N 2011, the British Prime Minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron, was described in a blog by Michelle Ogundehin, editor-in-chief at Elle Decoration magazine, as “cheap, hypocritical and fake”.
A bit harsh wouldn’t you say? She seems so lovely with her swingy hair and perfect teeth. This upset followed revelations in the UK press, that during Samantha’s interior fluff up of No10, she had bought a Flos Arco knock-off saving herself and the nation £1,100 and change on an original lamp at Heals in London W2 (for about £1,372).
To commit this hideous sin against the design legacy of Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni (1962) was one thing, but to be caught in the open with her imposter lamp, made the nation’s first lady a target for mid-century passions worldwide.
Mrs Cameron had done nothing illegal. The copyright on industrial designs expires 25 years after it is issued in the UK. Still, as a former director of luxury stationer, Smythson, carrying a phony Arco into the most iconic address in London, was seen by some to show a lack of social poise, an indifference to the principles surrounding intellectual property, and a lack of sensitivity towards those with £1,372 to spend.
The delighted bragging still survives on the pages of the retailer of the Ergo/Arco, a business called Iconic Lights (who have reduced their price to £189/€254.60 for any other cheap, hypocritical, fakes who are in the market). To one side of this aesthetic row, the austerity lamp is a replica, to the other — a rip-off. Elitist or champions of copyright — you decide.
The websites offering these ‘inspired’ pieces are emblazoned with the names and design histories of the original makers. They don’t see the conflict. Ironically, if you want the black base which Flos once supplied, you will have to buy a replica as they don’t make one anymore.
Heals, dealers for the Flos Arco, also do a ‘Mini Lounge Lamp’ for £380 inspired they say, by ’80s Modernism’, which looks oddly like a copper Arco plucked off its plinth.
For my money, none of which is going to Heals or Iconic Lights, the sad truth is that the Arco has become something of a weary design cliché, applied in thousands of illustrated room sets in reproduction and genuine examples.
Its shining orb in spun aluminium bobs in well appointed contemporary homes as a lofty flag on the safe side of good middle class taste. The Cameron’s had the faux Arco dangling rudely over the breakfast table as if spying on their conversation deep among the muffins.
It’s a majestic piece that needs room to breathe and is often planted in a standard space with awkward results, diminishing its potential impact.
All this controversy and over-exposure is a pity, because the Arco lamp remains a beautiful object that fulfilled a design brief in a spare and elegant triumph of just two materials.
The Castiglioni brothers had a playful approach to design that often incorporated found objects, including most their famously prototype seating made with tractor seats and bicycle seats.
Achille’s students at the Politecnico di Milan, were expected to open their eyes, apply common sense to aesthetics, and make something of everything. The Arco, is inspired by a street light elasticated into a minimal informal object and it typifies the work of Achille in particular.
The base of the Arco (vital to its balance), is a startling monolith, machined from a hearty block of Carrere marble with a softly bevelled edge, the weight of a smallish woman.
It has a generous hole drilled through it, allowing the lamp can be safely carried across the room with the aid of a broomstick and two willing bearers. A slender stem reaches gracefully up and over, cresting at over two metres and providing enough room to place a bed or large sofa beneath, the bloom of light suspended low enough for reading in a softly ebbing pool of light.
The Arco can be described as an overhead light or a floor light — that’s its essential genius. It’s a masterpiece of engineering. Lengths of the arc can be retracted to vary the size of the lamp and the swivelling aluminium reflector is adjustable too.
It can be dropped into and out of the conversation, widening its beam as needed.
Today the Arco comes in an LED version in satinated stainless steel, and there’s even a ‘memory function’ foot switch guiding three different light intensities.
The Arco may be all mass-produced and mass-copied, it is visually intrusive in the wrong setting, but it remains without doubt a singular design treasure.