Let’s talk about Chiara, how did the lamp first come about?
I was in my studio one day and I thought it would be interesting to create an instrument that used the way that light indirectly penetrates our environment, often through clouds or by bouncing off objects, such as walls and surfaces. So instead of designing a ‘normal’ lamp, I said to myself, “Let’s design a device that can take an artificial light source and bounce it back onto the environment around us with intelligence and grace”. That was the easy part of the process, the best and most complicated part was to follow. What to do in these situations? Somewhere I still have a photo of myself wearing one of those long white work coats for messing around in the studio – a studio like mine, where we glue, build, cut, and everything. I remember grabbing a pair of scissors and a large piece of cardboard and starting to cut. I wanted the card to be cylinder-shaped but with a wider hat at the top that would reflect the light source, positioned at the base. And Chiara was born.
The name Chiara actually refers to something else, doesn’t it?
Being something of an etymology enthusiast, I decided to use a play on words and call my lamp Chiara. It has an ambivalent meaning: Chiara is a name, but the word also means clear or bright, and is commonly used within our vocabulary (“make something clear”, “speak clearly”, etc.).
I think I took a very large sheet of cardboard and used a pencil to draw a surface that would become a cylinder, that is, the stem that supports the lamp. The head had to have these open wings in order to send the light from the source at the base back down, right, left and forwards.
I assume that you designed this lamp with Sergio Gandini. How did your relationship with Flos begin?
My relationship with Flos began as a collaboration. Sergio Gandini actually founded Flos with Cesare Cassina, and they are two personalities that I remember with great fondness and pleasure. Talking about them – and the many things they founded, which are all very much still alive – is a pleasure more than a duty.
I remember that back then you could still design something and then request an appointment to show your design, as I did with the cardboard cut-out that I mentioned earlier. You would often meet people who were willing to make your design at these appointments and that is what happened. From the cardboard model, we moved on to a large sheet of stainless steel that was rolled into a cylinder shape, three cuts were then made in the base for three rings that would hold the lightbulb. The bulb screwed in there and the cylinder had a hat inclined at 45° – this was the very first version of the model we are now re-examining and returning to production with a small family of lamps with different dimensions and functions.
You met Sergio Gandini through the Cassina family and he then became a friend. The industry was easier back then when you could sit at a table to discuss things over a glass of wine. Today it is very different.
Today these large businesses, such as Flos, are managed with greater formality than in the past. There is almost always a CEO, there are managers, sector managers, the communications and advertising departments, etc. Once upon a time it was all much simpler in terms of human relations and excellent results were obtained nonetheless, sometimes more significant precisely because there weren’t as many obstacles. I do feel a certain nostalgia for the days when meetings were firstly human and then professional. Having said that, I don’t mean to say that we are living in abstract, messy, or unthinking times. We certainly reap the fruits of what we have sown, but without those seeds and those fertile soils, perhaps we wouldn’t be reaping anything today.
Like many of the other objects that you have designed (for Olivetti for example), Chiara has become a design icon. Those were heroic years; everything was still to be invented. Now that design has expanded, is it still possible to move in this direction? Which areas do you experiment in now? Can you still identify interesting icons in the contemporary panorama?
People are constantly talking about design nowadays. “It’s a design house” is something that so many people say, and it makes me think. What does it mean to have a design house? If design means to design, having a ‘designed house’ doesn’t make much sense. Some time ago, I almost predicted that instead of its original meaning the word design would end up becoming the indication of a style, perhaps preceded by art deco or eighteenth-century properties, which over time became design.
The curious thing is that in the 1940s, design was thought to imply a statement. The era of styles was over, form had to follow function. I disagree with this statement, since form has almost always followed function; not even millennia ago could one think of designing a chair that you couldn’t sit on. The shape also follows emotion, meaning, values. Even a lamp like Chiara follows function, how many other ways you can deflect light towards a certain wall? Over time, Chiara has become an icon. Chiara does not solely deflect light, diffusing it gracefully over its surroundings, it is also gratifying in its image and presence. Chiara itself fills the space and speaks to our emotional ability to read things.
Are there still icons today? Is design over? Where are we going?
I have talked about both style and design, and I am deeply convinced of the existence of a ‘design style’. We must not be astounded by this. The idea that the time has come to decree the end of styles is an idiotic idea with no historical and philosophical basis and a complete lack of awareness. I am happy that design is considered a style. It will be remembered as such over time, and it is paradoxical to claim that a word must refer only to its original meaning, excluding any acquired subsequently over time.
Those who have the talent to design furnishings, things, objects, interiors, and houses, will continue to do so, thus becoming icons. Only those with talent can achieve relevant results. Graduating in literature does not make you a poet, just as taking colour-mixing lessons doesn’t make you a painter. Designed things, which represent our time and how it evolves, give meaning to our homes, our spaces, and our offices. All this will always be there, evolving and changing, but remaining.
So, on the theme of design style, I would like to suggest a provocation: this word was used to say, “it’s the end of styles”, but paradoxically it ended up becoming the style of our time, and so it will be remembered. However, this does not mean that the moment has come to mummify our way of living or the way we surround ourselves with objects and furnish houses and even cities.
Of course you are not solely a designer but also a great architect and an important editor of industry magazines. Has architecture taken a similar path to design in recent years, or has it taken a different path?
What I have just said is mostly applicable to all the fields and scales of our business. It is very Italian to be able to act on different scales and enjoy it – something that is difficult to digest, for example, in German culture. I believe that there are many architects and designers, especially in Italy, who are able to shift between the different scales of a project and are therefore talented or interested in working on the small, medium, and large scale of the interiors. If I am able to design a building then I am also able to design a set of buildings within a landscape, or even a city.
This was considered difficult, or even impossible, by the functionalists, who in those years tried to allocate everyone to their own profession. We Italians in particular have been provocative and contradictory of this trend, which I am very happy about.
Do you think Italian architecture is continuing on this path?
All this continues even today, especially among architects, or rather ‘archi-designers’. This is not to say that nobody outside Italy operates this way, but it is especially typical of Italian design culture.
If design at the time of Chiara was something more spontaneous and friendly, today design happens within structured industries. Have you seen a similar change within architecture?
Design has ended up meaning ‘things of any scale’ so we’ve ended up with design forks, a design interior, a design kitchen, a design house. Fortunately, we’re not saying ‘design city’ yet: that would be too ridiculous. Working with the design industry today (if that means designing objects, furnishings, furniture, interiors, etc.) is an activity that can be entirely carried out by one person or people who mainly design furniture. In my studio, we also design parts for cities (e.g. China). We design buildings, interiors, exhibitions, objects. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by clients – industry clients in particular – who share this way of thinking, and I must admit that I am very attentive to the drawings and sketches of things that will eventually be made. I always tell the young people who work with me to remember that what we sketch out in a drawing will end up being made and installed. You work slowly by thinking, doing, and trying, and in the end, I prefer this unusual and spurious process. That process led me, for example, to design the Cab, something that not even a genius could have come up with. Only by trying, failing, and trying again has it become what it is today. This extends to everything in some way but perhaps a little less to architecture: you can’t try and make a skyscraper, see if you like it, and knock it down if you don’t. Herein lies one of the insurmountable differences between architecture and design, understood as the design of objects and furnishings. Today customers are very unwilling to completely change something.
A lot of people think the design industry is heading in two different directions: on the one hand, it is more international and more structured; on the other, there is a great return to modern craftsmanship via independent production. Do you think this is a positive trend?
If you think about it, we might say that there is no longer a single univocal way of being an architect or designers, there is no single model. There are other interior design studios or professionals who operate quite differently to the ways we have talked about so far. There are also designers who, rather than designing an object, make small series and end up identifying the changes that occur while making this object almost with the essence of the object itself, which places the value on craftsmanship and differences, rather than identical series and mass distribution. If you ask me what I think, my answer would be, “Why not?”. These phenomena occur as a reflection of our society and our way of being. It is one of the many ways of being present and of bearing witness to one’s role and presence in things.
Back to Chiara and design objects, how has the use of private spaces changed in design in recent years? Or is it the way we live that has changed?
If we are asking if and how the way we live has changed, I would like to make a distinction immediately. The way people inhabit the office and live together in a home has changed radically. I did a lot of research into the phenomenon of office work, I also wrote a volume entitled Progetto Ufficio, in which I emphasise the importance of creating a suitable workspace. This means being aware that any ‘worker’ spends eight hours a day in the same space, sitting on the same chair, at the same desk, and therefore a lot more attention should be paid to the furnishings in question.
There was talk of office landscape, which was considered an extraordinary intuition but often the answer was merely to add another plant or another screen, etc. It wasn’t really a matter of adding greenery but ensuring that an office job provided space for your whole person and not just the carrying out of a task. The space must be scaled to its inhabitant. When you are in the office, you live in the office: your chair must be comfortable, and the “landscape” around you must be more than a functional abstraction. For example, I imagined people in this space without a screen in front of them so that they could enjoy the spectacle of everyone passing by. It might be very boring, but it serves to make them feel part of a whole. When someone comes to your desk for a quick chat, they would normally find themself in front of a screen, or a ‘modesty panel’, which some genius invented to hide the secretary’s legs. But it was an invention that prevented anyone from sitting in front of you at your desk; so that anyone who came to talk to you at your desk had to stand in the corner, with the corner of the desk in their stomach. Consequently, I invented this round appendage to be added to the normal rectangular desk and called it Pianeta Ufficio (Office Planet). In less than a month, that round appendix became the fundamental accessory for all the systems in production at the time. I wasn’t offended, especially because I had probably invented something significant. This was fundamental in the renewal of the office space.
The arrival of technology has changed how we live in our homes too. What are your thoughts on that?
Since I have always been a bit controversial, I wonder whether we are sure that we are living any differently from how the ancient Romans lived. Not in my opinion. Just go and see what any excavations show us. Back then, there would have been a courtyard with a covered walkway, in the middle was a tub of water, some greenery and the houses – across two floors – had stairs and windows. Inside there would be a kitchen corner, with pots and a fire. There were sofas where you could make yourself comfortable. Most of the activities and things that were done back then are the same today. We haven’t changed: we still have two legs, two arms, two hands, two feet, and the same intelligence. Our culture is remarkably close to that of the ancient Romans. The philosophers and writers of that time are still the basis of European and Western culture, so let’s not get carried away talking about evolution and changes. Obviously, some things have changed: we’ve got planes, the subway, and cars now, while before we went around on horseback and in carriages, but it was the same thing. The ladies went out in the carriage at teatime to show off their new clothes. I remember a novel by Marco Romano entitled La città delle donne which is really interesting.
All the more so then, if our domestic lifestyle has never really changed, what is the point of rereleasing a lamp from fifty years ago?
On the scale of values that we are talking about, fifty years are five minutes, and therefore a lamp, an object or a piece of furniture from back then looks very much like today’s furniture – except for elements and places that have undergone a violent evolution. There were cars fifty years ago; there are still cars today. Perhaps there are no longer carriages, but they can be considered the mothers of cars, just as horses are the mothers of motorcycles. I almost feel as though I exaggerate when I consider the great permanence of how our civilisation lives so let’s not assume that in ten or twenty years all the valves will have blown and everything will be completely different. We still have jackets, shirts, ties, etc. These are things that have been around and will continue to be around for a long time; we are not in a cartoon, fortunately.
There are fewer and fewer newspapers and magazines nowadays because the transition to digital is having a serious impact on this sector. You were the director of Domus for several years, how do you feel about this transition?
The fact that there are fewer newspapers and magazines today and so much digital content must be considered an opportunity. For example, I now wake up early in the morning and read Il Corriere on a tablet; I leaf through things, I zoom in, I turn the pages. Sometimes I get irritated with the whole page view. I consider the layout and graphic design of a newspaper to be of great value, so much so that you risk losing the communicative impact of framing a problem and prioritising hierarchies on a support like a tablet. I often use these convenient devices but always with the awareness that there is something missing. Then, once or twice a week, I will buy the hard copy of the newspaper and take pleasure in looking at the articles and reading them slowly with my glasses on.
In terms of design, architecture, and lifestyle, many have observed in recent years that there has been greater attention to public spaces and open spaces, which perhaps has something to do with houses becoming smaller and cheaper to furnish.
If we ask ourselves about the differences between public and private spaces, there is a lot to say and reflect on. For example, I had fun imagining the similarities and differences in hierarchy, dimension and participation between the private space and public space. The private space is the classic bourgeois house with an entrance, a hallway, rooms, perhaps a large living room – a bit like Caccia Dominioni taught in his time. He said that you should never enter directly into the living room but instead create a corridor and arrange the facilities in a certain way. The same criterion applies to cities. We could imagine the living room as a sort of piazza, or a place in which different needs, people and moments come together and are represented. The living room furniture is a bit like the buildings around a piazza. In the urban context, the piazza is more important than the buildings that define it, but at the same time it is the buildings that define it and give it the value of space. I found these similarities very interesting and also examined them in various editorials that I ran during that wonderful period (almost six years) when I was the director of Domus. I remember that I really struggled to write my editorial the night before, for fear that it was too late to get the magazine out. But now, in part thanks to the mental ‘compression’ I was forced to undergo, I have managed to accumulate a series of reflections in my mind that I still often come back to. Thoughts that I would never have concluded had I not found myself in that situation.
Going back for a moment to the reason we are here today, which is to have a conversation about the Chiara lamp, I would like to add that Chiara is also the name of my daughter and that this is not a simple re-release but rather we have achieved something that was never really successful before. The original Chiara had a border that ran around the edge of the sheet metal, but it didn’t always remain attached and risked injuring people. Only now have we managed to make these borders part of the metal and, building on this, we also had great fun developing a Chiara family. The classic Chiara, with some new finishes and changes, the medium Chiara, and the small Chiara, which is ideal for placing on a dressing table, a shelf or a low piece of furniture, where it can shed light on a smaller area, for example where you apply makeup. And when you are sat up in bed with your legs stretched out, as the evening draws to an end just before going to sleep, a properly positioned Chiara will project light onto your newspaper or book, without being too bright and hurting your eyesight.
Words by Paolo Brambilla
Photography by Alessandro Furchino Capria
Starring Mario Bellini