Italian job: Why the lighting house of Artemide has been an icon since the 1960s

Italian job: Why the lighting house of Artemide has  been an icon since the 1960s
Tolomeo Tavolo c.1986, simply the perfect working desk lamp. Minis from €214, lights.ie

Iconic lighting is a real Italian job, reports Kya deLongchamps as she charts the popularity of Artemide

The bold, hip, exploratory nature of the 1960s and early 1970s resulted in a wild departure from expected forms. Lighting is one area of mid-century madness that has survived and thrived in our current collections almost uninterrupted. Designers hit so many high lights - appreciated by architects and decorators, keeping particular lighting ranges in production for over half a century.

Inspiration was taken from the best of art deco and early modernism of the 30s and developed through the lens of post-war shifts. Music, politics, sexual liberation, and the democratisation of design by visionary manufacturers with their own design studios changed the market. The idea of total design, where architects took charge of every element of a commercial building or one-off super-houses, experimenting with new materials, invoked unfettered creativity.

The public bought into this bright future as lights trickled down to the high street through the growth of interiors publications and trade shows. Presented on the high street, this new wave would have stiffened the hairspray of even adventurous middle-aged homeowners, used to oriental style lanterns, plain cylinders, chandelier drops, and simple glass blossom style shades. This was the time in which we pierced the Earth’s outer atmosphere — anything seemed possible.

The Italians have a long history of glass and fine metalwork making, reaching back to the Renaissance. Artemide is still very much in business since 1957 in Pregnana Milanese, and was most recently awarded the prestigious Archiproducts Design Award for their flexible tube light — La Linea. Its minimalist, futuristic lighting fixtures include perennial award-winning collaborations over six decades with feted architects including Naoto Fukasawa, David Chipperfield, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Karim Rashid, and Herzog and De Meuron.

Nessino in glossy thermoplastic as seen on Roger’s desk in HBO’s ‘Mad Men’.
Nessino in glossy thermoplastic as seen on Roger’s desk in HBO’s ‘Mad Men’.

Starting small, the Eclisse by Vico Magistretti c 1966 is a table steel lamp with a familiar form of a bubble set on a half shelf. Its space-age appearance is enhanced by an inner metal shade that can be turned over the bulb to direct the light, rather like an astronaut’s helmet shield. It recalls the sets of 2001 Space Odyssey and in a choice of colours Eclisse was an instant hit.

In orange, red, or white, the Eclisse offers a nice low point of balance, and excellent engineering for a side table or bedside. It can also be wall mounted from €154 from a range of suppliers.

The Dalu from Artemide is a similar aesthetic in sharp half ball on supporting cusp, also part of Magistretti’s ’60s run, this one in a single piece of thermoplastic. If you want metal belting to that rounded form — something slighting more urbane classic and sophisticated, look up the vintage Saffo lamps of Angelo Mangiarotti in mouth blown, etched Murano glass from Artemide. Try 1stdibs.

The other popular Artemide lamp on more daring desks including Roger’s in Mad Men is the Nessino. It’s a low, distinct capped mushroom shape, an organic eruption of lava in injection moulded polycarbonate by Giancarlo Mattioli & Gruppo Architetti Urbanisti Città Nuova. With its calming glow, throwing direct light down to your paperwork and diffusing light around its position, Nessino is part of the Century Design wing of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In a juicy 70s orange or galactic white, Nessino is impossible to ignore on or off, and would sit beautifully in a searing contemporary room looking for some style credentials beyond IKEA, in a pair to flank a sofa. Fabulous teamed to Lucite, Saarinen tulip based tables and quality glass surfacing; €144 for a full-size 32cm diameter lamp, ambientedirect.ie.

Eclisse by Artemide, from circa 1966 to today. Space-age styling with firm functionality, from €154, artemide.com.
Eclisse by Artemide, from circa 1966 to today. Space-age styling with firm functionality, from €154, artemide.com.

Much copied, but unlikely in a fake to be hand-built with the same quality specifications, the Tolomeo Tavolo c 1986 is the perfect desk lamp. The last time I saw one was hovering on the studio space of Dr Marc Ó Riain in The Architecture Factory in CIT, and it was a reminder what understated superb design can do. Created by Michele de Lucchi and finessed by Giancarlo Fassina, its action was inspired by a fishing device used by Apulian fishermen. The desk version has a heavy base and tensioned action to hold it in the perfect, highly precise position and angle. What makes it immediately identifiable is the small head, rather bird-like and industrial with a spike on the shade to adjust its illuminating pool.

A favourite in a 45cm with illustrators, graphic designers, and architects, the Tolomeo’s 360 swivel head was scattered over desks on Wall Street in the 1980s and the lamp retains a firm following in a rainbow of colours in aluminium. It won the prestigious the Compasso d’Oro design prize in 1989 and has been continuously redeveloped into a series of ball-jointed floor lamps and wall lamps. My choice would be a 45cm original width in a clamp, in black, but you decide. Prices range from €214 for a Tolomeo Micro, lights.ie and other suppliers.

A design winner in Milan and Frankfurt in 2004, I have to slither forward to offer up the Pipe ceiling fitting by Herzog & de Meuron for Artemide who built the Tate Modern. This is a curious Medusa style light fitting in tubular steel with a silicone cover that can snake its way in any direction and sits perfectly with the late mid-century trend for the wacky and wild line. The pierced side of the cone-shaped lamp head delivers what is termed ‘babbled’ light, and with its elegant articulation and functionality — it’s highly architectural. The Pipe can take a dimmable Led, and is a good alternative if you simply can’t stand a ceiling studded with direction spots. It can (like Eclisse) also be wall-mounted to peer at you in corridors and from over bed heads; from €800 from multiple suppliers for Artemide.

Explore the graded glass Gople collection designed by BIG — Bjarke Ingels Group and developed for the new AREA 2071 in Dubai. Quite Scandinavian with their graded glass pill-shaped pendant. Available in a crystal glass with a white gradient, or transparent glass with a silver or copper metallic finish, they can be staggered over a table for exquisite suspension that lightly shields the bulb; from €552, artemide.com.

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