Gae Aulenti at Musee d'Orsay

Gae Aulenti was not just an architect but also a designer and one of the most influential figures in the Italian design scene. She is best known for her innovative furniture design approach, combining functionality and aesthetics.

Gae Aulenti’s Biography

Born on December 4, 1927, in Palazzolo dello Stella, Gae Aulenti is a revered figure in design and architecture. With her work in architectural exhibits and restoration, she became recognized as one of the leading architects of her generation, leaving a significant imprint on the narrative of international design. Her illustrious career was decorated with many awards, including the prestigious Imperial Prize for Architecture conferred by the Japan Art Association in Tokyo.

Early Years and Career Beginnings

Aulenti’s journey began in Milan during the 1950s, where she trained as an architect. At that time, the Italian architecture scene was focused on historical-cultural research and the revival of architectural values from the past, leading to the emergence of the Neoliberty movement. Aulenti played a pivotal role in this trend, diverging from the prevailing rationalism. She also gained valuable experience as part of the editorial staff of Casabella-Continuità and through her academic collaborations with renowned architects Giuseppe Samonà and Ernesto Nathan Rogers.

Notable Works and Contributions

Aulenti’s design prowess was showcased through various notable projects. In 1965, she created the iconic Pipistrello table lamp for the Olivetti showroom in Paris, which propelled her into the limelight. She went on to work on significant projects, such as the renovation of Gianni Agnelli’s Milanese apartment in Brera. Her participation in the exhibition “Italian: The New Domestic Landscape” at MoMa in 1972 further solidified her reputation, where she presented her philosophy of architecture as closely interconnected with the existing urban environment. Additionally, her tenure as artistic director at Fontana Arte from 1979 onwards allowed her to continue creating influential designs, including the Giova Lamp and Table with Wheels.

Legacy and Final Years

In 2005, Aulenti established Gae Aulenti Architetti Associati with Marco Buffoni, Francesca Fenaroli, and Vittoria Massa, marking a full-circle moment in her career. Sadly, she passed away in Milan on October 31, 2012, shortly after being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Triennale. Piazza Gae Aulenti, a circular square, was inaugurated in Milan on December 7, 2012, to honor her lasting impact on design and architecture.

Gae Aulenti’s Unique Style

Her background strongly influenced Aulenti’s style in architecture. She believed interiors should be designed as a whole, with every element complementing each other. Her designs were marked by a balance between functionality and beauty, focusing on clean lines and geometric shapes. She also incorporated unconventional materials such as glass, steel, and plastic into her creations.

Gae Aulenti’s Impact on Architecture

Aulenti’s impact on architecture is monumental, reflected in her influential and landmark designs that have stood the test of time. She was renowned for her ability to transform historic spaces while respecting and retaining their original charm. Her most notable architectural endeavor is perhaps the conversion of the Beaux-Arts Gare d’Orsay railway station in Paris into the Musée d’Orsay. Undertaken in 1981, this project showcased Aulenti’s deftness in marrying old-world grandeur with contemporary aesthetics. 

In addition, Aulenti also oversaw the conversion of the 13th-century Palazzo Grassi into an art museum, demonstrating her knack for restoring and revitalizing historic buildings. On a smaller scale, Aulenti’s architectural prowess can be seen in her creation of Fiat, Knoll, and Olivetti showrooms. Each of these spaces is a testament to Aulenti’s distinctive architectural style that championed functionality while never compromising aesthetic appeal. 

Through such architectural feats, Aulenti has left an indelible mark on the world of design and architecture, proving that buildings, much like her furniture pieces, can be both utilitarian and works of art. Her architectural legacy inspires architects and designers worldwide, and her works stand as powerful reminders of her innovative mind and unique design ethos.

Gae Aulenti: Architectural Works

Gae Aulenti left indelible impressions on the furniture design industry, urban landscapes, and architectural wonders throughout her illustrious career. Her works often carried a distinctive flair, merging traditional artistry with modern sensibilities. Some of her most notable works span continents, each infused with Aulenti’s unique design perspective.

  • Orsay Museum (1980-86): One of her most renowned projects, the Orsay Museum in Paris, is a masterful display of the Neoliberty style. The museum’s vaulted ceiling showcases beautiful floral-themed lunettes, demonstrating Aulenti’s keen eye for integrating natural elements in structural design.
  • Route through Sempione Park (1960): Marking the XII Triennale di Milano entrance, Aulenti designed a captivating route through Sempione Park. This project highlighted her ability to blend architectural designs with the natural world.
  • Olivetti Showrooms (1965, 1968): Aulenti’s designs for the Olivetti showrooms in Paris and Buenos Aires showcased her innovative approach to designing commercial spaces. Her efforts led to the establishment of an iconic Olivetti brand identity.
  • Renovations and Private Residences (1970, 1973, 1975, 1990): Aulenti’s aptitude for interior design was evident in her renovation projects and the aesthetic she developed for private residences in Milan, Pisa, Parma, and Saint-Tropez. Each project offered a personalized and intimate reflection of the resident’s unique style and preferences.

The list goes on, including the redevelopment of the Gare d’Orsay and construction of the Orsay Museum in Paris (1980/86), the installation of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Center Georges Pompidou, Paris (1982/85), renovation of Palazzo Grassi, Venice (1985/86), and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (1996/2003), to name a few. Gae Aulenti’s career was an ongoing exploration of style, form, and function, significantly impacting the world of architecture and design.

Gae Aulenti’s Design Philosophy

Aulenti’s design philosophy was deeply rooted in her fierce belief that architecture and design should not be isolated from the rest of life. She fervently advocated that design is a holistic and integrated process. This is evident in her approach to furniture design, where she often blurred the lines between architecture, art, and design, creating functional yet aesthetically appealing pieces. Her designs, be they the iconic Gae Aulenti lamps or the unconventional Sgarsul rocking chair, embody her philosophy of breaking away from traditional forms and exploring new possibilities. She once said, “The conscious principle of not designing objects as single units but as part of a bigger universe is a consistent element of my work.” This sentiment reflects Aulenti’s commitment to designing pieces that stand alone and interact with and impact their surroundings. Her revolutionary perspective continues to influence the design world, proving the enduring power of her remarkable vision.

Iconic Furniture Designs by Gae Aulenti

Aulenti’s furniture designs are considered groundbreaking for their innovative use of materials and form. Here are some of her most iconic pieces:

  • Pipistrello Lamp

The Pipistrello lamp, designed by Gae Aulenti for Martinelli Luce, is a global design icon that revolutionized the industry. Despite initial challenges, it gained international recognition in 1972 and remains a timeless piece in the MoMA’s permanent collection. With its iconic bat-wing-inspired diffuser and adjustable height, the Pipistrello lamp continues to captivate with its perfect blend of form and function.

  • Jumbo Table

In 1965, Gae Aulenti designed the Jumbo Table for Knoll International. Its unique design features a large marble top supported by four oversized legs. The table’s striking proportions make it a focal point in any room.

  • April Chair

The April Chair, designed by Gae Aulenti for Zanotta in 1964, is a captivating and stylish folding chair. With a durable stainless steel structure and lightweight aluminum alloy joints, it offers both comfort and versatility. Its removable black leather cover ensures easy cleaning. The chair’s timeless design and functional features make it a tasteful addition to any living room.

  • Tavolo con Ruote and Tour Coffee Table

In the early 1980s, Gae Aulenti (1927-2012) became the artistic director of Fontana Arte, a Milanese company founded in 1932 by Luigi Fontana and Giò Ponti. They specialized in producing furniture objects. In 1980, Aulenti designed the “Tavolo con Ruote,” featuring a 15mm thick, beveled, tempered glass top with four 360-degree swiveling industrial wheels. This allowed the table to be easily moved.

Thirteen years later, Aulenti introduced an evolution of her “Tavolo con Ruote,” giving birth to the “Tour,” a classic of Italian design. Aulenti’s glass tables don’t have traditional legs but instead use wheels from old bicycles or industrial carts, providing a unique functionality. The transparent cut crystal glass makes up the tabletop, supported by four pivoting bicycle wheels with stainless steel disks. The forks have a chrome-plated finish, and the tire cover is rubber. The combination of transparent glass with the forks and chrome wheels creates a stunning aesthetic. The “Tour” table is an extravagant piece of furniture, perfect for any living room, office, or waiting room. It is considered one of the most exclusive tables in circulation, a true classic of Made in Italy. Note: The wheels are not functional and should not be used to move or shift the table.

  • King Sun Lamp

Another one of Aulenti’s famous light fixtures is the King Sun Lamp, which she designed in 1967 for Kartell. Made of painted aluminum and acrylic, this lamp represents Aulenti’s futuristic and experimental style. Its name comes from its resemblance to the sun’s circular shape and radiating metal rods.

  • Patroclo Lamp

The Patroclo Lamp, designed by Gae Aulenti in 1975, is a remarkable example of her innovative design approach. With its delicate yet warrior-like design, featuring a blown glass body enveloped in a rhomboidal metal mesh, the lamp combines fragility and strength. The resulting faceted glass casts unique light patterns, while the steel wire offers protection and creates a captivating contrast. This standout piece, showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, adds a touch of timeless beauty to any space.

  • Sanmarco Table

The Sanmarco Table, designed by Gae Aulenti in 1984, showcases her characteristic experimentation and transition from rationalist to “Hi-Tech” style. With a detachable steel structure and neutral color, this minimal and elegant design seamlessly blends into any environment. This piece exemplifies Aulenti’s ability to adapt to different styles while utilizing contemporary technology.

  • Ruspa Lamp

At first glance, the Ruspa Lamp‘s futuristic design defies categorization. Gae Aulenti designed Ruspa for Martinelli Luce in 1967-1968, and it has been revived from auctions and specialty markets. Inspired by an excavator arm, the lamp’s vertical movement and orientation resemble an operational excavator. The Ruspa lamp, a landmark in futurism, symbolizes the inception of the Italian space design movement between 1968 and 1972. It features a white lacquered metal structure. In residential settings, it becomes the focal point, commanding attention. Gae Aulenti’s lamps are spatial compositions initially present as sculptures, showcasing her innovative vision in design history.

  • Oracolo and Mezzoracolo lamps

Aulenti’s Oracolo and Mezzoracolo lamps, created in 1965, are another iconic pair in her esteemed lighting collection. These exquisite pieces were explicitly designed for Artemide, an acclaimed Italian company known for collaborating with renowned designers. The Oracolo lamp is a stunning floor lamp with a white opal glass globe on top of a dark brown coated metal cylinder. On the other hand, the Mezzoracolo is a more compact version, perfect for placing on tables. Both lamps have a unique, almost futuristic shape, showcasing Aulenti’s visionary design style.

  • Tennis furniture series

In 1971, Aulenti designed the iconic Tennis furniture series for Gavina, an Italian design company. The series includes a sofa, armchair, and ottoman with a distinctive oval shape and soft curved lines. The name comes from the tennis ball-shaped cushions that add a playful touch to the pieces. The Tennis series is not only aesthetically pleasing but also reflects Aulenti’s attention to ergonomic design, making it both comfortable and stylish.

  • Sgarsul Rocking Chair

In the early 1960s, Milan experienced an economic boom that sparked a thirst for innovation while honoring tradition. Gae Aulenti, a budding designer, made her mark with the iconic Sgarsul rocking chair. This marked a crucial era in Italian design, embracing a more personalized connection to domestic spaces. Inspired by a classic Thonet model, the chair combined industrial manufacturing and traditional craftsmanship. Aulenti’s innovative approach respected tradition while bringing a timeless quality to her designs.

  • Locus Solus Series

In 1967, Gae Aulenti introduced the revolutionary Locus Solus outdoor furniture series. With its vibrant curves and metal tubing construction, the series referenced the artistic movement of pataphysics. The collection gained fame through film features and exhibitions. The Locus Solus series showcased a harmonious contrast, combining rounded, fluid lines with adaptable design. Aulenti’s focus on aesthetics and practicality made the collection blend traditional craftsmanship and modern aesthetics.

  • Parola Lamp

The Parola Lamp, designed by Gae Aulenti in collaboration with Piero Castiglioni for FontanaArte in 1980, is a classic yet modern lighting fixture that showcases the company’s glasswork expertise. It combines different glass processing techniques to create a unique design. With its softly colored glass and harmonious shapes, the Parola Lamp adds a touch of luxury to any setting.

  • Gae Aulenti Series

The Gae Aulenti Kartell series, introduced in 1974, is an iconic collection that revolutionized furniture design. Designed by Gae Aulenti in collaboration with Kartell, this series showcases exceptional craftsmanship, timeless elegance, and innovative use of rigid polyurethane. With a vibrant color palette and comfortable seating, it has become a timeless classic in the design world. Kartell’s commitment to pushing boundaries and fostering creativity is evident in this remarkable collection.

  • Giova Lamp

The Giova Lamp, designed by Gae Aulenti in 1964, is a remarkable piece that functions as both a lamp and a vase. It showcases Aulenti’s innovative approach to design with its unique shape and materials. The lamp’s dual function and aesthetic appeal have made it a favorite among design enthusiasts, reflecting the creativity and ingenuity of its creator and the legacy of FontanaArte.

Conclusion: Gae Aulenti’s Legacy

Gae Aulenti’s impact on the design world is enduring. Her innovative approach and appreciation for tradition have influenced countless designers who followed in her footsteps. Collaborating with Knoll International, an esteemed design company, Aulenti’s furniture designs stand alongside those of renowned designers such as Marcel Breuer, Afra & Tobia Scarpa, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, and many more. Her harmonious blend of form and function, traditional craftsmanship, and modern aesthetics have made her a stalwart of Italian design. Her works like the Tennis series, Sgarsul Rocking Chair, and Locus Solus series continue to captivate audiences with their unique blend of aesthetics and practicality. The Gae Aulenti lamps, in particular, are a testament to her ability to transcend design norms and create functional art. Her legacy lives on, inspiring and educating future generations of designers and architects.

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