The Lampadina table lamp by Achille Castiglioni is a good example of a design that has come to represent much more than the sum of its parts. An iconic and successful product for its Italian manufacturer Flos, it was originally created in 1972 as a limited edition. Over forty years later it’s still in production – a testament to Castiglioni’s ability to create designs that successfully merge simplicity, familiarity, and function, with plenty of wit.
One of the great treasures to be found when visiting Milan is Castiglioni’s studio, which is based just across the road from the imposing medieval Castello Sforzesco. Maintained by the Fondazione Achille Castiglioni, it was founded in 2011 to look after Castiglioni’s extensive archive of over 60 years of work. The studio has been kept exactly as it was when he died in 2002. When I visited, the tour of the studio was given by Castiglioni’s daughter. The whole affair was so full of humour and warmth, it was easy to imagine the kind of working environment he fostered there. It’s a place full of wonderful design artefacts, but also of atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed the mirror in one corner that Castiglioni had installed so he could see what was going on across the other side of the L-shaped studio when he was in the workshop.
Born in 1918 in Milan, Castiglione was the third son of a sculptor. Once he graduated in Architecture from the Polytechnic University of Milan in 1944, he joined his brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo, who were both architects, in setting up an industrial design studio. He worked with them until Pier Giacomo’s death in 1969, after which Achille headed up the studio alone. Over his lifetime he designed a broad range of industrial design products, exhibitions and buildings, while also becoming an industrial design professor in Milan. His body of work for Italian companies such as Flos, Zanotta and Alessi is particularly impressive. His use of found objects and experimental materials combined with a formal mastery of form often struck a chord with the public. His explanation for this was that his approach to design gave his work “resonances of previous artefacts so that there is an almost ready-built relationship with the user”.
In the case of the Lampadina (the Italian name for light bulb), Castiglioni originally designed it as a limited edition for the opening of a new Flos store in Turin, to be given to guests on the night. However, it proved so popular that Flos quickly took the decision to mass produce it. In his search for simplicity, what Castiglioni had done was to take a big light bulb, sandblast one section of the glass to diffuse part of the light emitting from it, then mount this on an aluminium base that was shaped very much like a film reel. The bulb housing contained the light switch and the reel could be used to wind up surplus cable. It was a totally resolved design, unmistakably human in conception and scale. In the Lampadina, we see a design that neatly encapsulates everything that Castiglioni was up to. It is pleasingly familiar, functions perfectly and has the inherent beauty of an object that was already in existence: the light bulb.