Preservation for the Future pix
Irma Barni Castiglioni walks us through the Milan studio of her late, great husband Achille
Cecilia Fabiani -- Interior Design, 7/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Ancient wood piles hang high on a wall. Design magazines from the 1930's are stacked neatly on a shelf. Vintage radios line a bookcase. These elements, along with drafting tables, sketches, and scores of prototypes for ashtrays, chairs, lamps, and tables, fill the Milan studio of master industrial designer Achille Castiglioni, who died in December 2002 at 84. Thanks to his widow, second wife Irma Barni Castiglioni, everything remains—and hopefully will remain—intact.
The atmosphere is as lively as it used to be when Achille (for friends, Cici) began working in the 3,000-square-foot Piazza Castello space in 1960 with his older designer brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo. Livio ultimately went off on his own, but Achille and Pier Giacomo collaborated on many pieces, some of which are still in production, such as their Arco floor lamp. During his celebrated career, Achille produced more than 150 products for some of the biggest names in Italian manufacturing, including Alessi, Cassina, Driade, Flos, Poltrona Frau, and Zanotta.
Considered the father of Italian design, Achille taught from 1969 to 1993 at Politecnico di Torino and Milano, shaping the next generation. He won nine Compasso d'Oro awards, and 14 of his pieces are included in the permanent collection at New York's MoMA.
Irma's plan is to have the studio, which encompasses his office and conference, drafting, and model rooms, turned into a museum as a learning legacy for young designers. She and ' former studio workers Dianella Gobbato and Antonella Gornati have been preserving the space and all its eclectic items collected by the witty maestro. (He used to delight in the confusion that arose in visitors with the perspective-altering floor-to-ceiling mirror in his office.) For now, it's a magical place that can be seen only by appointment.
When did Achille start working?
IC: He graduated in 1944 from Politecnico di Milano and began working with his brothers Livio and Pier Giacomo. They'd all studied architecture and established a studio with friend and architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni. It was near the atelier of their father, Giannino Castiglioni, a sculptor, in Corso di Porta Nuova. They then moved here. After a few years, Livio went his own way; he was interested in experimenting with sound and light. Achille and Pier Giacomo worked as a team until Pier Giacomo's death in 1968.
IC: So many things. All of Achille's sketches, models, books, and objects. They're not necessarily a collection but things—art, kitsch—he kept because he thought they'd be useful for his work or his lessons, to help explain concepts.
How did he work?
IC: He kept whatever he considered interesting. He was convinced it would ripen and become or inspire something else. For instance, he created the Diabolo lamp from a children's toy. A concept for a pair of slippers became, after years, an armchair. It was one of his favorite attitudes, transferring mechanisms and concepts from one field to another.
What do you want this space to become? How can it be useful to future generations of designers?
IC: It should be a museum. Besides his students who knew him personally, the designers and architects who come to visit us are so surprised by how Achille worked. Only here in his space can you really understand him. Objects he used for teaching, like different types of scissors, he kept in order. But the objects he thought might be useful for his projects are kept in a sort of chaos. It can't be defined as a method. But you can at least get a sense of his mental process, how he thought. It should be open to anybody, designer or not, who's curious—not a ' museum that shows his works, but his process.
In what way did Achille influence Italian design?
IC: I think that he mainly influenced the way to look at design, right from the beginning. From the first exhibition in Villa Olmo at Como in 1957, the Castiglioni brothers showed a mixture of things that introduced aspects you still see today. Until that moment, furniture had been made only of precious wood; they presented ironic and surprising objects (the Mezzadro tractor-seat and Sella bicycle-seat stools, for example, both of which were eventually produced by Zanotta).
When and how did you meet Achille?
IC: It was in the early 1960's. I was in charge of the new Gavina showroom on Corso Monforte. Dino Gavina had been working with famous architects such as Carlo Scarpa but was starting to work with young designers, Tobia Scarpa and Pier Giacomo and Achille. The Castiglionis had just designed the Sanluca armchair for Gavina and were helping with the window display. Achille's wife had died from an illness; I was separating from my husband. We were both in a difficult situation, but we made the best out of it. He had an 11-year-old son, Carlo, and I had a 2-year-old daughter, Monica; some 10 years later, in 1972, our daughter Giovanna was born.
What was Achille's best characteristic, in work and life?
IC: His capacity to be self-ironic. His playful jolliness.