In Conversation With: Foscarini’s Carlo Urbinati

Italian luminary, Carlo Urbinati, is an intriguing figure in today’s design scene. He is the founder of Foscarini, an Italian lighting brand revered for its free-thinking, innovative creations. Each product can be seen as a self-contained line. There are no crossovers or parallels, no red thread that announces a product as Foscarini. Instead, each work is a masterpiece, with the intense emotion and atmosphere of the luminaire the only clue that reveals its origins. Such a process has caused ripples of amazement in the past. Designers who wish to be the face of the brand will find short shrift here. No one designer can be Foscarini. The company, like light itself, is many things all at once.

And yet, it works. For the last 30 years, Foscarini has evolved into an international lighting entity, completing challenging installations in every region of the globe. Their immersive shows at Milan Design Week have become a staple in the design calendar and, despite their insistence that this is never the end goal, bestselling products are a pleasant side effect of their process. As part of our ongoing In Conversation series, we sat down with Carlo Urbinati to find out more about his unique lighting philosophy and the secrets behind some of our favourite products.

1) I’d like to start by asking about one of your 2015 creations if I may. The Caiigo is a sultry pendant light, designed to mimic the morning mist that rises from the Venetian Lagoon. To me, it symbolises the fluctuation between light and dark, the endless paradigm into which all life is locked, all summoned with the flick of a switch. It’s a gorgeous thing to be able to create. Where did this love of light come from? And how is it reflected in your day-to-day operations as a company?

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The gorgeous thing is the privilege we have of working with such a fascinating material like light. Our lamps create scenarios of light, transforming the spaces of life: we understand that all this has to do not just with environments, but also with people and their emotions. We want to reach the heart of people, by proposing design projects they can simply fall in love with. Before understanding, passion is a must: the rational part has to come later.

We were born as a company without a productive structure, and this frees us from any constraints. Today, our possibility of making – anything, in any way – is connected to our choice of independence, which is above all independence from mental constraints. We are not only interested in doing things better, but also in doing things differently.

In Caiigo we have the magic of light combined with the magic of blown glass. The shaded effect that sets it apart is a masterpiece of workmanship: every piece is unique and depends on the sensitivity of the glassmaker to find the exact balance between whiteness and transparency.

We have the same use of the blown glass material also in Soffio, the table lamp we just presented during last Milan Design Week. The white glass is intensely charged with light when the lamp is on: it produces a low, spreading luster, indicating a focal area, an atmosphere. The transparent glass acts as a pedestal for the upper part: the cone seems to rise off the surface and float in the air.

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2) You once said that technology should be seamless, invisible in a way that doesn’t distract you from the emotion of the project. Can you tell us about some of your most technically challenging lights? And have you ever come close to not being able to finish a project because the technology simply isn’t there yet?

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Today Foscarini‘s collection includes more than 60 models, developed together with more than 30 designers, using 20 different materials. But when they ask me what my favorite lamp is, I always answer “the next one!”. Because for me the most interesting, engaging and exciting phase is the development of a new product. The result is obtained through hard, long, often obstinate work, in order to preserve the initial idea, the concept of the design project, in all the development phases. Because our focus is always on the concept, not on technology.

A good example of how we do use technology is the recent introduction of Foscarini– My Light. With Foscarini MyLight you can personalise the light of your lamps. A simple app makes it possible to adjust and store levels of brightness and colour temperature, depending on the models. Foscarini MyLight is an innovation that puts emphasis on human experience and use.

Other instances of technological design challenges include the Tress lamp, where we managed to hide the electrical wire inside the frame of the structure or Spokes, where the light comes – almost magically – from the bottom part of the lamp. You do not realize how light is conveyed through when looking at the models for the first time, and this means we achieved our goal: we do not want people to ask themselves how electricity can flow through it, we just want them to love our design pieces at the first glimpse, without much thinking about it. That is why technology has to be seamless.

We are innovators because we are never satisfied: we never settle for “easy” solutions, for the first ideas that come to mind. Something better is always there, just beyond. We never settle for “it cannot be done”. If anything, we see that as a challenge: it means that no one has done it before, so the premises exist to create something that is truly new. The concrete achievement, the grounding of the project, its realization as a finished product, coincides with the end of a long path: where for us the ultimate choice is the best possible choice.

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3) The LED revolution is well underway, with most manufacturers now offering LED versions of classic lighting designs. With the potential to offer such powerful illumination, how do you incorporate LEDs into your designs so that they can be used effectively in interiors?

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Foscarini is a company that imagines and creates lighting projects with a strong personality. Our lamps are design objects that during the day – when off – surprise with their ability to dress a space and at night when on, seduce with the emotion of their light. We believe that “good design” means giving meaning to a function, technology is therefore something we use and not something we start with.

We are happy to use LED technology in our lamps because it’s more environmentally friendly. Plus, its smaller dimensions give us the possibility to create design objects that were not possible previously with traditional lighting sources.

One example of how we decided to exploit the possibilities offered by LED light sources is the Dolmen lamp by Ferruccio Laviani. One of the most iconic designs in Foscarini’s history presented in the mid-Nineties was reworked last year to adapt to the new opportunities offered by LED technology. In fact, the use of a dimmable LED source that provides warm, uniform light, has made it possible to reproportion the lamp’s design, making it slimmer and more consistent with today’s design needs.

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4) Foscarini has enjoyed a longstanding collaboration with Diesel. How did this come about and why was it a natural fit?

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The Diesel Living with Foscarini Lighting collection was launched in 2009. The fundamental base of this collaboration is that Foscarini is Foscarini and Diesel is Diesel. Two worlds that are very different one from the other, with completely different languages, but that share the same tension towards strong characterization. Our basic hypothesis for the partnership of our company with Diesel was that a client base exists that loves the Diesel mood and wants to embrace it, not only through clothing but also in their own home, through products and collections that bear that stylistic expression.

It was from this basis that we set out nine years ago to face with enthusiasm this important challenge: to transform the Diesel creative team’s ideas into perfectly functional objects. Foscarini‘s involvement in the development of the new collection was highly instrumental right from the start. Our company’s lengthy experience in the lighting industry along with a major investment in terms of energy and resources have enabled Diesel’s style and inspirations to take shape. Handling a collection that is developed around the values of a brand that is not our own and aimed at new targets gives us the opportunity to have a different perspective confirming a happy marriage between the different expressive methods of the Diesel Creative Team and Foscarini’s know-how and experience.

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5) How do you maintain the Foscarini philosophy when working on larger scale projects? Is it merely a case of upscaling? What other considerations are there when illuminating larger spaces?

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We think of our decorative models in terms of tools in the architects and interior designers hands that give them the freedom to combine and use them to obtain the result they have in mind. Foscarini lamps are ready to help designers translate ideas of light into “enlightened” spaces, to transform the spaces of life. I believe that it is much easier to characterize a space and transmit the right emotion by using a fascinating light that is able to create an atmosphere, rather than creating a very beautiful space in terms of furnishing and then making a mistake by choosing the wrong lighting.

A luminary in every sense of the word, you can find some of Carlo Urbinati’s finest designs on display in the Chaplins Showroom. There’s no need to make an appointment, simply turn up and park in our large free car park at the rear of the showroom. 

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