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Close-up of Ernesto Gismondi

Great Masters | Ernesto Gismondi

Ernesto Gismondi (portrait)

On 31 December 2020, Ernesto Gismondi passed away at the age of 89. “Ernesto Gismondi, a great innovator and friend, has left us. With Artemide he illuminated the world, he was the first to use plastic to make furniture, he sailed with his head held high in the seas of politics and business, and opened up new horizons in design. I will miss his anti-rhetorical genius”. Stefano Boeri

After graduating from high school, he obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Politecnico di Milano in 1957 and a degree in missile engineering from the Scuola Superiore di Ingegneria di Roma in 1959. From 1959 to 1964 he became an associate professor in the Missile Engines department at the Milan Polytechnic. In 1959, with designer Sergio Mazza, he founded Artemide, a company active in the lighting sector, of which he is chairman and managing director. Gismondi is often associated only with the name Artemide, but let’s not forget that, in 1970, as an industrial designer, he developed Memphis, a research laboratory on avant-garde design, in 1981, and Metamemphis, in 1989, in which research extended to the artist-designer relationship. He has held positions at the Associazione Industriale Lombarda, Federmeccanica, Confindustria, Ente Autonomo Fiera di Milano, was vice-president of Adi and a member of the Board of Directors of the XIX Triennale di Milano. (1) In 1994 he was awarded the Compasso d’Oro Career Prize and in 1997 the European Design Prize. In 2017 he received the Salone del Mobile Milano lifetime achievement award, and in 2008 he received the prestigious Cavaliere del Lavoro nomination conferred by President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano. In 2018 he won the Compasso D’Oro Career Prize.

Ernesto Gismondi's award ceremony with the Compasso d'Oro
(1994 – The Compasso D’Oro Career Prize – Ernesto Gismondi – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

The Italian history of lighting design

Luminaire design is an articulated field, with strong interactions between workers and designers, combining innovation, invention and technology.
“The careful use of new types of light source, which technological progress has introduced on the market, together with interesting formal research for a precise practical and aesthetic functioning of the luminaire, has made many models created by Italian design an example of correct design inspired by a deep knowledge of the technical problems connected to lighting”. Vittorio Gregotti
As our team deals with lighting design, we want to emphasise the innovation and quality conceived for the cultural development of lighting projects. Gismondi and Mazza involve the most important names of the Milanese scenario, the greatest representatives of Italian rationalism, engaged in the construction of the Pirelli skyscraper, the Tower near the Triennale, …, and Italian such as Vico Magistretti, the BBPR, Gio Ponti, Gianfranco Frattini, Livio Castiglioni, Ettore Sottsass, Enzo Mari and Gae Aulenti. As mentioned in the previous article by Vico Magistretti, the Eclisse table lamp was awarded the Compasso d’Oro in 1967, the first for Artemide. So Artemide, already known for facing the new “plastic world”, soon succeeded in realizing mass-produced products, thanks to the profitable dialogue with designers, and concentrated on a capillary distribution aimed at reaching the general public. (2) In the world of plastic furniture, Magistretti’s Selene, from 1969, was the first one-piece moulded chair produced in Italy. In 1972, Gismondi set up a state-of-the-art factory in Milan.
“We designed around the iconic electrical object: the light bulb,” Gismondi has often said. Form was born around the light source; the skilful combination of functional and technological exploration, invention and aesthetics gave rise to products and systems that focused on the needs of home living, spaces and architecture”, writes Gilda Bojardi in Interni September 2020.
In an interview held in Milan on 21 July 2003, Ernesto Gismondi, when asked by Francesca Picchi “What are the products that represent Artemide?”, replied: “Tizio, Tolomeo, Emporium … (…)”. (3)

The spread of plastics into new fields of application
Artemide’s early production included Alfa (1959) and Delta (1960) by Sergio Mazza, Ro (1960) and Talia (1963) by BBPR. Domus, 399, February 1963 writes “[…] seeks to obtain a product which, while having the guarantees that today only industrial production can offer, is primarily an expression of culture […]” (4)

  • 1972 – “Tizio” table lamp for Artemide – Richard Sapper (exposed al MoMa di New York)

The famous Tizio lamp by Ernesto Gismondi(1972 – “Tizio” – Table lamp for Artemide – Richard Sapper – Photo courtesy: Pinterest

  • 1989 – “Tolomeo” table lamp for Artemide – Michele De Lucchi e Giancarlo Fassina (Wins the Compasso d’Oro two years later)

While searching for material for this article in the archives of Architect Piero Castiglioni’s Studio, our eye is caught by the catalogues “Artemide, 1970 catalogue”, “Artemide 1973” and “Artemide 1985”. On the cover we read “Artemide. Lamps, furniture, objects for furnishing. Catalogue ’70, Italy”. Let’s open it … : While searching for material for this article in the archives of Architect Piero Castiglioni’s Studio, our eye is caught by the catalogues “Artemide, 1970 catalogue”, “Artemide 1973” and “Artemide 1985”. On the cover we read “Artemide. Lamps, furniture, objects for furnishing. Catalogue ’70, Italy”. Let’s open it … :

  • 1959 – “Alfa” table lamp for Artemide – Sergio Mazza

Detail view of the Alfa Lamp(1959 – “Alfa” table lamp for Artemide – Sergio Mazza – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

  • 1969 – “Fato” table lamp for Artemide – Gio Ponti

Lighted Fate Lamp(1969 – “Fato” table lamp for Artemide – Gio Ponti – Photo courtesy: Artemide website)

  • 1969 – “Boalum” table lamp for Artemide – Livio Castiglioni, Gianfranco Frattini

The Boalum lamp for Artemide(1969 – “Boalum” table lamp for Artemide – Livio Castiglioni, Gianfranco Frattini – Photo courtesy: Piero Castiglioni)

The Boalum, “Diva Luminosa” of those years, remained a best-seller for a long time and was soon charged with a special value, carrying a new message of innovation and transformation. Frattini, says that it was the spiral of a hoover that suggested the solution of a long, flexible, luminous tube. (5) Piero Castiglioni tells us that his father Livio was with Gianfranco Frattini for work in Anacapri. Standing under an umbrella by the pool of the Hotel Imperial, Livio exclaimed, seeing the pool attendant with a hose to clean the pool, “That’s going to be our lamp there,” and Gianfranco Frattini replied “A hose?”. A lamp with that design did not exist, and more pieces could create different compositions. So Livio Castglioni first went to a factory that produced tubes and had a tube made to allow the passage of electrical wires. Then he went to Leuci in Lecco, Italy’s only lighting company at the time, and asked them to modify the torpedo lamps used for the car number plates. Finally, he went to a button factory where he found suitable automatics for mass-producing torpedo lamps. This approach to design is not only very practical but also fascinating. The prototype is shaped by the designer in all its components, where the strength is the integrated collaboration between designer, workers and entrepreneur.

  • “Mezzoracolo” table lamp for Artemide – Gae Aulenti

Mezzoracolo, a lamp produced by Artemide( “Mezzoracolo” table lamp for Artemide – Gae Aulenti – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

In addition to indoor luminaires, the catalogues also include outdoor luminaires.
In the 1973 catalogue:

  • 1965 – “Polluce” floor lamp for Artemide – Anna Fasolis, Enzo Mari
  • “Nesso” table lamp Artemide – Gruppo Architetti Urbanisti Città Nuova
  • “Cynthia” pendant lamp for Artemide – Mario Marenco

In 1975 the first product signed by Ernesto Gismondi:

In 1985 with Aton barra Artemide’s first system was born, the predecessor of Artemide Architectural. In the 1985 catalogue:

  • “Alistro morsetto” clamping lamp for Artemide – Ernesto Gismondi
  • “Brontes” table lamp for Artemide – Cini Boeri

The Brontes lamp(“Brontes” table lamp for Artemide – Cini Boeri- Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

  • “Patroclo” table lamp for Artemide – Gae Aulenti

The Patroclus table lamp(“Patroclo” table lamp for Artemide – Gae Aulenti – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

  • 1982 – “Callimaco” floor lamp for Artemide – Ettore Sottsass

Callimaco, a lamp by Ernesto Gismondi for Artemide(1982 – ”Callimaco” floor lamp for Artemide – Ettore Sottsass – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

  • 1979 – “Megaron” floor lamp for Artemide – Gianfranco Frattini

Front photo of the Megaron floor lamp(1979 – “Megaron” floor lamp for Artemide – Gianfranco Frattini – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

The Megaron, presented at the Salone del Mobile in 1979, is a significant example of the demythologisation of the object, in a field where designers often get carried away, more inclined to consider the image of the lamp itself than the quality and property of the light. (5)
In the 1988 Artemis catalogue, a quotation from Anacreon, 4th century B.C., appears: “Huntress of deer, blonde daughter of Jupiter, Artemis, lady of wild beasts, I implore you, who protect a city of brave men on the whirlpools of the Eteus, rejoice: you do not rule uncivilised citizens”. This phrase reminds us of the importance of having a cultural background that embraces all disciplines, as Vico Magistretti advised future architects. The anecdote about the choice of the name Artemide is amusing: “There was already a company called Azucena and we wanted to arrive before them in the telephone directory”. (6)

The role of the entrepreneur in the world of Italian Design

Architect Piero Castiglioni remembers Ernesto Gismondi as follows: “He left his life but not his company. He never left his company”, which is considered one of the most highly regarded in the world of lighting design. The figure of the entrepreneur was decisive for the future of Artemide. He was an essential figure, as he selected national and international architects and designers such as Santiago Calatrava, Richard Sapper, Peter Zegers and Adrien Gardere. He has been able to influence the designs of lamps in the right way (in assessing their feasibility, materials, finding the right balance between market supply and demand). Today they have become icons of design at an international level, so much so that they are exhibited in the major museums of modern art and in design collections around the world. They can be found at the MoMa in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. In order to give greater importance to the image of the Brand, it first proposed the “Modern Classic” collection where it is possible to find the historical lamps in the catalogue, such as Gae Aulenti’s Patroclo, in the HALO or LED version. At a design standstill, in the mid-1990s, Artemide embarked on a collaboration with Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital in order to design ever newer luminaires. Together with psychologists and marketing professionals, it proposed as a research objective solutions to improve the well-being of man during his multiple activities (reading, watching TV, working at the computer, …). The importance of the President’s entrepreneurial aspect also stands out in this research, as he was able to find the right combination of research and innovation. In an interview, Gismondi emphasised that innovation without research does not exist, as it would not improve the product but only change it. (7)

(1) Pansera A., Dizionario del design italiano, Milano, Cantini Editore, 1995
(2) Pansera A., Storia del disegno industriale italiano, Bari, Editori Laterza, 1993
(3) Castelli G., Antonelli P., Picchi F., La fabbrica del design, Ginevra-Milano, Skira Editore, 2007
(4) Bassi A., La luce italiana, Milano, Electa, 2003
(5) Santini P. C., Italian Design, Gianfranco Frattini, Pordenone, Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, 1988
(6) https://www.internimagazine.it/news/ernesto-gismondi-artemide/
(7) https://www.specchioeconomico.com/201201/gismondi.html

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