Italy Makes Light Right
Italy is to contemporary lighting design as Detroit is to cars. While no country can claim total dominance of the field, Italy has long been at the forefront of lighting innovation. After World War II the country transformed itself from a sleepy, mostly agrarian culture into a powerhouse of design manufacturing, thanks to a core group of men and women who almost single-handedly shaped the direction of contemporary consumer products. “The emergence of Italy during the last decade as the dominant force in consumer product design has influenced the work of every other European country and now is having its effect in the United States,” wrote curator Emilio Ambasz in his introduction to the catalogue to Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, a groundbreaking show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1972. This was especially true for lighting, with companies like FLOS and Artemide leading the way. With the establishment of Euroluce, a major lighting trade fair in 1976, Italy became the global lighting marketplace.
Since then the major players have kept pushing the envelope, from incandescent to halogen to LED, whose potential seems boundless; and OLED fixtures loom on the horizon. The secret to Italy’s prominence is the passion of its individual manufacturers as champions of technological exploration and innovation. “Design has little meaning if there is no substance,” Ernesto Gismondi, founder and CEO of Artemide, has said. “It is only in-house technology which sets you apart from the rest.”
FLOS WAS STARTED IN 1962 by Dino Gavina and Cesare Cassina, two legends of Italian design, who had teamed up with Arturo Eisenkeil, an importer seeking an application for a spray-on plastic polymer. They hired the brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni to come up with a solution. The resulting Viscontea and Taraxacum hanging lights with metal frames covered with the cocoon-like material are still in production today. The flossy fabric polymer reportedly inspired the company’s name, although these days FLOS claims it was derived from the Latin word for flower.
In 1964 the company was taken over by design entrepreneur Sergio Gandini, who nine years later purchased Arteluce, a company started by renowned lighting designer Gino Sarfatti. Sarfatti himself created more than seven hundred lamps that are coveted by collectors even now, some re-engineered by FLOS in 2013 for the current market.
FLOS continued to grow in both size and prestige. When Gandini died in 1999 his son, Piero, took over the leadership and has aggressively added to FLOS’s illustrious design stable. Philippe Starck, Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec, Michael Anastassiades, Patricia Urquiola, Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, Piero Lissoni, Ron Gilad, and Antonio Citterio are all contractually bound to create lighting exclusively for the company.
In 2014 Gandini sold a controlling interest in FLOS to Investindustrial, a private equity firm, but he is still at its head. “Piero is a genius,” says United States CEO Jack Schreur. “He intuitively knows how to merge the vision of the designer with technology. Gandini is always looking ahead. Last year he told Dezeen: “We have passed from electricity into electronics. In ten years it could be something else, but we’ll never get back to electricity. I think that’s the future.”