Allow me to introduce the Castiglioni family
(Roberto Palumbo, no.64 Blue Turquoise - the inspiration)
Livio, Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni have created whole universes scattered with those innovative, sometimes magic objects generated by their ingenious imagination. With a touch of irony and sometimes playfulness, they have created a large series of works ranging from industrial design, to architecture, exhibition set-ups and interior design, moving beyond the confines of Italy to the extent that they are now represented in a permanent exhibition in the Moma of New York. We met Carlo and Giovanna Castiglioni, Achille’s children, to ask them some questions and listen to the story of their family.
The first Castiglioni studio was set up in Milan in 1936 in Corso di Porta Nuova, in part of the building which grandad Giannino left to Livio Castiglioni, his eldest child. Will you tell us something about Giannino Castiglioni?
«Giannino Castiglioni was born in Milan on 4th May 1884. In the first years of his infancy he lived with his own family: father, mother and brother Achille. He studied art at the Brera Academy and completed his studies in 1906, presenting his first sculpture that same year at the Milan International Exhibition. He worked as a “medal-maker” at the Johnson foundry, which was located in a building opening onto Piazza Santa Maria degli Angeli, at the top of the street Corso di Porta Nuova.»
«I mention this fact not because I’m over-meticulous or fixated on detail, but because this “fixed” job allowed him to marry Livia Bolla in Monza in 1907. She was the daughter of a strict Italian teacher, the head of the Zucchi Grammar School in Monza, whom he had met during various holidays on Lake Como. After the wedding, Giannino Castiglioni went to live again in Corso di Porta Nuova, where his family already resided, and here, at number 22, his children were born: Piera (1910), Livio (1911), Pier Giacomo (1913) and Achille (1918), in the same street where he had his studio.»
«Giannino Castiglioni’s art went in a very different direction from the modernist avant-garde movements of the time. He is today little known to most people, but his works are spread all over Milan: the fountain of San Francesco in piazza Santa Maria degli Angeli; the door of the cathedral showing the story of St. Ambrose; the Christ the King over the entrance to the Cattolica University; the monument to the Resistance dead in Piazzale Loreto. Giannino Castiglioni is known to the Milanese for his many fountains, for the series of celebratory works at the Monumental Cemetery, for the story of St. Ambrose which the sculptor tells on one of the doors of the Cathedral, and for the four large roundels in the hall of the Central Station, showing Work, Trade, Science and Agriculture. But there are also many other works like the fountains Spring (for Rizzoli) and Medusa’s head (now in the courtyard of the Ambrosiana library). Perhaps today the works of monumental architecture erected in collaboration with the architect Greppi on the of the battle sites of the Great War may seem more interesting. For example the shrines of Redipuglia and Monte Grappa, two oblivion-defying works with a type of scenic composition which was created only in Italy. In 1936 the family moved to a new flat in via Palestro, while the studio remained in Corso di Porta Nuova. Later the house in via Palestro was destroyed by allied bombing and grandpa Giannino was forced to return to a flat in Corso di Porta Nuova near the studio. It was in those years that he handed part of the studio over to his sons for their architecture studio».
In 1939 Achille had not yet graduated, and with Livio and Pier Giacomo he designed the first PHONOLA Bakelite radio , with which he won the gold medal at the Milan triennale exhibition. Is it the only work signed by all three brothers?
«Because of those curious circumstances of life which determine relationships among people, the works created by the three brothers together are very few. Some were made by Livio with Piero Giacomo, others by Livio with Achille (after the death of Pier Giacomo), while in the pre-war and immediate post-war years we find the prototypes of the radios signed by all three. Later we no longer find specific designs for objects, but particular types of collaboration, as for the exhibitions. For example for the 1963 Waterways from Milan to the Sea, in which the collaboration with Livio was focused on the sound and visual effects. It was one of the first times that visual images and above all sound effects were used to involve the public and underline the concepts expressed in the various parts of the exhibition».
At that time radio played a fundamental role in society. Music, sound and technological evolution were constant areas of activity for the Castiglioni family. But is it true that Livio had designed a handmade transmitter in the attic as early on as 1928?
«I haven’t any information about how my uncle Livio designed the radio he had in the attic of the country house in Lierna (Lecco). At that time (1928) there was no true production of amateur radio sets i.e. machines able to capture and send audio signals. Most of these sets were certainly directly assembled by Livio with the help of cousin Tullio, who lived with them and studied engineering at the Milan Polytechnic».
Achille spoke of Livio as “the craziest of the wise and the wisest of the crazy”. Can you tell us something about him and his influence on Achille and Pier Giacomo?
«It’s a bit hard to talk about Livio and particularly about his influence on Achille and Pier Giacomo. Certainly Achille had a high opinion of Livio and shared with him that sense of irony and playfulness which we also find in their works in various ways. Livio was more of an extravert and more sociable, while Achille was less open towards others and tended to stay within a more restricted circle of intimates. However when the brothers were together, events were ‘explosive’. We need only recall the article published by a Swiss newspaper on the occasion of the wedding of the graphic artist Max Huber in 1958, where a photo shows the Castiglioni brothers interrupting the tranquil life of a small central Swiss town with smoke bombs and rockets».
In 1952 Livio went to work as a consultant for Phonola, then for Brionvega, while for Achille and Pier Giacomo the ‘fifties and ’sixties were intense periods workwise and substantial periods designwise. They were characterised by two crucial events: the exhibitions Colours and forms in today’s home in Como (1957) and The lived-in home in Florence (1965). How did the Castiglionis’ designing activity develop and what happened in these shows?
«Achille and Pier Giacomo’s cultural and working partnership was certainly unique. The two exhibitions Colours and forms in today’s home in Como (1957) and The lived-in house in Florence (1965) were fundamental to Achille and Pier Giacomo’s creative development, because innovative prototypes were presented in these exhibitions (some were being sold even decades afterwards), and the context in which they were proposed was also innovative, the established structure of the interiors of that period being demolished. You can see this if you look carefully at the images from these exhibitions».
In 1965 Achille and Pier Giacomo made the radiogram for Brionvega: a beautiful, technologically-advanced model. Can you tell us something about that project?
«The Brionvega RR126 is certainly an interesting object, both because at the time the company was the technological leader, but also because for the first time they tried to meet the needs of opera-lovers who wanted a single machine for listening to music. This set could thus be used as a unit, with separate speakers for enhancing stereophony, and it could be easily moved around the rooms of a flat».
In 1966 Achille and Pier Giacomo designed the chair Allunaggio (Moon landing) three years before the actual landing on the moon, but then it remained a prototype until 1980. Why is that?
«Regarding the Allunaggio chair, like many objects designed by the Castiglioni brothers it stayed at the prototype stage for some years before becoming an actual product for sale. This is partly due to the fact that some objects were created as prototypes for exhibitions or other events without any specific commission, while others, although developed for a specific request, then needed varying amounts of time to be culturally accepted».
Pier Giacomo and Livio died early in 1968 and 1979. What changed for Achille?
«The death of Pier Giacomo and then Livio had a deep psychological effect on Achille, who however continued on his cultural and creative course. The creative course also depended on the collaboration of others, who made his production of objects more organised, while from the cultural point of view his university teaching allowed him to develop his research on the ‘anonymous’ objects, which was to characterise and indirectly influence his creative activity».
Achille Castiglioni completed 290 industrial production projects, 480 exhibition set-ups, 191 architecture projects, receiving as many as 9 gold compass awards and various honoris causa degrees, but his pride and joy was a switch. How can that be explained?
«The Rompi-Tratta switch was important for Achille because it represents the essence of industrial design, i.e. a way of designing which, regardless of the person designing it and regardless of fashion, makes the object live and enter everyone’s lives, changing them in some way for the better. The switch produced in millions of pieces is well-known because it was designed by Castiglioni, but millions of people use it and benefit from it just because they continue to use it and find it convenient for their needs».
In January 2006 Achille Castiglioni’s heirs signed a five year agreement with “La Triennale di Milano” with the objective of maintaining open to public the Studio Museum Achille Castiglioni and allowing a continuity in respect of its articulated work and intense archiving activities.Considering the successful attendance, beyond expectation (more than 28.600 people) during the last few years, the Castiglioni’s intend to continue to share with their guests the pleasure of discovering the atmosphere and the anecdotes that the place preserved. For these reasons and for the countless projects currently involved with, the Studio Museum Achille Castiglioni is now a foundation (Foundation Achille Castiglioni) that was born on December 14, 2011 which continues his work of cataloging and digitization of all the material in the study, that could still be visited.
Visionaries, dreamers, with their creativity they went beyond their time and achieved the aim of a lifetime: to create something which would become part of everyone’s lives. Today, tomorrow, always: Castiglioni.