The word visionary gets thrown around a lot in our industry. And yet for Achille Castiglioni and his brother Piero, it’s the only adjective that makes sense. Born one year before the founding of the Bauhaus School of the Arts, they took the institution’s democratising ethos a step further — transforming everyday objects into works of art. In their capable hands, there was no object too small or insignificant that couldn’t be made beautiful.
It’s an idea we’ve come back to as we try to get to grips with the monumental task of creating a circular economy — proof, if ever it was needed, that we still have much to learn from the old masters. It’s in this spirit that we’ll be taking a look back at the illustrious life of Achille Castiglioni with a little help from the revolutionary objects he created along the way.
The Early Years
It always seems impossible until it is done. Then it seems inevitable. This simple adage has come to encompass a wide range of game-changing technologies, but it’s particularly helpful in understanding the philosophy behind some of Achille Castiglioni’s most successful designs. In 1962, Achille, alongside his brother Piero, launched 4 iconic lamps — all of which would go on to make history.
"If you're not curious, forget it."
The most well-known of the 4 is easily the Arco Floor Lamp. The first of it’s kind, it sought to bring illumination to hard-to-reach spots without having to drill holes in the wall or ceiling. After much experimentation, the brothers settled on the idea of a counterweight — using a heavy marble base to balance out the dramatic arched stem.
Look closely and you’ll notice a hole in the base, drilled to help make moving the light easier. Simply slip a broom handle through and you have yourself a handy lever. Other luminaires in the collection were equally revolutionary. The Toio Floor Lamp (now available in a limited edition jet black version) was initially made by upcycling car headlights — giving a new meaning to industrial design.
The Search for Simplicity
Simplification was also very important to Castiglioni. After all, why waste resources on excess ornamentation when you can create a perfectly beautiful design with the essentials? This rejection of the superfluous is one of the many reasons his designs have maintained such timeless appeal today.
It’s an idea that’s best categorised by the Sanluca and Sancarlos chairs for Poltrona Frau and Tacchini Italia respectively. Both were inspired by the idea of removing traditional padding from contemporary armchairs — instead trusting in the science of ergonomics to create a supremely comfortable seating experience.
Comfortable yet cutting-edge, both designs reveal striking profiles, designed to support and embrace the body.
"Delete, delete, delete, and in the end you'll find the core aspect of the design."
Play for Keeps
This spirit of experimentation could also be found in his long-standing partnership with Zanotta. Together they sought to make light work of the modern home, stripping down once bulky storage solutions so that they became lithe, lovely and responsive. The quintessential example is the Joy Shelving Unit — a rotational style that can trace out new storage opportunities at the drop of a hat. Sometimes an elegant bookcase. At others a handy sideboard.
Castiglioni would go on to produce a total of 13 designs for Zanotta — each as avant-garde and practical as Joy. One of our recently rediscovered favourites is the Albero Flower Stand — designed, as he put it, to invite vertical forests into contemporary living spaces.
All of which brings us to the Diabolo, re-released last year by Flos as part of a glowing tribute to the life and times of this exceptional designer. Riffing on the game of its namesake, it features a clever pulley system which allows the user to adjust its height as desired by extending or shortening the distance between the two cones. In creating an interactive experience of light, Castiglioni sought to involve the user in the act of creation, a generous gesture that lives on long after his passing.