Without Light, There is No Color
A Rare Lamp by Ettore Sottsass
In 1926, Luciano Baldessari designed his iconic Luminator light sculpture for the Barcelona International Exhibition of 1929. Conceived as a sculpture, or as the artist described it, a “mechanized mannequin,” the work was more of an expression of an idea than a solution to a lighting problem. This work stands as the agitator for a lineage of Italian lights that broke with the prevalent classicism of the Novecento tradition, ushering in the modern era of design in Italy. The motif of a light column with flaring top was further streamlined in 1936 by Pietro Chiesa whose form expressed the zeitgeist of Italy between the wars. Within five years, all of Italy’s infrastructure would be destroyed, leaving artists and architects to ponder a bleak future but with a clear vision to depart from the tragic past.
Sottsass says, “when you mix colors, you’re not simply mixing colors. You are making a statement by combining the colors just as you would put together a sentence, word by word. And in the end, a meaning emerges.”
“Design arrived in Italy as a theoretical thought, not as practice” according to Ettore Sottsass, Jr., whose father’s architecture adhered to Rationalist principles. A young Ettore broke from his Rational fundamentals to pursue a more plastic art, focusing on the creative practice of the Abstract Expressionists in America. Additionally, an intellectual undercurrent to the early architectural work by Sottsass fostered an exploration of the metaphysical and spiritual.
The present floor lamp, one of only a few known examples, bookends a creative period in the late 1950s for Ettore Sottsass. His illuminated sculptural lights at this time are designed for function but also as a creative endeavor. The progression of form in his lamps appear as totems or signals and, as Sottsass says, “when you mix colors, you’re not simply mixing colors. You are making a statement by combining the colors just as you would put together a sentence, word by word. And in the end, a meaning emerges.”
The vessels are more than simply decorative objects; they are talismans, containers whose purpose, like architecture, is about expressing the void.
A simple geometry of a turned flaring column appears often in Sottsass’ oeuvre, starting with this Luminator lamp, reappearing at different scales and proportions in colorful series of enigmatic ceramics, enamels and glass from the 1950s through the 1970s. The vessels are more than simply decorative objects; they are talismans, containers whose purpose, like architecture, is about expressing the void. The lights, in turn, illuminate the darkness, because “without light, there is no color.” This seemingly familiar yet unknown geometry is referred to as Svatsura, or countersink. The idea is the drilled hole with a second, countersunk space that is the domain of the carpenter. Here, that void is the form, and its opposite is the void that surrounds the vessel in infinite space. This intellectual, spacial flip finds a final expression in the Callimaco lamp of 1982.
Anonymous, abstract, mathematical space can be turned into something human and real if one can squeeze out of it the colors it contains.