursue his interest in designing lighting and sound installations. Achille and Pier Giacomo will continue working together until Pier Giacomo’s death in 1968.
1955 Wins a Compasso d’Oro award, the prestigious Italian product design prize. Achille and Pier Giacomo will win the Compasso d’Oro four more times – in 1960, 1962, 1964 and 1967. After Pier Giacomo’s death, Castiglioni will win the award three more times in 1979, 1984 and 1989.
1956 Co-founds the Association of Industrial Design to champion industrial design in Italy.
1957 Designs an exhibition at Villa Olmo, Lake Como for which he creates the first of his Wunderkammern, or ideal living environments. Achille and Pier Giacomo unveil the prototypes for their ‘ready-made’ seats, the Mezzadro tractor seat stool and Sella bicycle seat stool which will eventually be manufactured by Zanotta in 1971 and 1983 respectively.
1961 Starts a long collaboration with Flos, the lighting company, with the elegant domed Splügen Br?u hanging light.
1962 Flos introduces the Taccia table lamp and the Arco and Toio floor lamps.
1965 Brionvega launches the ingenious 126 stereo. With Pier Giacomo, Castiglioni creates the second Wunderkammern, The Home To Live In, for an exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.
1967 Designs the Snoopy table lamp and Vellela ceiling light for Flos. Also designs an exhibition stand for Zanotta, the Italian furniture manufacturer for which he will design throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
1968 Pier Giacomo dies leaving Achille to continue working on his own.
1970 Becomes a visiting lecturer in the architecture faculty at Turin Polytechnic, where he teaches until 1977.
1971 Ideal Standard launches Castiglioni’s Aquatonda range of sanitaryware. Throughout the 1970s, Castiglioni continues to produce numerous products for longstanding clients such as Ideal Standard, Flos and Zanotta.
1979 Alessi, the metalware manufacturer, joins his list of loyal clients by reproducing archive designs and putting new ones into production.
1984 Curates and designs a retrospective exhibition of his work which tours to museums in Vienna, Berlin, Milan and Zurich. The third Wunderkammern is created for an exhibition of Italian design in Tokyo.
1986 Appointed a professor in the architecture department of Milan Polytechnic where he teaches industrial design.
1990 Now in his 70s, Castiglioni is still highly productive. Throughout the 1990s, he continues to work for Flos, Zanotta and other established clients and to accept commissions from new ones. Alessi continues to reproduce examples of his early work.
1995 Alla Castiglioni, a retrospective exhibition, opens at the Centre d’Art Santa Monica in Barcelona, and tours to international museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
2002 Achille Castiglioni dies in Milan. He continued to work for old and new clients until the end of his life.
Achille Castiglioni, Alla Castiglioni, Cosmit, 1996
Paola Antonelli, Steven Guarnaccia, Achille Castiglioni, Corraini, 2001
Sergio Polano, Achille Castiglioni: Complete Works, Electa, 2002