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Portrait of Pietro Chiesa

Great Masters | Pietro Chiesa

Pietro Chiesa (portrait)

Pietro Chiesa was born in Milan in 1892 into an illustrious Ticino family of artists. After an apprenticeship with the most renowned cabinet-makers and decorators in Milan, he opened a glass workshop in 1921, where he worked with artists, italian designer lighting and architects.

Details of stained glass windows made by Pietro Chiesa for apartments(“Vetratine” – Pietro Chiesa – Photo courtesy: Archivio storico Chiara Baldacci)

He also works on signs, particularly those in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. According to municipal regulations, dictated by Giuseppe Mengoni himself, they must all have a black glass background with gold lettering. He made a stained-glass window for Milan Cathedral, to a design by Aldo Carpi. The stained glass windows of the Ministry of Industry in Rome to a design by Mario Sironi.  In 1925 he exhibited at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and at the exhibitions in Cologne and Barcelona. In 1929 he produced the Vittoriale stained glass windows for Gabriele D’Annunzio. During these years he explored new techniques for working with glass and specialised in the production of opaque or acid-etched glass, which led him to promote “the most daring modernity in glassmaking technique” as Ponti wrote. In 1931 Pietro Chiesa’s Nuovi Lampadari (New Chandeliers), in Domus, September 1931, pp.45-48 “(…) His first concern was to obtain the maximum appropriate efficiency of the light used in relation to the specific destination of the fixture, whose installation was intended to be simple and easily accessible to anyone, so that it would be easy and quick to disassemble, clean and unscrew the bulbs without the need for irons or even less the intervention of skilled workers”. In 1932, together with Ponti, he was appointed artistic director of Fontana Arte.

Front view of the Curved table(1932 – Large curved coffee table for Fontana Arte – Pietro Chiesa – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

The history of Fontana Arte and its relationship with glass and light coincides with the birth and spread of Italian design, thanks to the presence of Gio Ponti and his intuitive promotion of a new cultural unity in the era of industrialisation. In 1881, Luigi Fontana founded a company for the marketing and processing of glass sheets for construction purposes. At that time, the glass plate was an absolute innovation and Fontana was among the first to introduce it in Italy. This cutting-edge production is destined to revolutionise space in architecture, transforming the concepts of air, sun and light. Ponti promotes the association of Pietro Chiesa’s creative genius with Luigi Fontana’s attitude and industrial scale. In 1932, Fontana Arte was born. “Industry is the way of the 20th century,” Ponti argued, “it is its way of creating. In the combination of art and industry, art is the species, industry the condition”. (1)  Between the two wars, a collaboration began that constituted a “unicum” of fruitful interchange between company and designer. He produced over 1500 prototypes of lamps, furniture and objects that revealed a profound knowledge of lighting engineering criteria. Many of these objects can still be found in Fontana Arte’s catalogue today, such as the Fontana curved table (1932), the Cartoccio vase (1932) and the Luminator (1933), the archetypal 1930s floor lamp. (2)

Cartoccio vase by Pietro Chiesa(1932 – “Cartoccio” vase Fontana Arte – Pietro Chiesa – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Many of Fontana Arte’s lamps have become icons of Italian design. Bilia by Gio Ponti (1932), Fontana by Max Ingrand (1954), Re, Regina by Bobo Piccoli (1968), Uovo by Ben Swildens (1972), Scintilla by Livio and Piero Castiglioni (1972), Paola by Gae Aulenti and lighting designer Piero Castiglioni (1980), Prima Signora by Daniela Puppa (1992), Flûte by Franco Raggio (1999). Pietro Chiesa, with his vast production for Fontana Arte (italian lighting company), is probably the most avant-garde figure of the pre-war period, a presence so decisive that it could sum up and represent, alone, the “style of the 1930s”. Although he attended law school, he preferred to follow his vocation as an ante-litteram designer and his love for glass. With the pairing of Fontana and Chiesa, perhaps the most interesting ideas of the 1930s were developed.

One of the table lamps designed by Pietro Chiesa(1933 – “0836” table lamp for Fontana Arte – Pietro Chiesa – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

His research follows two directions: on the one hand he works on traditional “types” and, limiting any superfluity, arrives at elementary forms. On the other hand, he strives for perfection, takes care of every detail, and is extremely demanding when it comes to finishing details. He revisited traditional types to re-propose them with new forms and values. Gio Ponti defined this attention to the object as “the mechanistic tendency”, writing in Domus no. 95, 1935 “Models that can be considered precursors of that mechanistic gesture that fascinates and seduces many minds today. These models have threefold validity: that of impeccable technical execution, that of good actual “production”, and that of achieved formal validity”. It was Gio Ponti again who, in an extract from Domus of 1949, proposed a monograph on Pietro Chiesa (L’opera di Pietro Chiesa, no. 234, vol. III), considering him a master and a reference figure: “But whoever examines his works can recognise, in these pieces, the documentation of the creation of exceptional prototypes, of precursor forms, forms – here is the importance, the truth, the reality – validated by a perfect technique and not only “proposed”, examples of real production and not of hypothetical models, not research but achievement. Today, when importance is given to Industrial Art and Industrial Design, certain pieces by Chiesa (I call them the “classics” of Chiesa) can be a text and we propose them to the consideration of those competent and new international enthusiasts, to whom, for the interval of ten years since the beginning of the war, these are new things. In the field of art production, as well as in that of architecture and furnishings, an international review of certain Italian precursor values and of so many other achievements created by us over the last thirty years is now necessary. (3)

Floor lamp 0312(1933 – “0312” floor lamp for Fontana Arte – Pietro Chiesa – Photo courtesy: Historical Archives Chiara Baldacci)

The Luminator case

“Luminator, the greatest contribution to modern rational lighting technology” was how the Italian lighting company Luminator presented itself on the pages of Casabell no. 68 – 69, September 1933, p. III. The lighting technology qualities were praised in the booklet Luminator luce d’aurora, advertising, published by Domus in 1934: “Source of invisible light; relaxing white light; absolute absence of shadows; absence of red rays; use in any room”.

During the Thirties the Luminator case was born, the floor lamp with indirect lighting: a “type” that, variously interpreted in countless models, is still present and reproposed today. The term Luminator not only recalls a curious linguistic fact (this was in fact the name of a famous lamp-sculpture, a unique piece), but also defines those fixtures produced in the 1930s by a specific brand: Luminator Italia. Finally, it identifies a rich series of lamps signed in various decades by different designers. Luciano Baldessari’s project, designed in 1926 and produced for the Barcelona International Exhibition of 1929, already bears the name Luminator. Its human-sized form is proposed as an ‘illuminating mannequin’ and has clear relations with Futurist figurative culture (still present) and with contemporary Constructivist culture. Although it remained at the prototype stage, it was widely echoed for its links with the artistic universe of the period. We find the same term in 1930 -1932, linked this time to a company, the aforementioned Luminator Italiana, which re-proposed Baldessari’s type of structure with more essential forms. Produced in 1985 by Luceplan: chromed cylinder and arm (red or black) rotating, white cone.

Luminator floor lamp from 1985(1985 – “Luminator” floor lamp for Luceplan – Luciano Baldessari – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Almost contemporary is the Luminator in painted brass designed by Pietro Chiesa for Fontana Arte, still present in the catalogue today. A very different lighting design from Baldessari’s, with more rigorous lines; a single sign, the stem with a circular section, widens towards the top, creating a truncated cone to give space to the reflector’s cap.

The Luminator lamp(1932 – “Luminator” floor lamp for Fontana Arte – Pietro Chiesa – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

This same object was reinterpreted in 1955 by Achille and Piergiacomo Castiglioni for Gilardi and Barzaghi: the reflective metal cap was replaced by a simple light bulb with a silver cap that shielded the light laterally to project the entire flow of light emission at the top, upwards. Reduced to a pure support for the light source, the luminaire thus becomes very simple and essential. Awarded the Compasso d’Oro in 1955. (4)

Floor lamp in collaboration with Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni(1954 – “Luminator” floor lamp for Flos – Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni – Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

From the 1960s onwards, with the proliferation of models and the great productivity of the economic boom period, modern lighting, the indirect light standing italian lighting was again proposed with different light sources and various materials. (5)

(1) Fontana Arte, Repertoire, Bolzano, 2020, Fontana Arte
(2) Anty Pansera. Dictionary of Italian Design, Milan, 1995, Cantini Editore
(3) Piero Castiglioni, Chiara Baldacci, Giuseppe Biondo, Lux: Italia 1930-1990. L’architettura della luce, 1991, Berenice, Milan.
(4) Alberto Bassi, La luce italiana, 2003, Milan, Electa
(5) Piero Castiglioni, Chiara Baldacci, Giuseppe Biondo, Lux: Italia 1930-1990. The architecture of light, 1991, Berenice, Milan

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