The 5 icons who have innovated the Made in Italy design

Every spring the world meets in Milan for the annual Salone del Mobile also called as design week, the most important fair dedicated to furniture. All the major brands of the sector reveal their new lines and the latest ideas – the major reason why journalists, architects, and artists crowd the streets of Milan to inspire themselves or, to furnish their homes, offices, ateliers, and showrooms with the latest products from the design world.

During the Design Week in Milan, filled with events including the famous Fuori Salone, the influence of Made in Italy is very substantial and intense: in fact, also in fashion Italians come first in marking the latest contemporary trends.

While we wait for all the emerging stars and the professionals to be reunited at this year’s design week, we look back at some of the very important Italian designers of the 20th century who were able to redefine and unify the concepts of beauty, innovation, and daily necessity. Here are the 5 icons of modernism that have revolutionised interior design and that still represent the best of Made in Italy.

1. Pier Giacomo e Achille Castiglioni

The brothers, Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni with their lamp
The brothers, Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni

Two of the greatest designers in Italian history. The sons of a well-known sculptor, Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni, marked the world of design with their simple and revolutionary ideas, and together they won 14 Compassi D’Oro, this award is like a Nobel Prize in the design world. All the products of the “Castiglioni Brothers” have been marked in history, first of all, the Arco lamp, created for the Flos brand in 1962. A perforated steel dome that held suspended by a curved arc, in steel, supported by a block in Carrara marble.

Advertising of the lamp arco
The Arco lamp, designed in 1962 by the Castiglioni brothers for Flos brand

Nothing is decorative, everything is functional. The perforated dome does not overheat the lamp, the travertine cuts do not create edges that would make the material more fragile to use and the hole in the block helps the lamp to move easily. How was this product revolutionary? For the first time, a suspension lamp was designed and built that does not hang from the ceiling but can be moved around the house.

2. Giò Ponti

Portrait of the designer Giovanni Ponti AKA Giò
Giovanni Ponti, AKA Giò

The architect of the Pirelli Skyscraper in Milan and other very important buildings in the world, Giò Ponti left his mark also as a designer. In 1955 for Cassina he designed his most recognised work: the Superleggera chair (superleggera, the Italian term for ‘super lightweight’). The idea emerged from Ponti’s desire to revisit the classic Chiavari chairs (also known as the Chiavarina, or Tiffany chair), a symbol of Ligurian craftsmanship, to revisit and make a product more contemporary and practical.

Advertising of Superleggera by Giò Ponti
The _Superleggera_ chair, designed in 1955 by Giò Ponti and produced by the Cassina brand

What makes this “simple chair”, as Giò Ponti refers to it, a revolution? The Superleggera, was the altered form of the Chiavari chair with an ergonomic bend in the backrest and tapered the legs toward the bottom. Giò Ponti eliminated the “superfluous” material and made it lighter, transforming it into an object with a minimal, modern design but with strong ties to its past. Lightweight, simplicity, stability and, low production and purchasing costs make Superleggera the ideal practical product.

3. Ettore Sottsass

Ritratto di Ettore Sottsass junior designer
Ettore Sottsass junior

An extraordinary designer, photographer, the son of the Beat generation, legendary womanizer, Ettore Sottsass was a real provocateur. Heir of a great Italian architect, he graduated in architecture from the Milan Polytechnic (Politecnico di Milano) and in 1969 he became the creative direction of Olivetti, a stage that will mark one of the highest peaks of his career. To narrate the story of his modern and captivating typewriter Valentine, known often as the Red Valentine or rossa portatile (meaning portable red), the winner of the Compasso d’Oro Award of ’70s.

Pubblicità macchina da scrivere Valentine
Commercial of the Red Valentine typewriter, created in 1968 by Sottsass for Olivetti

The main feature of the Valentine is the transportability of the machine that, unlike the previous versions of typewriters. The Red Valentine did not have any external case to close it, but it was provided with a handle which made it portable. Not just practical, but the real revolution of Olivetti’s Red Valentine was all in the red colour and the exaggerated design. A typewriter with a strong erotic personality: the very sensual red colour was meant to attract the consumers where the simple and clean shape to conquer them. In its design, it beautifully represents the contemporary culture of that time, a period of political, social and artistic outbreaks, and pop art culture that differentiates it from the traditional Olivetti collections.

4. Joe Colombo

Portrait of Cesare Colombo, also known as Joe
Cesare Colombo, also known as Joe

Born in Milan in 1930, Cesare (called Joe) Colombo, after his first experiences as a painter, decided to devote himself to product design, which further became his passion in life. In 1962, after graduating from the Polytechnic, he entered the world of design and inaugurated his Milan studio. His work is characterised by extreme and audacious experimentation, working more with folds and curved shapes to contrast the painting of a time that was dominated by edges and straight lines.

The Elda armchair by Colombo
The Elda armchair, designed in 1963 by Colombo and at present produced by Longhi

In less than 10 years of career, which ended by a heart attack on his 41st birthday, Colombo sketched very surprising objects. The Elda chair is a perfect example how Joe Colombo’s designs were futuristic than its time. The structure and the shell of the armchair are in fiberglass, the base is mounted on a rotating device and the upholstery seems to evoke a lunar landing vehicle and a space suit. Colombo believed in the future and technology. His vision is also witnessed by the presence of the Elda chair in a cult TV series of the seventies, Space 1999.

5. Franco Albini

Ritratto Franco Albini designer italiano
Franco Albini in the studio

Italian Neo-Rationalist architect and designer, Franco Albini has left his mark in the world of design above all by linking his name to furniture and minimalism. He has influenced and inspired so many designers that came after him. The first product that comes in mind when we think of Franco Albini is the revolutionary Veliero (which literally translates as “sailboat”), designed in 1940 for his home, and still produced and distributed by Cassina.

The Veliero bookcase
The Veliero bookcase, created in 1940 by Albini and still produced by Cassina

He was capable of bringing out ideal harmony between the two elements of poetry and functionality. His goal emerges clearly from all of his works, like the Tensostructure bookcase. The two uprights are correlated by a complex tenso-structure. From this are suspended the elements which in their tum hold up the glass shelves. The appearance is almost empty, reduced to four slender curved bars, jointed to form a lighter-than-air ‘casting’: all of which reminds you of a sailing boat. Albini pays great attention to the technical characteristics of the materials and also to the creation of a sort of “unstable equilibrium”, on which the books seem to literally float in space.