Achille Castiglioni in his Milan studio in the late '60s, reading under the Arco lamp he designed with his brother, Pier Giacomo, in 1962
The Arco lamp is one of those classic designs where form and function meet and live happily ever after. Designed in 1962 by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, it is so practical as to seem almost obvious — how else would you turn a floor lamp into an overhead light? — but the Castiglionis' interest in ready-mades and functionalism makes this design complex in its simplicity.
The Arco design, like the many other designs by the Castiglioni brothers, simply makes sense while also being visually appealing. An overhead light without the hassle of wiring, it was supposedly inspired by a street lamp, one of many instances where Achille Castiglioni looked to mass-produced everyday items as a springboard for reinventing domestic objects. The impressive chunk of Carrera marble that serves as the base is both decorative and essential to the piece's physical balance, while the hole in the base is so a couple people can carry it using a broom handle (great idea for a relay race?). The generous sweep of its neck makes the Arco practical and versatile, accomplishing so much with an elegant economy of form and material.
Although Achille and Pier Giacomo designed the Arco lamp and many other objects in tandem, it is Achille who is credited with establishing their design philosophy and practice. His overriding concept was the idea of the designer as problem solver, creating objects to fulfill needs that the consumer has — or maybe didn't know he has. As a professor of a course in Industrial Design at Politecnico di Milano (which MoMA curator Paola Antonelli took alongside 13,000 other students), he would come to class with a bag full of the found objects that he collected — things like galoshes, colanders, and, famously, a milking stool (designers seem to love traditional milking stools — Charlotte Perriand made a beautiful one for her 1955 Tokyo exhibition), all things that were simple of form and perfectly suited to their function without being 'designed.'
This interest in found objects was more than just academic — Castiglioni applied it to his design practice, too. His most famous pieces that incorporate "ready-mades" were the Sella ("saddle") stool, with a bicycle seat to perch on and a rounded base, for people who literally can't sit still (really for people talking on the phone, back when that meant you were tethered by a coiled wire), and the Mezzadro stool, which used a ready-made tractor seat.
Tractors and bicycles are unlikely inspirations for domestic furniture, and these pieces place Castiglioni in the tradition of Modernist designers who saw the industrial arena as a wellspring of functionalism — Le Corbusier loved grain silos and cars for the same reason. The sense of humor in these pieces, on the other hand, reminds some people of the Dadaists, while others see Castiglioni as a proto-Post-Modernist, especially given some of his 'Expressionist' designs like the Snoopy Table Lamp.
Whatever inadequate categories we can try to apply to the Castiglioni brothers, their designs were always grounded in practicality — of form, materials and technologies used. The Arco lamp may be ubiquitous at this point, but only, I would argue, because it is such a successful piece of design. What do you think, do you love it, or are you tired of it?
Want it? The Arco lamp is available through Design Within Reach for $2,696; Price too steep? For a mere $205, you can buy a 1:6 miniature of the Mezzadro stool — that's one stylish dollhouse! Lighting products by the Castiglioni brothers are available through Flos and Luminaire.
Sources: This great official website has lovely descriptions of all the products. In Milano? Go to the Studio Museum Achille Castiglioni and see where the magic happened. Or, you can read this essay by MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, part of a much more complete look at Achille's career and work from MoMA's 1997 show.
Images: 1 Achille Castiglioni in his Milan studio (now a museum), image from Alice Rawsthorn's New York Times review of the museum; 2 A fun in situ photo of the Arco lamp, from a Domino shoot, via Pure Green Design; 3 What I believe to be a modified Arco lamp in designer Eero Aarnio's Finnish home, image from Aaron's recent House Tour; 4 The Sella stool (1957) by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, image from e-potpourri.com; 5 The Mezzadro stool (1957) by the Castiglioni brothers, image from Wikimedia Commons.