For this month’s The Edit, we explore the eternally covetable world of mid-century lighting design in Italy and its unlikely resurgence — both the superstar names and its lesser-known practitioners.
At the Upper East Side home of designers Chris Stone and David Fox, a Fontana Arte pendant has been hung to sit in dialogue with their collection of cutting-edge contemporary art, speaking to the Italian lighting masters’ timeless appeal.
From the exquisite dappled glow of a painting by Piero della Francesca, to the stormy chiaroscuro of a Baroque painting by Caravaggio, the symbolism of light has been explored with rare sensitivity and intelligence by Italian artists across the centuries. With the rise of Milan in the mid-20th century as a locus for innovative interiors, it appears designers took up the mantle of their creative ancestors by adapting this mastery of light for more modest, domestic means.
The iconic Arco floor lamp, co-designed by Pier Giacomo Castiglioni with his brother Achille, here punctuating a cosy office space with minimalist flair.
To reel off just some of the iconic Italian design houses whose groundbreaking meditations on the play of light and shade across a room have shaped interior design globally, there are Stilnovo’s space-age ‘Sputnik’ chandeliers, Fontana Arte’s globular suspension lamps, or Gaetono Sciolari’s gilded geometric pendants. The sheer variety of forms and rhythms speak to the endless adaptability of these décor elements, and the possibilities of incorporating them into any style of interiors.
While the big-name pieces now reach premium prices — an elegant fitting by mid-century kingpin Gino Sarfatti was sold at Christie’s in 2013 for almost £60k — there are still works by the superstar designers across the whole spectrum. Within our curated network of dealers, Treasure Hunter stocks a well-curated selection of table and floor lamps, like this supremely sleek Stilnovo number, while Ed Butcher offers an eclectic array of fittings at a range of prices. The Moderns, meanwhile, have an impressive range of pieces by Gaetano Sciolari, including this fantastical, 12-light space-age wonder.
“Today, in a world where many objects are produced in the millions, it seems incredible to own a piece of which maybe only 100 were produced and that was made by a master of his field. It feels like a statement of luxury and distinction.”
At this Parisian home designed by mid-century architect Charles Zana, a chandelier by Italian master Gino Sarfatti sits front and centre as the room’s statement piece.
For those seeking to adopt the tasteful stylings of an Italian masterpiece on a budget that’s more mid than mid-century, you’re in luck. One of the quirks of the period was the remarkable number of artisans who adopted these styles and created playful and inventive pieces all of their own, but were lost to history. There’s a new wave of collectors interested in snapping up works by anonymous designers from the period, so keep a look-out — Circa Battersea, for example, stock a broad cross-section of pieces by designers both celebrated and unknown.
What marks these Italian designers out within the pantheon of lighting masters is not just their acute concern for the aesthetics of the lamp or chandelier, but their pioneering interest in the quality of light itself — from the technical and scientific properties of the nuances of glow dictated by a bulb’s wattage, to new qualities achievable by light-transmitting gasses like neon and halogen. It was a marriage of science and art worthy of Italy’s great cross-disciplinary heritage, again traceable back to the Renaissance masters.
Despite his reputation for complex, highly geometric designs, Gaetano Sciolari’s pendants can also fit seamlessly into a more classic setting.
Many of these designers initially trained as architects, which led to the limited runs of each product which make them now so highly coveted. It’s also, as Domenico Raimondo, a design specialist for Phillips auction house described in an interview with the Financial Times, what makes “their approach innovative and technical. There always seems to be something fresh and the work is never repetitive.” Despite each piece carrying a story all of its own, they’re also surprisingly adaptable. As the days grow shorter in the approach to autumn, it couldn’t be a better time to take a leaf out of these artisans’ books and remind ourselves that a well-lit room can have a surprisingly cheering effect.