What lamp can add a touch of smart, stylish wit to a seventies-era James Bond film – and do the same 40 years later in a modern superhero’s pad
without looking remotely out of place? Only Arco, the
embodiment of elegant but playful Italian post-war
design, has the cultural X factor to complement the
ice-cool style of Sean Connery in one generation and
Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man in the next.
Arco is the best known of Achille Castiglioni’s string
of endlessly inventive lamps for Italian lighting
manufacturer Flos, starting in the sixties and spanning
several decades. Like most of his early projects it
was developed in collaboration with his brother Pier
Giacomo, a fruitful partnership that lasted until Pier’s
early death in 1968.
Arco can be regarded as Achille’s signature product, a
lamp that came into existence as the simplest answer to
a problem – how to deliver overhead lighting in a dining
room without drilling into the ceiling – yet became
one of the most recognised luminaires of all time. It
was born from the humblest seed of inspiration: what
delivers light at a distance from its base? The extended
arm of a streetlight. The Castiglionis brought the idea
indoors and transformed it into a functional lamp that
is also an objet d’art.
From a heavy Carrara marble base, a stainless steel
arc curves out into space in a miracle of balance. Its
irresistible, eye-catching form ensured it a place in
Diamonds are Forever, where two Arcos stoop like
giant insect antennae over the desk in Blofeld’s lair. In
Iron Man’s luxury lounge it is a futuristic silhouette
against a sweep of sea and sky. This lamp is a film star.
Yet, endearingly, it has a hole in its marble base – that’s
so you can stick a broom handle through to move it.
This seamless mix of the practical and the aesthetic,
with a generous serving of wit, helps to explain why
Achille Castiglioni became one of the most important
industrial designers of the 20th century.
Born in Milan in 1918, at the end of one world war, he
began his career at the close of the next, graduating in
architecture from Milan Polytechnic in 1944.
Already keenly interested in developing design
processes that incorporated new techniques and
materials, he joined the industrial design studio in
Milan run by his brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo.
Livio left in 1952 to work independently, leaving
Achille and Pier Giacomo to collaborate in one of
design’s most celebrated double acts.
In the course of his remarkable career Achille created
more than 150 products, including lamps, furniture
and homeware, as well as temporary architecture for
numerous art exhibitions, trade fairs and showrooms.
More than a decade after his death in 2002, many of
his classic lamps are still in production, evolving to
meet the needs of today’s energy-conscious world.
Achille Castiglioni was the right man for his time, and
the times were right for him. Fifties Italy was a battered
shell of a country, trying to shake off the horror of
the Second World War. Castiglioni was one of a new
generation of architects and designers – energetic,
full of ideas, keen to banish the torpor of austerity.
Many were hungry to exploit the new technologies
and materials developed during the war for military
purposes. Extruded aluminium, for example, would
find its way into many Castiglioni lamps.
And there was work for them. Italian manufacturers
were rebuilding their businesses or launching
new ones using investment money made available
by the Marshall Plan. Italy’s artisanal tradition
disposed them to collaborate with the young designers,
working together to develop fresh, finely crafted
products that would appeal to post-war consumers.
Achille Castiglioni would forge enduring relationships
with Flos for lighting, Zanotta for furniture and Alessi
Little money was available for grands projets, so like
others of their generation such as Ettore Sottsass
and Marco Zanuso, the Castiglionis took whatever
commissions came their way. These included projects
in exhibition and set design as well as products for
manufacture, often of the most mundane, functional
kind. But by pouring their creative energies and
appetite for innovation into designs for such objects
as lamps, chairs, ashtrays and vacuum cleaners, the
Castiglionis and their peers found themselves
‘I see around me a professional disease of taking
everything too seriously. There has to be irony
both in design and in the objects’
Castiglioni in Rome with two
of his most iconic creations,
Toio and Parantesi