The Rational Versus the Expressive

Lighting in Italy at Mid-Century

Design in Italy is defined by consistent innovation in material and style, and a cross-pollination of ideas. From fashion and automobiles to architecture and furniture, the quality and potency of design in Italy is unmatched for its allure and influence. Within the prevailing modes of expression, there are consistent poles that provide a counterbalance of ideals and ideas within Italy’s design spheres: Lamborghini and Ferrari, Versace and Prada, Mollino and Ponti. The relationship of Gino Sarfatti and Angelo Lelii, two titans of lighting design in Post-War Italy, echoes this parallel.

There are few precedents for the work of Gino Sarfatti, whose career began in 1939 and lasted nearly three decades. Largely through his company, Arteluce, Sarfatti produced hundreds of lighting designs, satisfying domestic and commercial needs for new lighting applications after the War. Sarfatti always began with the bulb. Whether a typical incandescent of various shapes or newly designed halogens, the bulb and its fixed place in space form the basis for every minimal housing and armature that connect this bulb to the environment. Unlike Sarfatti’s rationalist approach which can be understood as a logical set of ideals, Angelo Lelii’s innovation in lighting is typified by expressionistic and artistic tendencies without sacrificing function.

Angelo Lelii established his workshops in Monza, north of Milan, in 1943. Within three years, he had designed the most famous Italian light of the 20th century, the adjustable three-arm floor lamp. This seminal object was designed in 1946 and exhibited at the VIII Triennale of 1947, an exhibition dedicated to the rebuilding of industry in Italy, encouraging cost-conscious production for the masses. With a focus on exceptional quality, Lelii was able to strike a balance between production and innovation in subsequent designs, creating products with longevity both in style and material. Beyond satisfying a banal need for lighting in commercial or domestic interiors, Lelii’s lighting designs were current with developments in modern art.

The parallel of Lelii’s fixtures to the kinetic sculpture of Alexander Calder is uncanny, with adjustable metal armatures supporting primary-colored shades and counterweights which connect to the ceiling, wall or floor. However, the kinetic aspect comes not from the atmosphere, but through the interaction and adjustment of the user. Furthermore, the connection to art is literal in the widely known Easel lamp, 1958 whereas the connection to painting and sculpture is more metaphorical in the Surrealist Cobra lamp, 1964 or Op Art inspired President lamp, 1970. It is likely that Lelii wanted light fixtures not to disappear into an environment, but to be considered on equal footing with other aesthetic objects.

In his fixtures, Lelii allows for expression of materials through their intrinsic characteristics. Brass, chrome, perforated aluminum and steel coexist with glass murrines, perspex, magnets, wire or stone creating countless varieties of luminous form. In addition to his own designs, Lelii was instrumental in the development of lighting designs of the 20th century, producing important lighting fixtures by Gio Ponti, Nanda Vigo, Ettore Sottsass and Achille Castiglioni among many others. The legacy of Angelo Lelii is only now beginning to emerge, but what is certain is a lasting influence upon the designs of his peers as well as all generations that follow.