Working with his older brother and later as a solo designer, Achille Castiglioni created modern design icons in furniture and accessories, but particularly in lighting. He and his brother Pier Giacomo collaborated in the 1950s and ’60s on lamp designs such as Arco, Taccia, and Snoopy for the Milan-based lighting company Flos. The designs are some of the most familiar in the modern Italian design canon.
When Castiglioni died in late 2002 at the age of 84, design curator Paola Antonelli (who had curated a retrospective of Castiglioni’s work at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the late 1990s) told The New York Times: “When design is recognized, universally, as the cultural force that it is in Italy, (Castiglioni) will be considered amazing.”
Generally following the modernist approaches of form-follows-function and less-is-more, Achille Castiglioni and brother Pier Giacomo created some timeless classics. Perhaps most famous in their portfolio is the Arco floor lamp. Said to be inspired by an ordinary city street light, Arco is anchored to the floor by a heavy white Carrara marble base (a nod to Italy’s craftsmanship tradition) and its elongated stainless steel stem means it functions more like a ceiling lamp than a floor lamp.
Arco is still produced today by Flos, and it’s one of 11 Castiglioni designs in the permanent collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “Achille Castiglioni is a major figure of modern Italian design,” says Diane Charbonneau, the Montreal museum’s curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts. “His curiosity and continued research led him to reflect on the functional and emotional aspects of an object while questioning its typology. In short, this designer’s objects are always surprising and playful, while they represent state-of-the-art industrial design.”
The 1962 Taccia table lamp by the Castiglioni brothers features a Doric column-like base. This decorative aspect resulted from a functional consideration, as is typical with the brothers’ work.
Achille Castiglioni explained the thinking behind the eye-catching aluminum Taccia base in a 1986 lecture in Florence: “At the base of this object the heat is so great, so if you enlarge the surface, you cool it, like the fins on a small motor.”
Two years ago, Flos introduced a new Taccia with a plastic (PMMA, or poly methyl methacrylate) reflector. The Castiglioni brothers had originally designed the lamp in the 1950s with a plastic reflector, but had to switch to glass when existing plastics couldn’t withstand the heat from the light source. The classic Castiglioni table lamp design now houses an LED light.
When Pier Giacomo Castiglioni died suddenly in 1968, Achille began a solo practice that lasted decades. He designed more lights for Flos, such as the spectacular Taraxacum 88, andhe taught design in Turin at the Politecnico di Milano, where he had earned his architecture degree in 1944. Since his passing, Achille’s studio in Piazza Castello in Milan has been converted into a museum, maintained by his family with corporate support.
Toronto industrial designer Davide Tonizzo has visited. “This is an experience I would recommend to every designer,” Tonizzo told Panoram Italia recently. “It is a sort of pilgrimage not only to honour the great designer, but to have a unique peek inside his unique mind. What I find most incredible about the master’s work is his attention to detail and how this capacity can turn even the smallest, most mundane object into a work of art that bettered the everyday life of the people who used it.”
Milan-based Alberto Meda, a legendary designer in his own right for his furniture and lighting designs, worked with Achille Castiglioni in the 1970s. Meda recalled inviting Castiglioni to give a lecture at Milan’s Domus Academy design school in 1983. Castiglioni arrived with a “suitcase full of anonymous items” to explain how good, and even great design didn’t need to be flashy. “Achille was a very nice person,” says Meda. “He illuminated many environments with his lamps and also many thoughts of future generations of designers!”