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5 Italian design masters you should know about

How to talk about the Italian design masters without sounding redundant?

This was my concern. You may have already heard about them: great designers who won the Compasso D’Oro award during their careers. Exceptional individuals who, over 50 years ago, designed objects that became part of many people’s houses. And still are.

I stopped worrying about sounding redundant when I realised that we will always have a lot to learn from them. Not just from a design perspective but also as humans.

Behind those big names and achievements, there are people who truly lived their lives on the purpose of serving others through their creativity. For as simple as this goal may sound, it allowed them to set the principles of Italian design as we know it today.

What did all of them have in common? They were architects before being designers. And they were ultimately, curious people.

  • Achille Castiglioni

Credits: Left, Center, Right

“If you are not curious, forget it”

LIFE & WORK: 1918-2002. Achille graduated from the Milan Polytechnic University in 1944. During his career he worked at the architectural design practice that his older brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo had started with Luigi Caccia Dominioni in 1938. He designed furniture, lighting, radiograms and other objects, collaborating with many brands such as Flos, Zanotta, Alessi, Brionvega, De Padova, Driade, Olivetti, Moroso, Knoll and countless others.

VISION: Son of Rationalism, he thought that every design concept has to be related to a function, a problem to solve. And that things have to be reduced to their essential elements, that’s why he enjoyed working with the manufacturers. He went on his life stating that good design should last over time and that “There has to be irony, both in design and in the objects”. He loved people in general and solving problems for them. Thanks to this positive attitude (that he applied to both his work and life) he was able to design objects that supported people’s lives throughout the years.

More about Achille Castiglioni at this link.
  • Vico Magistretti

Credits: Left (Fondazione studio museo Vico Magistretti), Right

“It’s no accident that design was born with architects. After all in my own case, being born with architects has meant that I have always worked on practical things.”

LIFE & WORK: 1920-2006. He graduated at the Milan Polytechnic University in 1945 and was an architect, furniture and industrial designer. He worked with companies like Artemide, Cassina, De Padova, Flou, Fritz Hansen, Kartell and Schiffini.

VISION: He describes Italian design as a result of Rationalism, with a plus: for the first time, the production of everyday objects was assigned to architects. He thought that a good design concept is the answer to a technical problem that has to be solved. During his career he continuously spoke with manufacturers in order to understand the industrial process and use it properly.

One example of his approach is the fact that he never made a proper detailed drawing of his Eclisse table lamp. He told the concept at the phone, and the manufacturer understood. He said that this was possible because the concept was simple and clear.

More about Vico Magistretti at this link.
  • Ettore Sottsass

Credits: Left, Right

“I believe design should help people become more aware of their existence: the space they live in, how to arrange it and their own presence in it”.

LIFE & WORK: 1917-2007. He graduated in 1939 at the Turin Polytechnic University. During his eclectic career he designed furniture, jewelry, glass, lighting, home objects and office machine design, as well as many buildings and interiors. Among many others, he worked for Knoll, Esprit, Olivetti, Alessi, Brondi, Poltronova and Fiorucci.

VISION: Sottsass is well known as the founder of Memphis. But what was Memphis? One way to describe it is a collective of designers with the common goal of contrasting the rationalist design principles they had been taught. So rather than a “Memphis style” we can talk about a movement or an attitude. They embraced bold colours, unusual forms and cheap materials to redefine the idea of style itself. At his core, Sottsass was always motivated by a desire to reach deeper beneath the surface of the objects he designed. And he believed everybody should find their own way of doing things.

More about Ettore Sottsass at this link.
  • Gae Aulenti

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“Women in architecture must not think of themselves as a minority, because the minute you do you become paralysed. It’s most important to never create the problem.”

LIFE & WORK: 1927-2012. She graduated at the Milan Polytechnic University in 1954, as one of two women in a class of 20. Apparently, she studied architecture in defiance of her parents’ hope that she would become “a nice society girl”. During the 60s and 70s, she produced furniture for brands such as Knoll, Zanotta and Kartell, as well as lighting for Artemide, Stilnovo and Martinelli Luce. She also designed showrooms for Agnelli and Olivetti and is very well-known for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which she transformed from a railway station into a home for impressionist art.

VISION: In her early career, she became part of the “Neo Liberty” movement. She embraced its reaction against modernism and the monotonous influence of the Bauhaus. And she applied this principles to all aspects of her life, including her distinctive deny of fashion trends. She rather supported the revival of local building traditions and individual expression.

More about Gae Aulenti at this link.
  • Alessandro Mendini

Credits: Left, Right

“You need to build up a space with a high psychological charge even in the interior of your home, because the objects that one owns actually tell that person’s story.”

LIFE & WORK: Born in 1931, he graduated from Milan Polytechnic school in 1959. Today he works at his Atelier Mendini with his brother Francesco. In the late-1960s he embraced the anti-design Italian Radical movement and co-founded Studio Alchimia with Ettore Sottsass. He also designed for Memphis (founded by Sottsass). During his work life he was editor of Casabella and Domus, meanwhile designing graphics, furniture, interiors, paintings and architectures. Some of the brands he’s been working with are Alessi, Swatch, Kartell and countless others.

VISION: A post-modernist who finds inspiration in a variety of sources, from literature to art. He refers to his method as “re-design” in an attempt to inject new meaning or perspective into everyday objects, which are plenty of spiritual meaning. He found his peace in a Art Nouveau style country house. There he put his own furniture on display (including his unforgettable Proust chair) and positioned them next to Liberty-style antiques.

“He said that he started his career as an anti-bourgeois designer, and he ended up being a bourgeois in the end. But a good one.”

More about Alessandro Mendini at this link.
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About Martina

Martina is an Italian interior designer living in London.
She was born in sunny Sicily, where she graduated in Engineering, and left to study interior design in Milan. She has worked in the interior design industry for four years in Milan, Beijing and London, working mostly in the hotel, branding and retail design.
She is now based in London and works on A Designer At Heart, her online platform where she shares weekly articles and provides e-design services.

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