Stunning, Rare Italian Lighting Evokes The Thrill Of The Atomic Age [Slideshow]

A new exhibit features gorgeous lighting by Ettore Sottsass, Joe Colombo, and Gino Sarfatti.

Before Jason Miller and Tom Dixon and the handful of other lighting alchemists design journos rhapsodize about nowadays (us included), there was Gino Sarfatti, an Italian aeronaval engineer and one of the most important lighting designers of the last century.


Sarfatti had a pragmatist’s eye and a poet’s soul.

Sarfatti led the charge illuminating post-war Europe with a pragmatist’s eye (?I have never been interested in form,? he reportedly said) and a poet’s soul. Through his company Arteluce (later gobbled up by Flos), he created fixtures that could pass for gorgeous science experiments, whether a chandelier reduced to a wreath of metallic tubes or a ball-shaped shade pressed between Perspex, like some kind of planet frozen in orbit. Now, his designs form the bedrock of a stunning new exhibit at Galerie BSL in Paris on rare Italian lighting from the 1950s to the 1980s. It highlights 20 works from masters of mid-century design including Ettore Sottsass, Joe Colombo, and of course Sarfatti himself.

Most of the lamps are very much of the era. Sarfatti’s powdery pink Moon lamp, above, scatters tiny incandescent lights under a glass globe as if they were lunar craters and Sottsass’s arching pink neon Asteroid lamp is a pop interpretation of, yes, an asteroid. A quirky little table lamp by Angelo Lelli (above) looks uncannily like Sputnik. In these pieces, and others, Sarfatti and his colleagues literally and metaphorically shined the spotlight on the excitement and the anxieties of the Atomic Age.

What’s extraordinary, though, is that the lamps don’t seem dated. Okay, some are a little dated. Perspex doesn’t exactly scream 21st century, nor do incandescent bulbs. But in a strict formal sense — in the sense Sarfatti so vehemently rebuked — some feel downright radical. Sarfatti’s N°1063 is an astonishingly minimal sliver of a 7-foot-tall floor lamp that could stand alongside the latest lighting fixture by Dixon or Miller, and you’d be hard-pressed to guess which one is new and which one is more than 50 years old.

[Images courtesy of Galerie BSL]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.