The Denver Art Museum takes a look at the works of an influential woman architect and designer in the DAM's collection.
For two months during the summer of 1994, visitors to the Denver Art Museum could observe furniture, lighting, and other objects of design displaying striking colors, flamboyant shapes, and imaginative uses of materials in Masterworks: Italian Design, 1960–1994. Masterworks was the first major exhibition organized by the then newly established department of architecture and design and the first comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Italian design in the United States in two decades. The show examined Italy’s postwar explosion of design and included some 150 objects by Italian designers, studios, and manufacturers, such as Cini Boeri, Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Gufram, Vico Magistretti, Gaetano Pesce, Ettore Sottsass, Studio 65, and many more.
Most of the objects on view in Masterworks were acquired by the museum after the close of the show, and the collected works formed the foundation for what is now one of the most notable holdings of contemporary Italian design in America. Three examples from this noteworthy acquisition were designed by the influential architect and designer Gae Aulenti (1927–2012). Today, the museum holds six works by Aulenti in its collection, including the three lamps pictured here.
Aulenti was one of the few women working in architecture and design in postwar Italy. As early as the 1960s, her iconic creations, such as the Jumbo (1964) table and Pipistrello (1965) lamp, played a vital role in Italy’s global dominance within the field of product design. Aulenti’s transformation of the Gare d’Orsay in Paris from a train station into the Musée d’Orsay between 1980 and 1986 is one of her most acclaimed projects and it garnered her and her architectural practice international fame. But although Aulenti realized over 700 projects of varying scales, she remains relatively unknown outside her native Italy.
In the 1960s Aulenti established her reputation as an interior designer with her dramatic showrooms in Paris and Buenos Aires for the Italian typewriter manufacturer Olivetti. In Paris, she employed white laminated plastic for the multileveled display surfaces to emphasize the highly contemporary quality of the Olivetti products. She also incorporated her Pipistrello (Italian for “bat”) lamps. One of her most iconic objects, they are produced to this day by Martinelli Luce, an Italian manufacturer of lamps and lighting devices. The height of the lamp can be adjusted by moving its telescopic stainless steel shaft up and down. When lit, the sweeping curves of the lamp’s transparent plastic shade glow and provide a diffused light. The lamps not only improved the general illumination of Olivetti’s Paris shop, but also made the showroom more interesting with their soft, biomorphic shapes.
Aulenti would go on to create numerous lighting designs over the course of her career, including the Sun King lamps, originally produced by Kartell for the Olivetti showroom in Buenos Aires in 1967. The following year, she designed another remarkably sculptural table lamp for Martinelli Luce called La Ruspa. Drawing inspiration from the arm of an excavator, La Ruspa (Italian for “bulldozer”) has an adjustable, articulated arm made of extruded aluminum. Its swiveling, robot-like reflectors provided an infinite number of ways to direct the light.
In 1972, Aulenti designed the Pileo, Mezzopileo, and Pileino lamps for Artemide. The floor and two table lamps were named after pileus, the Latin word for “cap.” In the ancient world, the term referred to the cap of a mushroom as well as a type of hat. The lamp’s moveable cap allows for light to be directed in different directions at varying intensity.
That same year, Aulenti was one of a small number of women invited to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. Aulenti designed a system of three red plastic architectural elements that could be arranged to form a variety of spatial experiences and modes of domestic organization. Seats, beds, storage spaces, other functions, and a multiplicity of uses would emerge as the composition shifted. Her aim was to create furniture that would appear in a room as buildings on a skyline and remind the viewer of “the interaction between objects of design and architectural space.”
Aulenti’s designs arrest the eye and remain unforgettable. Her vast range of work—from architecture and exhibition design to interiors and furniture—reveal her immense versatility and passion for providing visionary design solutions. Aulenti occupies an unquestionable position in the history of design, not only in Italy but worldwide.