Joe Colombo: design that lies between pure art, irony and utopian dream
An iconic art form such as the cinema often makes use of other forms of creativity to support its persuasiveness. Just consider characters such as Agent 007, James Bond, who has always been associated with fast cars and sharp clothing, accessories inspired by design and fashion.
In one scene in which the star was still being played by Sean Connery, several Bonds ago, His Majesty’s agent turns with his sly smile and sits down on a chair upholstered with alluring, padded shapes. It was the Elda chair, designed by Colombo in 1963.
Joe Colombo was one of the stars of Italian design who, beginning in the 1960s, made a name for themselves and for Italy throughout the world.
He was the son of a businessman, and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, starting out his career as a painter. He became part of the “Movimento Nucleare”, founded by Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo. After having produced experimental works that were somewhere between surrealism and abstraction, inspired by atomic and astronomical theories and the images they evoked – energy, explosions and astral matter, Joe Colombo decided to devote himself to industrial design.
His approach to this form of art was to immediately try to change everything, and not do anything by half measures. In addition, it was an opportune moment in which Italian design was just beginning to take off. The desire to shrug off the past, the economic boom, the still-thriving idea of a futurist matrix that saw every object belonging to daily life as a potential work of art, the modern industrial capacity to immediately transform ideas into products, were just some of the factors that contributed to elevate Italian design to a worldwide model.
Colombo worked in various areas of design: furnishings, interior design, even household utensils and automobiles. His creative approach sought to create spaces or products that were able to modernize lifestyles, to remodel them based on new needs for homes and daily life. His forward thinking remains famous. One day he made the comment to Gae Aulenti, “Before too long we will all be walking around with telephones in our pockets.”
His drive to experiment extended not only to the shapes and the modularity of objects, but especially in the use of new materials.
In 1967, the Universale chair represented one of the first chair made of a single piece of molded plastic.
For the Elda chair, named after Colombo’s wife, the lines were inspired by the hulls of boats, and nautical techniques were used to manufacture it, as the plastic of the seat was reinforced with glass fibers. The seven anatomical cushions and the provocative shape that embraces the person all the way up to the head were designed to isolate and ensure relaxation and cosiness.
The Acrillica lamp is one of the most famous and enduring of Colombo’s designs. In 1962, when the lamp was introduced, Colombo demonstrated his interest in innovative materials with the lamp’s C-shaped plexiglass body resting on a varnished metal base containing a neon tube. The light from the base was dispersed by means of the plexiglass, appearing as though it were direct light, and was a truly revolutionary design. For this design wonder, Colombo was awarded the gold medal at the XIII Triennale in Milan.
His home designs were magnificent and surprising, from the more traditional, which, in any event, were hardly traditional, to those that embraced the idea of multi-functionality. From furniture that opened up in ways worthy of Transformers, to flexible bathrooms and kitchens designs that made use of new materials and new lifestyles, providing unprecedented spaces for interaction.
Between utopia and pragmatism, Colombo’s creative genius manifested itself in objects that have a precise function and unforgettable identity, but spiced with a sense of irony that comes directly from Colombo himself. Photos of him, with his pipe in his mouth, show us a candid person, who used his genius to make works of art available to the masses, but with his signature audacity and inspiration.