Gae Aulenti’s Theater of Italian Design

Architect, industrial and interior designer, curator, urban planner, lecturer, theorist, and author: There are few design professions that Gae Aulenti has not practiced. Among the prodigious Italian’s works are the FIAT showrooms in Brussels and Zurich (1969-70); the Musée d’Orsay (1980-86) and reinstallation of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at Centre Pompidou (1982-85), both in Paris; the Pipistrello lamp for Martinelli Luce (1965); the adaptive reuse of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (2003); the stage design for “Elektra” by Richard Strauss at the Teatro La Scala in Milan (1994); and exhibition designs for the 2001 Milan Triennale.

Although now in her mid-70s, Ms. Aulenti continues to explore our relationships to design. For example, for the recent exhibit “1950-2000: Theater of Italian Creativity,” which she co-curated with Italian scholars Vanni Pasca and Pierluigi Cerri, she examined Italy’s fashion, film, architecture, industrial design, and products over the last half of the 20th century. After gathering the results—over 1000 objects that represented nearly every aspect of the country’s modern design, from a 1950s Vespa to a Ducati monster motorcycle—she then put them in social and cultural context, providing the back story of how and why they came to be.

For this exclusive interview, Ms. Aulenti led Metropolis senior editor Paul Makovsky through the exhibition, which was held Oct. 10-26 at the Gallery in New York City. The two spoke about the show, her work, and the lasting effects of Italian style.

Paul Makovsky: You begin the exhibition in 1950. Where were you at the time?
Gae Aulenti: I was studying architecture at the Polytechnical Institute in Milano. After that, I went to work at Casabella-Continuità magazine with the maestro Ernesto Rogers. I was there with other young architects like Aldo Rossi and Carlo Aymonino and we were interested in the examining the modern movement and recognizing the idea of beginning in a new way. It was a beautiful magazine and it played an important role around the world.

“Theater of Italian Creativity” starts with the iconic Vespa. Tell me a story about you and a Vespa.
(Smiles) I had a Vespa that year because my parents lived in a little town near Milano, in Piedmonte (about 100 km from the city). After three or four months my Vespa was stolen, but my father gave me a Fiat Topolino car.

All the objects in the exhibition are linked to the life of people my age. It was after the war, after fascism, and a period with a lot of energy and with people who wanted to go in a new direction. They wanted to breathe.

You see, before World War II, Italians historically emigrated to work in other countries, like Germany or the United States. In the years after the war, people decided that they didn’t want to work in America. They wanted to stay in Italy. It was a turning point. So to represent this period, we included in the exhibition objects that were mass-produced in Italy for the first time, like the Vespa, the Fiat car, and Fiat refrigerator. We also included other objects that reflected the period, like a chair by Gio Ponti and a model of the Pirelli building in Milano by Ernesto Rogers.

Where were you in 1960?
I was still working at Casabella-Continuità in Milano. I got my graduate degree and began to design.

At Casabella, did you use an Olivetti typewriter?
Oh yes, and later, I used the red one [the Valentine], of course. (laughs)

Did you approach companies to put your designs into production?
No. When I first started studying architecture, I was the only woman in the school. At the time, they didn’t give women architects jobs. I only began to do real architecture after being out of school for ten years. For example, I designed the Pipistrello lamp for the Olivetti showroom in Paris in 1964. Only after this did the producer put the lamp into production, and it’s still in production today.

Did you work on the Olivetti showrooms in New York?
No, they were done by other designers from Ernesto Rogers’s generation. I did the Olivetti showrooms in Paris and in Buenos Aires.

In the 1960s section, there’s a very Pop sensibility with the Italian objects shown. I think we see that even with your Pipistrello lamp.
When an exhibition of American Pop Art opened in Venice, we were all astonished. It was a new thing and we had to think in another way.

I find that in the Italian Pop Art movement, the Italians are strongest with their objects and not with their paintings.
Yes, I agree.

When did you start to do exhibition design?
I began many, many years ago, and we included in this show an installation sketch I did for the “New Domestic Landscape” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972. I did a lot of exhibitions after that, but in any case I was trying to be an architect and wanted to become an architect. Finally, I am one.

When did you design your first house or building?
At the end of the ’50s, I designed a stable with a residence above it that was located outside of Milano. The house was demolished about five years ago.

By the 1970s, are you still in Milano?
Yes, I am, but I was an adventurer: I traveled the world to study and research architecture from different parts of the world. In Italian “avventuriero” (adventurer) has a very negative meaning. I started in Buenos Aires where I designed the Olivetti showrooms. From there, I visited different South American countries, and then the United States. I felt it was necessary to leave Italy about two or three times a year, so I could breathe. After that, I visited Asia, traveling to countries like India and Indonesia. For example, I would stay for two weeks in India and study Hindu architecture. It wasn’t really very “touristic.”

Did you visit China?
Oh yes. I first visited it in 1973, when Mao Tse Tung was in power.

That was pretty radical to do something like that.
Yes, and at the time it was difficult.

What’s the general feeling in design in Italy during the 1970s?
This was a period when designers were interested in researching systems, like the work of Enzo Mari, which reflects one way of doing many objects based on one modular system. There was a new desire to be rational. To reflect this period in the exhibition, we included examples like the Zanotta Quarderna table by Superstudio, and an old chair designed by Franco Albini during the 1950s that was covered with a new upholstery from the 1970s that had been chemically treated.

Superstudio seems to me to be very futuristic, but at the same time a bit non-realistic.
Yes, but when we saw the table that they designed, it was visionary, and yet concrete and rational. There was this double vision of life at the time.

At this point in the late ’70s, were you still with Casabella?
No. I finished in 1968 and then went to work with Lotus International. After that, it was time to leave the magazine to the young people.

How do you characterize Italy during the 1980s?
This was the beginning of the consumer society, where you had companies like Alessi who manufactured very good design products on a huge scale. It was also a period of bringing in non-Italian designers like Phillippe Starck, Tom Dixon, and Ron Arad to work with Italian companies. It was a new way, perhaps.

How did Italian designers feel about that?
It was normal. Talented Italian designers continued as well.

Were you involved in designing Postmodern Memphis objects? [Editor’s note: Memphis was an ’80s Italian design movement that used color as a vehicle for self-expression, rebellion, and sheer exuberance.]
No. There is a drawing we included in the show by Mendini. It shows a pole with signs pointing in different directions, reflecting the different routes that could be taken: Postmodern, paramodern, modern, neomodern…

Were you on the modern route?
Yes. We needed to be very serious.

Did you debate with other architects like Sottsass who were promoting Postmodernism?
Yes, Sottsass is very intelligent and a very good friend, but during the Memphis period, we argued a lot, but always remained friends. It was a good cultural discussion.

And what were you doing during this time?
By this time, I had designed boutiques, exhibitions, and showrooms, I had also worked for Knoll in Boston and in New York, but I hadn’t really built anything. I finally did, and now I’m working on many projects.

During the 1990s, there was an interest in new materials. For example, you can think of an object like Vico Magistretti’s collapsible chair. Companies like Ducati and Ferrari represent some of the great strides in technology. Yet, we’ve also included in the exhibition the Terra armchair by Nucleo, which is covered in real grass with a cardboard base.

There was also a return to re-examining modernism during that period.
This is very true.

Some of it was nostalgic. Were you teaching during that time?
No. I taught during the 1960s, but there was a political situation where it was important to choose to stay or leave the university. I chose to leave, but I’ve continued to lecture all over the world.

In the 1990s section of the exhibition, we included these very interesting lamps made with plastic water bottles. They reflect a new movement of interest in the environment, which reexamines issues like recycling or nature. During the same period, you have high-tech objects by Ducati and Ferrari being produced. I think that represents a new complexity in Italian design today.

I think we see these two directions happening in the United States a little bit. At our magazine Metropolis, we are interested in exploring sustainable or ecological directions, but at the same time, we believe that high tech design can also provide environment solutions.
Yes, but for the moment in Italy they are separate.

It’s different from the 1960s, when people were interested in a back-to-the earth approach to the environment. Perhaps the answer in the end will be an intersection of lo- and hi-tech.
Yes, I agree.

Thanks so much for spending time with me. It’s been wonderful speaking to you.
Thank you.

Ciao.
Ciao.

For more information about Gae Aulenti, see “Subtle Dramatics: Gae Aulenti boldly reworks a Beaux-Arts box without sacrificing its essential character” (Metropolis, July 2003); “The Transformer: Adaptative Reuse Pioneer Gae Aulenti turns San Francisco’s Beaux Arts library into a 21st century museum of Asian Art” (Metropolis, January 2003); and the autobiography Gae Aulenti (Rizzoli).

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