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Who Was Gae Aulenti and What Was Her Impact on Design?

Gae Aulenti is one of the most influential architects and designers of the post-war period. As early as the 1960s, her iconic creations – such as her Locus Solus series (1964), the Pipistrello (1965) and King Sun (1967) lamps – played a vital role in Italy’s global dominance within the field of product design. Join me in discovering why!

The Italian designer gained international renown for her transformation of a Parisian train station into the Musée d’Orsay (1980–1986). But although Aulenti realized over 700 projects, she is relatively unknown outside her native Italy. While the debate over the gender pay gap in architecture – and not only – is growing louder nowadays, try to imagine how strenuous should have been for a female Italian architect with southern origins to stand out in a city like Milan in the 50’s. But Gaetana Aulenti was one of a kind. The architect had to deal with the legacy of a Rationalist architectural style and a Fascist mentality, that openly condemned any kind of female emancipation, promoting instead a poetry of masculinity and minimalism.

Aulenti decided to express her resistance to the indifference towards everything that was negatively regarded as feminine through a trend that was looking for a form of continuity of the liberty style, a reinterpretation of Art Noveau with decorations, a reaction against the legacy of the Bauhaus: the Neoliberty.  If the architectural style did not find a proper glory and longevity, Gae Aulenti’s applications of Neoliberty’s dictates to industrial design are nonetheless interesting and celebrated.

The Stringa sofa (1963) and many other items Aulenti designed, she also used to furnish her own home. Additionally, she developed products for Zanotta, including a tubular steel version of Locus Solus (1964) and an extremely lightweight, easy-to-store folding chair, the Aprilina (1964). In 1970/71, she developed the latter into a more solid side-folding version with a matching footrest. The products she made concurrently for FontanaArte display her use of diverse materials and her innovative approach to her work. For instance, the top of the Giova (1964) glass lamp may be used as a vase, and the sculptural Rimorchiatore (1967), made of lacquered metal, is a hybrid lamp, vase, and ashtray.

Along with glass and metal, Aulenti also worked with other materials. Her Jumbo (1965) table for Knoll, for example, was made of marble. This massive item evinces her precisely constructed and architectural use of forms, which was visible already in her early designs. Aulenti established her reputation as an interior designer with her work for the typewriter manufacturer Olivetti’s showrooms in Paris (1966/67) and Buenos Aires (1968). In Paris, she used laminated plastic and stainless steel to emphasize the highly up-to-date quality of the products on display. She also made use of her Pipistrello (1965) lamps – one of her most iconic objects, to this day manufactured by Martinelli Luce. In Buenos Aires, she used mirrored ceilings to achieve a kaleidoscopic effect enhanced by her King Sun (1967) lamps, designed especially for this showroom like many of her objects. The oversized dimensions of this lamp, which might be unexpected at first glance, are echoed in other designs, such as her Ruspa and Oracolo lamps (both 1968). Her metamorphosis of the Gare d’Orsay in Paris from a train station into a museum between 1980 to 1986 is one of her best-known architectural projects, and it garnered her and her architectural practice international fame. This was followed by commissions to redesign the interior of the MNAM – Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1982–85), to renovate the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (1985/86), and to rebuild the Palau Nacional of Montjuïc in Barcelona between 1985 and 1992, which became the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Her work on the Gare d’Orsay included items she designed and which later were adopted for home use, such as picture frames with accompanying supports. Aulenti’s furnishings for Palazzo Grassi derived from her set designs for Gioachino Rossini’s opera Il viaggio a Reims. 

Gae Aulenti’s Life and Career

A native of Palazzolo dello Stella, Gaetana Aulenti (Gae, as she was known, is pronounced similarly to “guy”) studied to be an architect at the Milan School of Architecture of the Polytechnic University, and graduated in 1954 as one of two women in a class of 20. She grew up playing the piano and reading books. She told The Times that she studied architecture in defiance of her parents’ hope that she would become “a nice society girl.” She soon joined the staff of Casabella, a design magazine, and joined with her peers in rejecting the architecture of masters like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. They called themselves the “Neo Liberty” movement, where they favored traditional building methods coupled with individual stylistic expression. Aulenti insisted that designers should have freedom of expression, never being limited to one style or medium. Accordingly, she designed buildings, furniture, lighting, stage sets, interiors and graphics.

Aulenti began her career as a private-practicing architect and freelance designer out of Milan in 1954. Her architectural practice included many interior flat designs for corporate clients, including Fiat, Banca Commerciale Italiana, Pirelli, Olivetti, and Knoll International. Her freelance design work included products for Poltronova, Candle, Ideal Standard, Louis Vuitton, and Artemide, to name a few. Branching into written publication, Aulenti joined the editorial staff at the design magazine Casabella-Continuità from 1955 until 1965 as an art director, doing graphic design work, and later served on the board of directors for the renamed Lotus International magazine (based in Milan from 1974 onwards). During that time she became part of a group of young professionals influenced by the philosophy of Ernesto Nathan Rogers.

Aulenti taught at Venice School of Architecture as an assistant instructor in architectural composition from 1960 to 1962 and at the Milan School of Architecture of the Polytechnic University from 1964 to 1967. With these experiences, she became a visiting lecturer at congresses and professional institutions in Europe and North America from 1967 onwards. She sought membership in two of them, American Society of Interior Designers, 1967, and Member of Movimento Studi per I’Architettura, Milan, 1955-61. During that time, she also designed for a department store, La Rinascente, and later designed furniture for Zanotta, where she created two of her most well known pieces, the “April” folding chair which was made from stainless steel with a removable cover, and her “Sanmarco” table constructed from plate-glass. Transitioning from teaching, Aulenti joined Luca Ronconi as a collaborator in figurative research for Laboratorio di Progettazione Teatrale out of Prato, Florence (1976–79). She then also served as vice-president of the Italian Association Of Industrial Design (ADI).

In 1981, she was chosen to turn the 1900 Beaux Arts Gare d’Orsay train station, a spectacular landmark originally designed by Victor Laloux, into the Musée d’Orsay, a museum of mainly French art from 1848 to 1915. Her work on the Musée d’Orsay led to commissions to create a space for the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; the first being a restoration of the Palazzo Grassi as an art museum in Venice. The second of the commissions was a conversion of an old Italian embassy in Berlin into an Academy of Science, and the third was a restoration of a 1929 exhibition hall in Barcelona as Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. In San Francisco, she transformed the city’s Beaux Art Main Library into a museum of Asian art. In 2011, Aulenti oversaw the expansion of Perugia Airport. Aulenti also occasionally worked as a stage designer for Luca Ronconi, including for Samstag aus Licht (1984). She also planned six stores for the fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini, including one on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. She even designed the mannequins. Aulenti’s work in theater was highly architectural, as she saw ‘the scenic box not as a container to embellish and render recognizable in the sense of something already known, but as a real space in itself”. 


Gae Aulenti’s 10 Most Iconic Designs 

1.Musée d’Orsay – Paris

The architect converted and redesigned the Beaux Arts Gare d’Orsay Paris train station, creating an exhibiting central aisle under a dramatic glass ceiling. It was the first time for an industrial building to be restored to host such an important museum, and being Gae Aulenti’s most important experimental project, it worked out beautifully: every year millions of visitors pack into the Musée d’Orsay for an immersion into the world of the impressionists.

In this work, as in so many other Gae Aulenti projects, the great respect for the station’s original structure stands out. Great attention was paid to the lighting. The architect explained: “I think that the architecture of a museum should be defined by the type of natural and artificial lighting that must be arranged to allow the best perception of the works.” Not surprisingly, therefore, a lot of effort was poured into carefully defining the perfect lighting for each one of the more than 4,000 works exhibited, choosing limestone to best exploit the natural light projected inside through the glass ceiling.

As part of the redesign she created a grand central aisle in a cavernous space that once contained train tracks under a dramatic barrel-vaulted glass ceiling. Original support beams were highlighted, and new industrial materials like wire mesh were used. Walls were redone in rough stone. The renovated building was opened in December 1986, and critical reaction was mixed. Holland Cotter of The New York Times called it “fabulously eccentric.” But Libération, a French newspaper favored by the cognoscenti, said the museum had been “likened to a funeral hall, to a tomb, to a mausoleum, to an Egyptian burial monument, to a necropolis.” Ms. Aulenti noted that almost immediately 20,000 people were standing in line each day waiting to get in. “As a culture, the French are opposed to change,” she said in an interview with The Times in 1987. “They are also not very progressive in their thinking about architecture, so that when new buildings are designed, they are usually opposed to them.”


2. Pipistrello Lamp

Part of the MoMA permanent collection, the Pipistrello Lamp was designed for the Olivetti showrooms and then mass-produced by Martinelli Luce in the ’60s, when new plastic-molding techniques were making it possible to create any possible shape, including a bat’s outspread wings. By the 1960s, it could be argued that lighting design had come of age. This was influenced by several factors—booming post-war economic growth, the emergence of a new youth market eager to challenge established ideas about modern style, and the continuing development of lighting technologies and new plastics that encouraged greater experimentation with form and cheaper production. Italy had become an innovative manufacturing center investigating new materials and methods, and many of its young designers, including Gae Aulenti, were starting to question the rational severity of international modernism.

The Pipistrello (Italian for bat) lamp, is one of several lamps designed by Aulenti in the 1960s, when new plastics and plastic-molding techniques were making it possible to create almost any shape imaginable. The lamp’s name refers to the sweeping curves of the molded, segmented methacrylate shade that from some angles resembles a bat’s outspread wings. When lit, the translucent, opalescent material provides a diffused light. The shade glows, casting a soft light upward and a brighter light for work or reading below. Versatility and multiple function were also primary elements of Aulenti’s design. Configured here at the height of a table lamp, the central metal post is composed of three sections. The post can telescope from under two feet to over three feet, allowing the form to be used as a table lamp or low floor lamp. The modestly flaring enameled aluminum base is very stable. It is unobtrusive enough to stand on a desk or table, or next to a chair in a domestic interior. The functional yet expressive form of the Pipistrello lamp has become a design icon of the pop era.


3. Sgarsul Rocking Chair

An object with an embracing sinuosity that distances itself from the squared geometry of the period: in 1962 Gae Aulenti designed the Sgarsul rocking chair for Poltronova, the Italian firm that was enjoying Ettore Sottsass’ original artistic direction in the same years. The “Sgarsul” rocking chair is a reinterpretation of Thonet’s 1862 N1 cantilever armchair by Gae Aulenti.  In this project, bourgeois values are challenged by stripping them of their austere severity and reinterpreting them with irony. The structure, as in the original Thonet chairs, is made of curved beech wood but lacquered in a colour that lightens the visual weight: white, orange, and a few other iterations exist. 
The seat is made up of a couple of colour options of cowhide stitched shell, on which there are two padded cushions that provide extreme comfort: one for the nape of the neck and one to lift the knees. A timeless piece of design history: The wooden frame, whose continuous lines take the shape of a gigantic drop, is embellished by a soft padding is also extremely comfortable. 


4. Travolo Con Ruote Coffee Table

In 1979 Gae Aulenti was named artistic director at FontanaArte. During her almost 20 years in that company, she introduced some emblematic pieces and a new intuitive design style that goes straight from the idea to the development of the prototype. Tavolo con Ruote, designed by Gae Aulenti for FontanaArte in 1980, is a coffee table that plays with industrial aesthetics and modern minimalism. Aulenti got the idea for the table from industrial trolleys used at FontanaArte’s factory to transport glass – she replaced the trolley’s wooden shelf with a thick sheet of glass and combined it with large, free-rolling industrial wheels. Tavolo con Ruote is perfect for spaces where you need to move the coffee table every now and then, and its simple, straightforward design makes a charming addition to all types of interiors.


5. Stringa Sofa

‘Stringa’ sofa designed by Gae Aulenti for Poltranova in 1962. A tubular chrome frame with strong proportions and curves holds leather seats on top of upholstered cushions. The leather cushions are attached with leather straps over the frame. With the bright color of the leather, the blue fabric upholstery at the backrest and the appearance of the shiny steel a very strong appearance is created which gains expressions with the leather patina.

Italian furniture manufacturing company Poltronova was founded just north of Florence by Sergio Cammilli in 1957. Cammili had a background in art, and many believe it was the founder’s remarkable openness to bold creative expression that led the company to become one of the most daring in 20th-century Italian design. Soon after launching, Cammilli was introduced to young designer Ettore Sottsass, who was at the time designing ceramics for Bitossi, also located in the region around Florence. By 1958, Sottsass was hired to be Poltronova’s artistic director. In the early years, Poltronova concentrated on producing stylish, modernist furniture, often made in wood and sharing many features in common with midcentury designs from Scandinavia. Both Cammilli and Sottsass, however, had ambitions to do something more experimental.


6. Italian Institute of Culture – Tokyo

This is another of Gae Aulenti’s foreign projects, this time in Tokyo. Its 12 floors overlook the Imperial Gardens and have an exceptional view of the famous sakura cherry trees, unmissable during the flowering season. Certainly the building’s façades, as conceived by Aulenti, do not fade into the background with their corners in white marble and the walls in bright red, in tribute to the long Japanese artisan tradition of lacquers. The Italian Cultural Institute, which was located in Kudan-Minami, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, was completely rebuilt by Aulenti and reopened after more than 40 years. As an agency of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and one of the 88 Italian cultural institutes in the world, it aims to spread Italian culture in Japan and promote Italian-Japanese cultural exchange. The striking red of the central squares on the building are framed by beige stones. The lines are geometric and simple, yet with funky and shocking details. With the lights on, the windows shine a green light through a selected grouping, mimicking the colours of the italian flag through the design of the entire building. 


7. Piazzale Cardorna in Milan

Piazzale Cadorna (Cadorna Square) is sited in the centre of Milan, near Cadorna Railway Station. The square are dedicated to Italian Field Marshal Luigi Cadorna, famous for being chief of staff of the Italian army during the First World War. In the square is also sited the Cadorna metro station with 2 lines, green and red, of the Milan metro network. Once an unstructured space between Castello Sforzesco and the Magenta district, Piazzale Cadorna has become a new port of entry to the city. Now it is dominated by the ugly mass of the Cadorna station where thousands of commuters are disgorged into the city each morning. In 1998, the railway company and Milan City Council commissioned Gae Aulenti to reorganise the area. The operation rationalised the road system with traffic dividers created by water tanks, and created a vast pedestrian area for train passengers partly covered by aluminium and glass structures joined to the station facade. The attractive forest of red pillars, the water that flows from the beams of the platform roof, and the transparent covers bring to mind a 19th century covered market. They are part of a courageous an interesting architectural project initiated by the city and crowned by the majestic sculpture of Claes Oldenburg and Coosije van Bruggen. It is an enormous steel needle 18 meters tall wrapped in a highly colored glass resin that gives a new vital identity to the square and around which the life of the square revolves. The sculpture was installed as part of Aulenti’s redesign of the square in 1999. 


8. April Folding Chair 

Functional without compromising on aesthetic, the April Folding Chair was designed by Gae Aulenti and is manufactured by Italian furniture specialists, Zanotta, with a frame crafted from 18/8 stainless steel, and a leather upholstered seat and back. Classic in appearance, the April Folding Chair is timelessly contemporary, with a simple mechanism meaning it folds vertically in seconds, for easy storage when no longer required, while the structure ensures a stable seat wherever you may need it. The April Folding Chair is suitable for use outside, or would make a unique alternative to a side chair, with its beautifully soft full-grain upholstery creating the ideal enhancement to the stainless steel frame. The chair was designed by Aulenti in 1964. One of the most acclaimed high end Italian furniture designers of our time, Zanotta Design Company has a story filled with passion, innovation and achievements. Like a map, the story of Zanotta documents their rise to success and fame. When Aurelio Zanotta launched the industrial furniture design Company Zanotta, it was 1954 in a township called Nova Milanese in northern Italy where the doors of the company first opened. Little did anyone know that Zanotta was on the brink of starting a revolutionary period within the Italian furniture design industry. Beginning with the production of mostly sofas and armchairs, the 1960’s brought on a creative wave of experimentation with technology as well as unique scales and proportions in furniture design.


9. Parola Table Lamp

Designed by Gae Aulenti and Piero Castiglioni, the Parola lamp features three different kinds of glass working processes: opaline blown glass for the adjustable shade, natural glass for the stem and natural beveled crystal for the base. It is an exemplary model of technical integration between artisan and industrial skills. “The architectural mark should be strong but light,” Italian designer Gae Aulenti once said, crafting the timeless Parola lamp for FontanaArte together with Piero Castiglioni, the maestro of light. The observation couldn’t be more fitting, finding resonance in a single lamp featuring three different glass working processes: the adjustable lampshade in opaline blown glass, natural glass (Pyrex) for the stem and natural beveled crystal for the base in either the table or floor versions. An object as delicate in its materiality as it is imposing in its visual appearance, the lamp was conceived in the 80’s and is still considered among the most beautiful and easy to use contemporary lamps on the market.

With the perfect technical integration between craftsmanship, big industry, and design, the Parola lamp pulls rich materialistic contrasts from the glass: solid and fragile, natural and artificial, ancestral and industrial. On one hand, we have the dexterity to create a blown glass object without technologically advanced tools, and on the other, the modern knowledge of resistance to sudden temperature changes and corrosion by atmospheric elements in everything from silicon glass to brilliant crystal, tied together by the refined lines of Gae Aulenti.


10. Locus Solus Tubular Armchairs

Gae Aulenti for Zanotta, pair of ‘Locus Solus’ armchairs, chromed tubular steel, blue leatherette, Italy, 1964 The ‘Locus Solus’ armchairs are designed by Gae Aulenti and produced by Poltronova. They are one of Aulenti’s most playful design pieces, with close features of the architectural structures she designed for Milan’s Piazza Cadorna. The design was initially meant for outdoor use and merged functional aspects with pop attitude. The tubular chairs are also featured in the iconic movie ‘La Piscine’, for which Aulenti created them in bright yellow. This chromed version with blue leatherette seats have a more classic appearance and can be a great addition to a contemporary home.


Gae Aulenti was an innovator and a woman who pushed boundaries, both being a woman in her field at the time, and in her designs. In her work in Paris, Ms. Aulenti said, she got her way with tough French construction crews by making them think of her as their mother “whom they must please.” She dressed conservatively, not out of indifference to fashion, she said, but defiance. “I don’t like to dress alla moda,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in 1971, using the Italian term for in fashion. “The moment it’s loudly announced that red is fashion, I stop wearing red. I want to dress in green.”

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