The Brief, Wondrous Career of Joe Colombo

published Apr 15, 2010
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In honor of the Small Cool 2010 Contest, let’s look at the work of the Milanese designer Cesare “Joe” Colombo (1930-1971), whose designs took efficiency to new, futuristic levels, while conveying a space-age sexiness that still appeals today.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Beginning in the 1960s, Colombo experimented with new materials like plastics to create the “environment of the future.” This was the era of the Space Race, and movies like Barbarella and 2001: A Space Odyssey presented spacecraft as the archetypal futuristic living environment.

Colombo didn’t just see the romanticism of these self-contained pods, he felt that they accurately expressed shifts in human lifestyle:

“Traditional families are tending to give way to small groups created on the basis of affinity. We will have, in short, the natural tribal society … These groups living and working in common will require a new type of habitat: spaces that can be transformed, spaces conducive to meditation and experimentation, to intimacy and to interpersonal exchanges.”

In Colombo’s vision, what people now needed was efficient living equipment that they could take with them in a society that was increasingly mobile, both physically and socially.

All of Joe Colombo’s designs from the final decade of his life explored themes of portability, efficiency, and new kinds of living environments. His Boby Portable Storage System (image 4) presented a neat organizational solution in a glossy lipstick finish, while his Tube Chair (image 5) came with a special assembly kit so the user could customize the configuration for maximum comfort.

Colombo’s most revolutionary designs were true living machines, self-contained equipment that plugged into the wall and re-imagined how objects could fulfill human needs in the new world order.

The Mini-Kitchen from 1964 (images 2 & 3) was a small block that included a refrigerator, two stovetop burners, lots of storage drawers, and electrical outlets for small appliances (It has recently been reproduced by Boffi, if you want one of your own.) Another kitchen storage block was the Rotoliving System (images 11 & 12), which featured, among other conveniences, a rotating tabletop so a space could be either a living or a dining space.

This idea of the convertible space was taken to literal levels in Colombo’s Cabriolet bed (image 10), which featured a retractable canopy. The bed’s lighting system, which could simulate daytime or nighttime conditions, resonates with the idea that the new living environment needed to be able to function in any setting, including outer space. In the meantime, of course, the bed allowed for its users to enjoy a new level of privacy and convenience, and featured a built-in cigarette lighter, radio, telephone and electric fan.

Colombo combined all of these ideas of machines for living into his Total Furnishing Unit (images 1, 7-9), a large — but theoretically portable — block that comprised kitchen appliances and storage, bookshelves and television, bathroom, wardrobe and stowaway bed. The user only had to plug it in.

Sadly, Colombo died of heart failure before he could see the worldwide attention and critical fanfare that accompanied the unveiling of his Total Furnishing Unit at MoMA in 1972.

Although humans haven’t colonized outer space (yet), we have largely moved our lives into the virtual ether, and realized Colombo’s vision of forming “tribal” groups based on “affinity.” If his life hadn’t been cut so tragically short, who knows how Colombo would have helped accommodate and shape our future?

Sources: Design Boom is the best online resource for information and images about Joe Colombo’s life and work.

Images: 1 Joe Colombo’s Total Furnishing Unit (1971/2) via Design Boom; 2 & 3 Mini-Kitchen (1964), now reissued by Boffi; 4 Boby 3 Portable Storage System (1969) via Design Museum; 5 Self-Assembly Tube Chair (1969) via Design Museum; 6 Stackable Cups (1971) via MoMA; 7-9 The Total Furnishing Unit (1971/2) via Design Boom; 10 Cabriolet bed via Design Boom; 11-12 Rotoliving system via Design Boom.